The public is to the left of Labour, but that’s where things get complicated

Ed Miliband beware: people don't vote for policies, they vote for governments.

Ed Miliband beware: people don’t vote for policies, they vote for governments

Reassuringly, on many of the big issues of the day public opinion is well to the left of the political establishment. As George Eaton notes in the New Statesman:

“Around two-thirds of voters support a 50p tax rate, a mansion tax, stronger workers’ rights, a compulsory living wage and the renationalisation of the railways and the privatised utilities (actually putting them well to the left of Labour leader.”

Crack open the bubbly then; time for Ed Miliband to grasp the nettle and give the public what it wants – an unapologetically left-wing manifesto – right?

Without wishing to be a spoilsport, extreme caution is required. Certainly there are a whole host of left-wing policies which are popular with the electorate, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the electorate believes that a Labour government will be able to deliver them. Bare with me on this point as I’ll pick it up again later in the piece.

There’s also the not-so-small matter of party branding. As Peter Kellner puts it on the issue of publicly owned railways:

“[Rail nationalisation]…might be an excellent proposal, leading to cheaper, more reliable trains. Were the Conservatives to promise it, they might win public approval. But that’s because few people think the Tories are out to do down big business. The policy would not damage their brand in the way it would probably damage Labour’s.”

As Kellner makes clear, this is not an issue of what makes a good policy but rather one of party positioning. However much we may tell ourselves otherwise, Labour cannot go into next year’s election with any chance of success unless it is trusted to run the economy.

And at the moment it doesn’t have that trust, or at least it doesn’t have a sufficient amount of it. YouGov polling which came out prior to the May European elections found that just 19 per cent believed the economy would now be doing better had Labour won the 2010 election.

Tory ratings in this area are also likely to keep on improving if the economy carries on growing, which it looks set to.

This doesn’t mean that Labour should adopt Peter Mandelson’s mantra about being “intensely relaxed” about the filthy rich, but it does mean proceeding with caution. With less than a year to go until the election every policy proposal made by Labour must be made with boosting the party’s credibility on the economy firmly in mind. That means maintaining a certain wariness about things which will easily be portrayed by the media as anti-business.

For better or worse, to win next year’s election outright Ed Miliband has to strengthen Labour’s hand in areas where it is currently polling behind the Conservatives, such as on the economy, business, immigration and welfare. This does not mean pandering to the worst instincts of the electorate, but it does mean being careful about messaging. Nationalising the railways may be a good policy in its own right, but will it help Labour to win the election?

The other point about populist policies is this: people must actually believe that you can deliver them when in government.

As an example, telling people that the government will increase the pay of every British citizen by £1,00o a year would be wildly popular with voters. Yet people almost certainly wouldn’t vote on the basis of the policy for a very simple reason: they would never believe it was deliverable.

At a time of unprecedented voter distrust in politicians it’s more important than ever to understand the limits of populism.

In a globalised economy people are also far more sceptical about the ability of government to make a difference than they perhaps used to be. Government can be a force for good in lots of areas, but voters remain wary: they are unlikely to trust a politician or a party that tries to use the levers of government to do everything.

This isn’t simply about winning elections, either. Making grand promises can also blow up in the face of a new government.

Just ask Francois Hollande.

Prior to his election in 2012 the French president produced a staggering 60-point programme. Soon after taking office and unable to deliver the radical change promised, his poll ratings plummeted and have only gotten worse since. The lesson here for Ed Miliband is simple: managing expectations matters.

There are plenty of policy areas where a populist left-wing platform looks like the key to a thumping election victory next year, but there are two fairly big caveats: Labour has to improve in areas where it is currently weak, such as business and the economy. But it also has to be realistic: the public must believe that Labour can do exactly what it says.

As strange as it may sound, people don’t vote for policies, they vote for governments.

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