Peter Oborne is wrong about the ‘unpopular’ liberal Left

Alex Hern shows the problems with Telegraph columnist Peter Oborne’s claim that the Left tends to be unpopular with voters.

 

Peter Oborne has declared that the last thirteen years of Labour’s rule can now be seen as a failed experiment, proving “that the Conservative analysis is better and more truthful”.

The piece has a triumphalist tone, but it starts on an untruth and doesn’t get much better from there.

Oborne writes:

In retrospect, the Brown/Blair period may be seen as a prolonged experiment which taught the liberal Left that its ideas cannot work, do not work, and have no chance of ever working.

The vital importance of this experiment lay in the special circumstances of the post-war period. Throughout this time, the liberal Left, as general election results show, has tended to be unpopular with voters. But its progressive ideas have enjoyed a disproportionate amount of traction among British governing elites.

In fact, as we reported in one of our very first posts, general election results show no such thing:

The graph showed that the Conservative Party had never, in the post-war era, had a majority of voters. The graph, produced by Left Foot Forward, shows the Conservative vote plotted against the combined Labour and Liberal/SDP-Liberal Alliance/Liberal Democrat vote in every election since 1945.

For 2010, the share is 52 per cent Lab-Lib, 36.1 per cent Conservative. Not quite an abject rejection of the liberal Left, as Oborne makes out.

Given those proportions, it would hardly be surprising if, as Oborne claims, the liberal Left:

dominated the higher reaches of the universities, education, the public service bureaucracy, local government, Whitehall, the media (and in particular the BBC), the churches, and the police.

For the last sixty years, the liberal Left have dominated the voting public – for that domination to not be reflected in a branch of public life is concerning. The idea that the police were, by the mid-nineties, overwhelmingly left-wing will come as news to many, however.

His analysis of the present seems just as doubtful. He argues that:

In practically every area of British public life – state spending, the economy, education, welfare, the European Union (where Ed Miliband refused to condemn Cameron’s pre-Christmas veto), mass immigration, law and order – Conservatives are winning the argument and taking policy in their direction.

Given the Conservatives are in government right now, it shouldn’t be particularly surprising that policy is heading in their direction.

What the Conservative strength on policy demonstrates isn’t that David Cameron is a re-aligning prime minister in the vein of Thatcher and Atlee, but that in one very specific way, he has changed the political scene: the liberal Left which Oborne blames for the ills of Britain has been sundered in two.

With the liberal part of the liberal Left in government, it would seem as though policy should be moving slower in the Conservatives’ direction than in a Conservative majority government. Yet that doesn’t seem to be the case.

Oborne is a fearsome polemicist, but when it comes to using stats, he should be more careful. Acting like the liberal Left is an unpopular elite is not borne out by the facts, and seems to be about as backwards as one can get.

See also:

What are Clegg’s yellow lines?Alex Hern, December 9th 2011

Lib Dems: We are delivering on our End Child Detention pledgeTom Brake MP, November 18th 2011

A progressive majority for changeWill Straw, May 7th 2010

Is Britain heading for a progressive majority?Will Straw, April 24th 2010

Britain’s 60-year progressive consensusWill Straw, September 9th 2009

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today. 

28 Responses to “Peter Oborne is wrong about the ‘unpopular’ liberal Left”

  1. #pressreform

    Oborne says "the liberal Left, as GE results show, has tended to be unpopular"; here's the graph that proves him wrong: http://t.co/VCarKjLh

  2. John Wade

    “@leftfootfwd: Osborne says "the liberal Left, has tended to be unpopular"; here's the graph that proves him wrong: http://t.co/JRgr6hEq”

  3. Stew Wilson

    Oborne says "the liberal Left, as GE results show, has tended to be unpopular"; here's the graph that proves him wrong: http://t.co/VCarKjLh

  4. syrieyes

    Oborne says "the liberal Left, as GE results show, has tended to be unpopular"; here's the graph that proves him wrong: http://t.co/VCarKjLh

  5. Paul Hindley

    Oborne says "the liberal Left, as GE results show, has tended to be unpopular"; here's the graph that proves him wrong: http://t.co/VCarKjLh

