We should be wary of any claim that the British public is instinctively left-wing
According to a widely-shared article, the British electorate privately supports solidly left-wing policies such as railway renationalisation and the abolition of tuition fees, even though right-wing governments get elected.
Should we, then, assume that voters would seize the opportunity to have their instincts represented at elections by a Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn?
It goes without saying that the same opinion polls persistently overstated Labour’s popularity and suffered deep methodological problems, but this does not entirely discredit them. Individual findings are certainly questionable. Yes, polls showed that the public was opposed to the tuition fee rise and broadly supported Labour modestly reducing tuition fees to £6,000. (By the way, the same polls showed voters thought this would most benefit the well-off.)
But this is not the same as the electorate supporting Corbyn’s total abolition, which he has costed at £7bn. If pollsters offered this much stronger policy to the public with its price-tag attached, it is reasonable to assume reception would be more lukewarm.
We do have an alternative index of public opinion: the British Social Attitudes survey, held every year since 1983 and co-authored by pollster-of-the-moment John Curtice. The most recent BSA showed that a mere 21 per cent of people share Corbyn’s belief in the abolition of tuition fees. People might favour lower fees but they do not oppose them in principle.
Most pressing for the Left is the big picture: the proportion of people in favour of higher taxation and spending has collapsed from 63 per cent to just 37 per cent in the ten years from 2004 to 2014. Support for welfare spending has plummeted. Those who remember Blair-era clichés about a ‘social-democratic majority’ should consider whether they still stand up to scrutiny.
Stating the obvious, the reason we have polling data on most of these positions – fees, tax, Syria – is that Ed Miliband’s Labour Party explicitly represented them. When it came to a large poll of the electorate – a General Election with the highest turnout since 1997 – 49.5 per cent of voters plumped for the Tories or UKIP while 46.5 per cent went for a broad ‘left’ of Labour/SNP/Lib Dem/Green (39.0 per cent if you exclude the ambiguous Lib Dems).
This does not mean we should jettison all Ed’s policies, but it makes clear that being on the right side of public opinion on a basket of issues yields limited rewards.
The most important point is this: sharing some of voters’ positions does not mean you share their overall priorities. Labour’s position on Trident or railway ownership should always be debated but will not swing elections. While it is impossible to disaggregate all the reasons behind Labour’s electoral defeat, TUC-commissioned polling suggested many voters who considered voting Labour ultimately chose not to because of their perceived lack of economic competence.
This is the stubborn frame for policy discussions. It means that even when a policy like the 50 per cent tax rate polls well, many will not trust Labour with the decision. Meanwhile Osborne gets away with unpopular measures like abolishing student grants because – like it or not – people usually think his budgets are fair overall.
Even those who do not agree with the reasonable strategic case for making concessions on austerity should be wary of any claim that the British public is instinctively left-wing and sceptical about cherry-picking policy positions from opinion polls. Remember that UKIP can easily do exactly the same thing on immigration, overseas aid or inheritance tax. Most people are surely to the left of the Conservative frontbench on many issues, but Cameron can rule from the right as long as Labour keeps losing.
Labour’s big challenge is not to provide a voice for an imagined dormant left-wing majority. It needs instead to recognise the sheer dogged power of austerity thinking while also re-establishing itself among non-Labour voters as a plausible party of government.
Labour should not imagine public opinion is static and blindly follow the polls, but nobody should kid themselves that Corbyn would not have at least as hard a job persuading a sceptical public as he would uniting a divided party – both on many specific issues and certainly on the big picture.
Robert Priest is a lecturer in history at Royal Holloway University of London, although this article is written in his capacity as a Labour Party supporterLike 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.