Yougov published some interesting polling results today which in a lot of ways seem contradictory. They asked people about Ed Miliband’s leadership of the Labour Party, and the direction Labour should take in the future. Here’s the results (click to enlarge):
Around a third of respondents think that Labour under Ed Miliband was too left wing and 40% thought the new leader should move Labour more to the centre. This should be a surprising result, as Labour’s manifesto was not remotely left-wing, promising to continue austerity and talking tough on immigration and social security. To me though it shows the power of framing, and how media presentation can feed through to public perceptions. Constant reinforcement of ‘Red Ed’ and labelling certain policies as ‘communist’ seems to have done the trick.
If we contrast this with some other results from the same poll, the picture becomes a bit less clear as Yougov’s Peter Kellner explains in this blogpost. If you ask people where they sit on the political spectrum, the most popular answer seems to be ‘right in the middle’. You get a rather nice bell shaped curve like this:
“The centre is where I am” seems to be the mantra. You hear politicians talk quite a lot about ‘reclaiming the centre ground’. For example the Lib Dem’s entire strategy seemed to be based around placing themselves slap bang in the middle between Labour and Conservative. They failed miserably of course, but not for that reason. Tony Blair was probably the master of claiming the centre ground, but the main point for politicians I guess is that to be successful you need to reframe the centre as “whatever platform we are running on”.
Words associated with left-wing and right-wing have a lot of negative baggage attached now so trying to attach a positive message to them is probably futile. They have kind of lost all meaning now. Everything to the left of whoever is in power is labelled as dangerous socialism, while the same is true to a lesser extent of the right wing.
So what does this mean for Labour? It seems clear that whoever wins the Labour leadership contest will want to present themselves as being in the centre. A moderate. A safe pair of hands. This is probably unavoidable, but being in the centre doesn’t mean your ideas need to bland and middle of the road. If you look at the public’s opinion on a range of issues, they are quite ‘leftish’ on a number of things (while still calling themselves centrist). Here is another finding from the Yougov poll linked to above:
Previous polls have also shown strong public support for nationalisation of certain industries like the railways and utilities. Unfortunately (to me) though, the British people also seem quite preoccupied with making sure those unlucky enough to not have a job are not too comfortable:
To me though, this presents an opportunity. If you can successfully frame yourself as being part of the centre, you can promote some quite radical policies while keeping a lot of voters on side. The public clearly want to see less people dependent on social security payments, so why not give them that by offering a guaranteed job to anyone willing and able to work?
It seems also that people can clearly see that capitalism is working incredibly well for those at the top, but less well for everyone else. There are some quite radical ideas that can tap into this while still being “pro-market”. I liked this recent comment from fellow blogger Neil Wilson:
It’s time to stop being ‘pro-business’ and start being ‘pro-market’.
– If you’re pro-market then you remove power and size differentials wherever they may be to ensure competition is allowed to work.
– If you’re pro-market then you ensure that everybody has an alternative job offer open to them via a Job Guarantee, ensuring there is always competition for labour resources.
– If you’re pro-market you address monopolies and rentier issues to ensure that resources are always fully utilised and available at the best prices.
‘pro-business’ people take the opposite view on these points.
Business needs to be treated as cattle not pets. They are looked after and farmed for what the output they provide, but if they stop doing that then they are culled to avoid wasting resources better used by others.
I think that’s dead right and is an attitude that should have support from across the political spectrum. The more interesting thinkers on the right like Douglas Carswell often talk of their disdain for ‘crony capitalism’, and would likely sign up to policies that were ‘pro-market’.
‘The radical centre’ is a phrase I’ve often heard (usually by people who are neither radical nor in the centre), but it does sort of capture an approach that could be successful. Convince voters you are in the centre and they’ll feel comfortable coming out to support you even if your policies offer a clear break with the status quo. It’s all about hitting the right notes by framing your ideas in the right way. It will be hard for any Labour leader to achieve this though, but hopefully one or more will at least try something new. The early signs are not great though.