  6. Paula Simpson

    Oborne says "the liberal Left, as GE results show, has tended to be unpopular"; here's the graph that proves him wrong: http://t.co/VCarKjLh

  7. Robin Wilson

    This is absolutely right but the graph also raises big questions for progressives. How have liberals and socialists–and feminists and greens–so signally failed to unite to create a progressive ‘historical bloc’ that the UK failed largely (outside of the NHS) to enjoy the progressive achievements of social democracy in post-war Europe, in particular in the Nordic countries? I think most progressives would say the answers were some combination of:
    (a) the failure to enjoy a genuine ‘bourgeois’ revolution to eliminate old status hierarchies and resolve outstanding ‘national questions’;
    (b) the dominance of the City of London and the squirearchy in the Conservative party;
    (c) the dominance of the trade unions (uniquely) over individual activism in the Labour party;
    (d) the confusion among Liberals as to whether their liberalism is social or economic;
    (e) a narrow political insularity, derived from an imperial past, which meant the UK never really embraced the European project;
    (f) a non-proportional electoral system, protecting Conservatism (and Labourism) at the expense of European-style progressive coalition-building; and
    (g) a centralised and unaccountable state, and so a weak and ineffectual civil society.
    However one casts the assessment as to why the 20th century was, in the UK, a Conservative century, there is clearly here a great deal of unfinished–indeed in some cases unstarted–business to address.

  8. Robin Wilson

    This is absolutely right but the graph also raises big questions for progressives. How have liberals and socialists–and feminists and greens–so signally failed to unite to create a progressive ‘historical bloc’ that the UK failed largely (outside of the NHS) to enjoy the progressive achievements of social democracy in post-war Europe, in particular in the Nordic countries? I think most progressives would say the answers were some combination of:
    (a) the failure to enjoy a genuine ‘bourgeois’ revolution to eliminate old status hierarchies and resolve outstanding ‘national questions’;
    (b) the dominance of the City of London and the squirearchy in the Conservative party;
    (c) the dominance of the trade unions (uniquely) over individual activism in the Labour party;
    (d) the confusion among Liberals as to whether their liberalism is social or economic;
    (e) a narrow political insularity, derived from an imperial past, which meant the UK never really embraced the European project;
    (f) a non-proportional electoral system, protecting Conservatism (and Labourism) at the expense of European-style progressive coalition-building; and
    (g) a centralised and unaccountable state, and so a weak and ineffectual civil society.
    However one casts the assessment as to why the 20th century was, in the UK, a Conservative century, there is clearly here a great deal of unfinished–indeed in some cases unstarted–business to address.

  9. Robin Wilson

    This is absolutely right but the graph also raises big questions for progressives. How have liberals and socialists–and feminists and greens–so signally failed to unite to create a progressive ‘historical bloc’ that the UK failed largely (outside of the NHS) to enjoy the progressive achievements of social democracy in post-war Europe, in particular in the Nordic countries? I think most progressives would say the answers were some combination of:
    (a) the failure to enjoy a genuine ‘bourgeois’ revolution to eliminate old status hierarchies and resolve outstanding ‘national questions’;
    (b) the dominance of the City of London and the squirearchy in the Conservative party;
    (c) the dominance of the trade unions (uniquely) over individual activism in the Labour party;
    (d) the confusion among Liberals as to whether their liberalism is social or economic;
    (e) a narrow political insularity, derived from an imperial past, which meant the UK never really embraced the European project;
    (f) a non-proportional electoral system, protecting Conservatism (and Labourism) at the expense of European-style progressive coalition-building; and
    (g) a centralised and unaccountable state, and so a weak and ineffectual civil society.
    However one casts the assessment as to why the 20th century was, in the UK, a Conservative century, there is clearly here a great deal of unfinished–indeed in some cases unstarted–business to address.

  10. Djwillder

    The conservatives are winning the argument on the economy but losing the hearts of the public sector workers. The loss of those votes I feel will result in a Lib Lab coalition government next turn round.

    en-gb.facebook.com/david.willder

  11. leftlinks

    Left Foot Forward – Peter Oborne is wrong about the ‘unpopular’ liberal Left http://t.co/JBZGEvXq

  12. John Bax

    Surely the first past the post electoral system alone would have prevented the left-liberal majority from a permanent parliamentary majority – plus whatever it is that divides that majority into two competing parties. Without these two things the Tories would hardly ever be in office.

