The UK’s Labour Party yesterday announced its manifesto for the upcoming general election. It’s a dramatically different vision to the path the Conservative party has laid out for the country, and unsurprisingly, it is the most left-wing manifesto the party has had since the rise of “New Labour” under Tony Blair in the late 1990s. Contrary to the scoffing of some on the right, however, it’s far from being a loony-leftie document that appeals only to the fringes. If anything, it’s an incredibly populist manifesto; the majority of its policies enjoy very broad support from the British electorate.
The right-wing press argues that the manifesto shows Labour, under Jeremy Corbyn, trying to return the UK to the “bad old days” of the 1970s (yes, that’s the same right-wing press that’s had a months-long priapism over notions like returning to Imperial weights and measures, or issuing blue-coloured passports; the existence of irony, it seems, is just another EU strategy to undermine Brexit). To some extent, they’re right; the manifesto does hark back to the pre-Thatcher years in parts, with policies aimed at undoing some of the more egregious mistakes of the neo-liberal policy regimes of the past 35 years. These include the ideologically motivated privatisation of a number of natural monopolies like public transport and energy, or the underhanded social engineering that saw council housing being sold off cheaply and never replaced, both of which date back to the early 1980s and are targeted in the manifesto.
Rather than arguing back and forth about the benefits of various different aspects of the manifesto, though, the point I want to make is that regardless of whether you consider these policies to be economically sensible or politically desirable, they’re undeniably popular. Opinion poll after opinion poll has shown – with margins that defy post-Brexit, post-Trump scepticism about polling – that the British public support the renationalisation of rail and other core services, want to see council housing stocks replenished, and favour the roll-back of the most extreme deregulations of the labour market, such as zero-hours contracts. If you go through the Labour manifesto line-by-line with British voters, you’ll find a strong majority in favour of pretty much every major policy in the document. The last manifesto to enjoy such a strong level of support was probably Blair’s in 1997 – a very different manifesto for a very different time.
Blair won 1997 in a historic landslide. Corbyn, for all that his policies resonate, is going to lose, and lose badly – likely handing Theresa May’s Conservatives a significantly boosted majority in the House of Commons, and perhaps losing key seats once seen as Labour strongholds. This is in spite of the fact that May’s Conservative policies are actually pretty unpopular; “Hard Brexit” is opposed by a plurality of the electorate, and some of her policies around things like education, the NHS and fox-hunting (yes, the fox-hunting debate is back) are opposed by a significant majority. It doesn’t matter; she’s going to win the most convincing Conservative electoral victory in a generation.
What this means, from a political science wonk perspective, is that a significant part of the British electorate is going to go out and vote for a party whose policies they disagree with. It flies in the face of certain fields of theory, which try to link the policy preferences of voters to their choices in elections, or to model the behaviour of candidates as principal-agent relationships – in which voters (principals) elect candidates as their “agents”, who go on to represent the policy interests of the voters in order to ensure future re-election. There’s more complexity to those models, but in essence they all assume the same fundamental thing – that voters have policy preferences, and that they evaluate the distance between their own preferences and those of electoral candidates, and assess the candidates according to that measure. If you have an election in which a large portion of voters who prefer nationalisation, labour market protections and investment in social housing knowingly go out and elect candidates who want to privatise the NHS, deregulate labour markets and leave housing entirely in the private sector; well, something is up.
Specifically, what’s up is valence issues. You can broadly divide the issues of concern to voters in elections into two categories. The first category is position issues – these are issues on which parties, and voters, have divided views. Things like immigration policy, Brexit, nationalisation, labour market reforms and so on are position issues, because different voters and parties have different positions on these issues. Even where a majority of voters lean a certain direction (for example, about 80% of UK voters oppose a repeal of the fox-hunting ban), the existence of a minority who believe otherwise turns this into a position issue. We pay a lot of attention to position issues, because they fit neatly with a lot of fundamental theories about policy preferences. Perhaps more importantly, they also fit comfortably with most peoples’ basic understanding of how democracy is meant to work, and provide points of disagreement and debate which are interesting to follow as they unfold in newspapers and other media.
The second category of issue is valence issues. Valence issues are things on which the vast majority of people and parties actually agree. For example, “enhanced prosperity”, or “lower crime”, or “better education”, or “lower unemployment”; these are all things that just about every voter, and every political party, agrees to be positive. There’s lots of disagreement about how you achieve those things, of course, but fundamentally if you’re talking about issues of economic growth, human security and so on, you’re talking about a valence issue – something everyone wants to attain, regardless of where they fall on the political spectrum or how they feel about all the various position issues.
