Lib Dem and Labour voters have more in common than you think

New polling analysis shows that Lib Dem supporters continue to lean to the left.

In this week's New Statesman, Richard Reeves, Nick Clegg's former strategy director, calls for a recasting of the Liberal Democrats as a centrist liberal force that divorces itself from the party's social democrat past. Intellectually, the case may be a powerful one. But electorally, there is a huge problem: the strategy ignores the people who support the Lib Dems today.

Even though so many left-leaning voters have deserted the party, few of its loyal supporters are classical liberals of the centre or soft-right. New Fabian Society analysis of YouGov polling from the last 12 months shows that, even after two years of the coalition, the Lib Dems' remaining supporters are much closer to Labour than to Tory voters. Lib Dem and Labour supporters share views on the economy and government and far more Lib Dems would consider voting Labour than Conservative.

First, consider how people identify on a left-right political spectrum. 43% of remaining Lib Dem supporters describe themselves as on the left of politics, compared to 53% of Labour supporters and 1% of Conservatives. By contrast, just 8% of Lib Dem and 6% of Labour voters place themselves on the right of politics, compared to 60% of Conservative supporters.

Labour and Lib Dem supporters also have similar views on the role of government in British life. Consider this statement of the liberal case against the state: "Government should do the bare minimum and stay out of people's way; people are freer when there is less Government". Forty four per cent of Conservative voters say it's a convincing argument, compared to just 24% of Lib Dem and 22% of Labour voters.

It's a similar story on the economy. