Sunday, 31 May 2015

Why Labour Effectively Has to Turn Right

In social-democratic fantasy land there is a strange lingering belief: Labour should turn left, seizing the narrative space now occupied by the Tories on austerity, and remoulding the electorate's views on extreme wealth. The actor Michael Sheen argues for something like this in the New Statesman this week. Labour didn't do this last time, and there is no reason to think they will change now.

It is not just ghoulish characters like the Bond villain-esque Peter Mandelson who command the future direction of the party. String pullers there may be, but they wind up  in power as a result of institutional structures not individual quirks. The electorate, meanwhile, is not particularly far to the right either. The notion of a homogenous electorate uniformly shifting this way or that with the winds of history is a construction. Popular perception is highly mediatized, and media space is in the end contestable. Moreover, arguments about the changing beliefs of society assume a generic uniformity to society as a whole, when the reality is that society is divided according to social position, wealth, privilege and so on. Arguments that claim groups with very different interests are moving together in one direction or another should be met with scepticism.

So what is eating the Labour vote? Why, effectively, does Labour have to turn right? The simple answer is, those who do vote in our democracy, tend to the right. Those who do not, tend to the left. This is the real, hardly mentioned story of recent elections. After the Thatcher revolution and Labour's internal splits and reforms in the 1980s, voter participation in elections collapsed. Since the mid-80s voter turnout has struggled to reach much more than 65%. At the most recent election this trend was re confirmed. A 66% voter turnout gave a parliamentary majority  to the Conservative party.

Here is the Guardian on the social composition of the 2015 vote:

"Labour only had a clear lead over the Conservatives among 18- to 34-year-olds, voters in social class DE (the “semi-skilled and unskilled manual occupations, unemployed and lowest grade occupations”), among private and social renters, and black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) voters.

But among all these groups, turnout was lower than the overall level of voter turnout (66%).
To make matters even worse for Labour, the party’s vote share actually fell among those aged 65 or above. Within this age group, Miliband’s party won 23% of the vote – down eight points on 2010."
So Labour is, by default, the party of the low-paid, students, and ethnic minority groups. Not a bad thing to be by any means. But those groups vote in lower numbers than the white and older voters who turn out consistently for the Conservatives. Unless Labour wants to challenge the alienation of anywhere between 30 and 40% of the electorate who don't vote, they are stuck chasing ageing Tory voters.

Why do these voters turn out less than their Tory counterparts? There is no widely accepted single answer, but it is reasonable to think that politics as it is currently undertaken leaves them out in the cold. Westminster discourse is, like so much in our democracy, marketed firmly at homeowners. More so since Thatcher than ever before in the age of democracy.

Labour will not challenge the diminishing democracy of the UK. It is, less than a true "movement" as it likes to claim, a parliamentary electoral machine. It is locked institutionally and psychologically into the state. So many injunctions to just vote will not convince the many who see Westminster as unrepresentative of them that it is worth doing. Labour will move right because, short of a sustained attack on the institutions and mode of organisation of the British state (electoral reform, Scottish independence, a total rejuvenation of the welfare state), it cannot reach the absent, non-voting thirty percent. Labour obeys a "state logic" - its instinct is to preserve the normal running of things, which is after all the condition of its existence as a parliamentary party.  Non-voters will not start voting any time soon.

So, farewell to the Party of the Working Class. And a warm welcome to its no doubt short lived successor: The Party of the Anxious Middled-Aged White Person Who Is Marginally Less Comfortable About Greed Than The Average Tory.

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