Should Labour Move to the Centre?

The question that has dominated Labour's election post mortem is whether the party lost because it was too left-wing and should therefore return to the centre ground. At one level the answer is plainly 'yes'... In fact, things are not that simple.

A less ideological approach to building a fairer society, and a path forward for Labour

An open letter to Labour’s new leader

Dear sir or madam:

The question that has dominated Labour’s election post mortem is whether the party lost because it was too left-wing and should therefore return to the centre ground. At one level the answer is plainly ‘yes’. Since Margaret Thatcher’s departure 25 years ago, every victorious party leader (John Major, Tony Blair, David Cameron) has consciously sought to campaign from the centre, while every leader branded as firmly to the Left or Right has lost (Neil Kinnock, William Hague, Michael Howard and Ed Miliband).

As you seek to revive Labour’s fortunes, the obvious conclusion to draw is that voters reject the analysis and policies of the Left, and you should return to the strategy associated with Tony Blair and accept the tenets of the free market, rather than bang on about inequality and predatory capitalism.

In fact, things are not that simple. Here are the findings of a post-election YouGov survey that voters’ priorities for government action. I have ranked them from the most left-wing to least left-wing responses.

Note the contrast between the first two pairs of statements and the last two. There is a big public appetite for curbing businesses that behave badly and rejecting performance-related pay in the public sector – two of the great causes of Labour’s Left and trade union leaders. If you ‘move to the centre’ on these issues, voters might wonder whether you are really on their side.

On the other hand, there is far less appetite for the Left’s anti-poverty agenda. If the Government has money to spare, most of us would prefer income tax cuts to higher welfare benefits; and if the Government has to raise more money, there is a clear public preference for limiting welfare payments to big families, rather than imposing a ‘mansion tax’. (Other research has found that most people wanted a mansion tax; what this question shows is that most voters have greater passion for limiting welfare spending.)

In between, we find that voters are evenly divided on two other priority trade-offs: between faster growth and greater fairness, and between improved public services via extra spending or efficiency reforms.

Yes, yes, I know that there is a case for saying greater equality would accelerate economic growth, and that schools and hospitals need both cash and reform. The point of these questions is to find whether, when push comes to shove, voters side more with the ‘Right’ or ‘Left’ view of the way forward.

We then asked two questions about capitalism – one, the overall system, the other about one specific post-election news story, Alan Sugar’s resignation from the Labour Party:

These figures suggest that the public’s view of capitalism is half-hearted: neither massively enthusiastic nor overwhelmingly dismissive. Not quite half of all voters back capitalism as the best way to ensure a thriving economy; but only 11% think that Labour is better off without having one of capitalism’s best known exponents in its ranks.

Those figures relate to the public as a whole. Labour voters are more critical of capitalism (52% say it’s bad, 27% good), yet only 17% follow this through by saying good riddance to Lord Sugar. Perhaps more relevant are the 10% of voters who did NOT vote Labour but said they had considered doing so before the election. These are the people Labour needs to win over if it is to win in 2020. They divide 45-40% in saying that capitalism, for all its faults, is the best system. And while most Labour loyalists prefer higher benefits for poorer families, over income tax cuts by 52-37%, those who considered Labour but did not vote for it prefer income tax cuts by 55-36%.

You can take all these findings and read them two ways. You can either assert that the basic tenets of the Left still enjoy widespread popularity, and that a party committed to them could still win power – or you can conclude most of the votes Labour needs to regain power are in the centre, so the party should move in that direction.

Actually, there is a third way to read these figures, and it is the one that I suggest you adopt. It is to develop distinctly progressive policies within a centrist brand. By ‘progressive’ I don’t mean advocating a widespread programme of renationalisation, tax increases or higher spending on welfare benefits and public services; I mean taking seriously the biggest message from this survey: the electorate’s passion for fairness.

Look at the top and bottom of the priorities table. They may appear to send opposing signals on the popularity of left-wing ideas, but in fact they both reflect a desire for a fairer society: one in which we tolerate neither dodgy companies nor a welfare system that most of us – rightly or wrongly – regard as over-generous. A political project that adapted to the public’s notion of fairness could appeal to millions of uncommitted voters – especially if it also embraced immigration, a major house-building programme, more opportunities for young workers, better-run public services and effective enforcement of the minimum wage: in short a less ideological approach to building a fairer society.

Here are two more pieces of evidence to support that conclusion. While some left-wing propositions command 40% support or more – easily enough to provide a majority in Parliament if they all voted Labour – only 16% regard themselves as ‘very’ or ‘fairly’ left-wing. Another 17% say they are firmly on the Right. By far the biggest group of voters, 44%, say they are in the centre or ‘slightly’ left or right of centre, while the second biggest group, 23%, decline to place themselves on a left-right scale at all. Any leader who is thought to roam too far from the centre cannot win an election, however popular their individual policies.

This is not just the lesson from this month’s election. It is what the Tories discovered in 2005 when Michael Howard built his campaign on policies that most voters loved – on immigration, crime, welfare and so on – but which, together, led millions of the very voters who backed those policies to conclude nevertheless that Howard was too right-wing.

There is a happier precedent for you, though one that does not enjoy total acclaim among your party’s activists. Tony Blair won three big victories by persuading voters that he was a centrist leader who set his face against ideological politics. His embrace of business and of labour market reforms underpinned his approach. Yet compare his policies with Labour’s latest manifesto. Blair: minimum wage, Sure Start, bank levy, higher NHS spending, civil partnerships, tax credits, Human Rights Act, pension fund taxation, smaller class sizes. Miliband: yes, mansion tax and attacks on non-doms, energy companies and unscrupulous landlords, but also tougher immigration controls, continuing deficit reduction and curbs on public spending. Labour’s problem this time (well, not the only one, but a big one) was not so much that it WAS left-wing but that it LOOKED left-wing, and therefore a threat to prosperity. Perhaps the single most damning finding of any YouGov survey during the campaign was that most people thought that the Tories would be far better than Labour for people working for large companies.

At the heart of Blair’s appeal in 1997 was the proposition that social justice and economic efficiency went hand-in-hand. I know that Miliband and Ed Balls think this too. The difference is that voters believed that Blair meant it and knew how to achieve it. They didn’t believe it of the two Eds. That was the biggest single defect in this year’s campaign that you must put right.

Good luck. You will need it.


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