Three years ago, I read the most important lessons the left and centre-left need to learn from their defeat in the 2019 election. I wondered how many people noticed at the time. I wonder how many are ready to take notice now.
This report from think tank Opinium studied the political views and core beliefs of the British public. They divided the public into eight ‘political tribes’ cutting across the traditional divisions of left, right and centre. Two of these tribes, ‘Our Britain’ and ‘Common Sense’ account for around half the population. Their views, and their fundamental values, make it easier for one party, the Conservative Party, to win the 40% it needs to secure a majority under the first-past-the-post system. The ‘Our Britain’ tribe holds strongly protectionist, anti-European anti-immigration views, but 15% of these people described themselves as ‘left-wing’ and 19% of them voted Labour in 2015.
In a Guardian article, one of the report’s authors identified immigration as the key issue “uniting the right and dividing the left”; but the significance of immigration, like Brexit, goes deeper than the specific issue; it signals a difference of world-view: internationalist or protectionist?
The other six ‘political tribes’ in the study were smaller and more disparate, making it difficult, if not impossible, for any one party to appeal to all of them. Opinium found strong support for some left-wing economic ideas, such as taxing the rich and banning zero-hours contracts, spread across protectionists (the majority) and internationalists. The ‘not as bad as expected’ result in 2017 allowed the left, and the Labour Party in particular, to defer any recognition of these realities. Both Labour and the Lib Dems mainly appeal to voters with left-leaning economic views and an internationalist outlook. That combination is found amongst less than a quarter of the population. No party currently appeals to the left-leaning protectionists and it is difficult to see how one party could do that without alienating the internationalists. Criticism of Labour’s Brexit policy misses the point – the party faced a lose-lose-lose choice, between supporting remain, supporting Brexit or something in between. Opinium’s analysis would also cast doubt on the suggestion that a Blairite party (also internationalist at heart) could have done much better.
Unless the Conservative Party implodes or the fundamental values of the British public radically change (neither of which is impossible) the only hope for more progressive government in the UK lies in a change in the voting system. A coalition of two or three parties, different from the ones we have today, could appeal to a progressive majority under a more proportional system. Clearly Conservative governments will never make such a change. Could other parties cooperate to bring it about? The key to all this lies in the ‘period of reflection’ promised by the Labour Party. Will that reflection recognise the realities of modern Britain or will it be an exercise in re-branding and wishful thinking?