  13. simon

    Seems a bit odd to create a graph that shows Liberal and Labour support, together. The Liberals are sharing government with the Tories. They haven’t shared office with Labour at any point, since the war.

    If a general election had been held, every year, from 1945 until now, I would bet that the Tories would have received more votes than any other party about 90% of the time, at least. Constituency boundaries have masked just how few people have voted Labour, since the war.

  14. simon

    Seems a bit odd to create a graph that shows Liberal and Labour support, together. The Liberals are sharing government with the Tories. They haven’t shared office with Labour at any point, since the war.

    If a general election had been held, every year, from 1945 until now, I would bet that the Tories would have received more votes than any other party about 90% of the time, at least. Constituency boundaries have masked just how few people have voted Labour, since the war.

  15. mao zedong

    #UK : Peter Oborne is wrong about the ‘unpopular’ liberal Left http://t.co/j5DIRkAV

  16. Jamie

    Good read for all lefties amongst us ~ Peter Oborne is wrong about the ‘unpopular’ liberal Left http://t.co/tSNGrRL9

  17. Peter

    Excellent analysis, Robin!

  18. Peter

    Excellent analysis, Robin!

  19. Peter

    Excellent analysis, Robin!

  20. Alex Braithwaite

    RT @leftfootfwd: Peter Oborne is wrong about the ‘unpopular’ liberal Left http://t.co/S2QvF5xH was decidedly wrong

  21. Mr. Sensible

    I read that rubbish in the Telegraph yesterday. It just doesn’t stand up.

  22. Ed's Talking Balls

    Agreed, this entire analysis seems to be based on an entirely misconceived graph. I can think of quite a few Lib Dem voters who would be horrified to be lumped in with Labour voters to form some non-existent “progressive” mass (of course, that’s not to say that there aren’t a great many Lib Dem voters who are appalled to be in coalition with the Conservatives).

    The point is that the Lib Dems are a third party, with a unique identity. They are neither Labour nor Conservative supporters.

  23. Ed's Talking Balls

    You could have engaged more with the general point which Oborne made, which is that there are many unpopular ideas which the establishment encourages.

    Even accepting your bizarre graph for one moment, there is no way that all Labour and Lib Dem voters support closer European integration. Polls consistently show this is not the case. However, consecutive governments have surrendered ever more sovereignty.

    Oborne also mentions mass immigration, welfare reform and law and order, all areas where a great many people advocate a much tougher stance. Yet, curiously, consecutive governments have watched immigration rise, welfare dependency be encouraged and recidivism march on.

  24. Newsbot9

    Really? Because there’s a reason the Tories oppose ANY kind of voting reform, all all costs.

  25. DPWF

    Oborne is wrong about the ‘unpopular’ liberal Left. Together, the centre-left parties have always had majority support. http://t.co/IqJEhbWV

  26. NATIONAL_LIBERAL_UK

    Oborne is wrong about the ‘unpopular’ liberal Left. Together, the centre-left parties have always had majority support. http://t.co/IqJEhbWV

  27. Anonymous

    Well you’d be wasting your money. In all 18 elections since 1945, Labour and Tories have enjoyed more votes than any other party 9 times each, in other words a fifty-fifty split.

  28. Caberninja

    Oborne’s assertion that the Blair/Brown administration was a leftwing government is laughable in the extreme. No genuinely leftwing government would have tolerated for a moment the private-sector subsidy siphon known as PFI, or the undemocratic, pocket oligarchy known as the City of London, or the activities of money speculators, or allowed schools to be taken over by pro-corporate elites and doctrine-peddling faith groups. Nor would that same leftwing government have taken advice from troops of corporate advisers and brought into ministerial teams representatives from the banking and investment sectors. Blair and Brown were both atlanticist, pro-corporate, managerial centrists with a few Old Labour whistles and bells – they dont deserve the title social democrat, not in the slightest.

Leave a Reply