Jeremy Corbyn isn’t going to lose this election over position issues. On position issues, he’s good; the British electorate agrees with him, so much so that in an election where only the position issues mattered, he’d likely win the biggest majority Labour has ever held. You can imagine this in the form of a thought experiment; imagine a voting system where party and candidate names never appeared, and people simply selected their preferred policies, with their vote ultimately going to the party whose policies most closely match the voter’s. Assuming a kind of “veil of ignorance”, wherein voters could not guess which policies belonged to which party and thus couldn’t bias their selections according to party identification, Labour would win a huge majority this time out.
But Jeremy Corbyn is going to lose, because this election – like many in recent years – isn’t about position issues, it’s about valence issues. What valence issues boil down to is a simple question; given a core value that everyone agrees about, like “prosperity” or “security”, do you trust a given party or candidate to be able to deliver it? It’s not an assessment of policy, or a weighing of manifesto promises; it’s a simple, visceral and quite emotional choice of whether you think a person or a party has the competence to deliver the key social goods that a nation requires. Time and again in recent decades, we’ve seen electorates go to the polls, hold their noses, and vote for a party they fundamentally disagree with on many issues simply because they believe that that party is more competent and capable on the most fundamental issues of all, the valence issues.
Theresa May – for all that she has not been a particularly competent or capable leader, much as she was not particularly impressive as Home Secretary before – understands valence issues to a degree that Corbyn does not. While Corbyn has crafted policies on position issues which most of the UK electorate agrees with, May has focused entirely on projecting an image of strength and competence. She may be mocked for her constant and rather robotic delivery of her “strong and stable government” line, but it’s a good line; it speaks directly to the heart of the valence issues most people are basing their choices on. In fact, it’s rather hard to pin down the Conservatives’ exact policy positions on many things in this election, precisely because the whole party is running on valence. They’re avoiding talking about position issues, partially because they remain a party deeply divided on many of them, but mostly because their entire election pitch is that they’re a safe, competent pair of hands on the wheel, with little reference to where they’re actually planning on steering. Look also at how right-wing media and politicians alike respond to Labour’s policies. Rather than presenting an alternative or a competing worldview, their attacks are always based on claims that Labour is being unrealistic, or living in a fantasy land; that no matter how much you may like Labour’s policies (because the right wing knows that Labour’s positions are more popular), Labour in general and Corbyn specifically are too incompetent, too chaotic and too risky to put into power.
That’s why the Labour manifesto, for all that it’s a great document, isn’t going to mean much of anything in the long run. The problem isn’t that it’s too left-wing or too radical; it’s pretty apparent that the British public is quite receptive to some radical policy prescriptions on key areas right now. Rather, the problem is that Labour under Corbyn has done little to make people feel like the party has the competence to execute those policies. While those of us following the Brexit negotiations closely may be dumbfounded by the lack of competence and professionalism being demonstrated by the Conservative leadership in this area, that’s not the story that’s filtering through to the majority of UK voters. For them, the Conservatives are a competent party with some distasteful policies – and they’ll vote for that over a chaotic, incompetent party with lovely policies any day.
How did Labour get here? The blame, ultimately, has to rest with Corbyn; he’s leader, and the buck stops there. Certainly, the failure of the party’s centrists to unite behind the leader (even after their coup attempt collapsed) is also a major factor, but if Corbyn had cultivated a personal popularity beyond core leftist support then even his ideological opponents would have fallen in line. The party is fractured not because Corbyn has a different ideology to many of the Blair-era MPs, but because Corbyn is an electoral liability to the party. His great failure, I think, is that he truly believes that politics is about putting out the right policies and creating a manifesto people agree with; he has neglected the actual role of a modern party leader, which involves building a personal image of competence and leadership, and being an electoral asset for your party members around the country.
You can blame the media’s coverage of Corbyn and Labour for that negative image, as many of the party faithful do, and there’s some merit to that; but in the age of SNS and new media, Corbyn has shown no aptitude for engaging with the public through alternative channels and effectively challenging the narratives of the right-wing press. Again, I think, the problem is that he wants to let his policies do the talking, not realising that most people will not cast their vote based on policies. That’s a miscalculation that’s likely going to cost Labour a great many seats next month – because the greatest manifesto in the world is meaningless if you don’t believe Jeremy Corbyn is capable of delivering on its promises.