Out of Touch with Voters, Labour Party Tacks Left

Most Labour members think they lost the election because their party wasn’t far to the left enough.

Labour's Jeremy Corbyn talks with reporters outside Parliament in London, England, June 11, 2008
Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn talks with reporters outside Parliament in London, England, June 11, 2008 (Flickr/Jasn)

If Jeremy Corbyn’s rise in the British Labour Party’s leadership contest wasn’t indication enough that it has yet to come to terms with its most recent defeat, a poll commissioned by The Times newspaper provides further evidence that the party is out of touch with not just the electorate at large but with its own voters.

Asked why Labour lost its second election in a row this year, 60 percent of party members said it was because Labour had failed to provide a credible alternative to the austerity policies of Prime Minister David Cameron. 63 percent said Labour had failed to defend the “good things” it did when it was last in government.

Only a third of Labour Party voters agreed those were the main reasons it fell to 232 seats in May — down from 258 in 2010 and 349 in the 2005 election. Rather, most voters attributed the defeat to the weaknesses of party leader Ed Miliband, who resigned days after losing the election.

Among all voters, Miliband was even less popular. Nearly half of those polled said he was a bad leader.

Miliband repudiated the centrist New Labour policies of former prime minister Tony Blair and tried to win the election on a more traditional left-wing platform.

Voters mistrusted Labour because it couldn’t bring itself to admit mistakes were made when it was last in power. The survey published in The Times reveals that this, and the absence of a “plausible policy” to reduce the deficit, were seen by voters at large as important reasons why Labour lost. Among Labour Party supporters, these factors hardly registered.

When Cameron took over in 2010, Britain was borrowing £149 billion, equivalent to 11 percent of economic output. Labour had allowed the national debt to rise from around 50 percent to almost 80 percent of gross domestic product.

In coalition with the Liberal Democrats, Cameron’s Conservatives cut the deficit in half and brought down unemployment to the lowest rate in Europe after Germany, Norway and Switzerland. Growth last year was the highest in the developed world.

Yet Labour criticized every austerity measure the Conservatives enacted and seemed only to promise more of the public spending largesse that made cuts necessary in the first place.

Only days before the election did Labour pledge it wouldn’t widen the deficit if it won. By then, it was too late. Cameron could credibly claim that Labour should not be trusted with command of the world’s fifth largest economy again. Voters agreed. They gave his party its first overall majority in twenty years.

Judging by the contest to replace Ed Miliband, Labour hasn’t learned its lesson.

A YouGov poll puts Corbyn, a far-left and pacifist backbencher who is relitigating the economic policy battles of the 1980s, ahead of his closest rival, Andy Burnham, 53 to 47 percent.

Earlier, the New Statesman magazine reported that private polling also showed Corbyn on track to win the leadership election.

Even if the party accepts it couldn’t possibly win a general election with Corbyn as leader, Burnham would hardly be an improvement. A bleeding-heart socialist, he has made a career out of resisting every move toward liberalization in Britain’s bloated state health service. He has made some business-friendly noises of late, recognizing that Miliband’s denunciations of “predatory” businesses and promises of price controls did little to allay voters’ concern that Labour was returning to its old ways, before Blair placed it in the center of British politics in the 1990s. But when it comes to the National Health Service, Burnham’s views haven’t changed.

He sees a contest been “NHS values” and business values; between “collaboration” and “competition”; between “patient care” and profits. No matter that Labour has done a poorer job at running the health service in Wales than the Conservatives have in England and no matter that private contractors typically do a better job than NHS-managed hospitals.

The two candidates who probably represent Labour’s best chance of regaining the trust of Middle England — Yvette Cooper, the pragmatic if somewhat technocrat shadow home secretary, and Liz Kendall, an unapologetic Blairite member of Parliament for Leicester West — are so far down in the polls that it’s almost as though the party doesn’t want to win the next election.

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