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

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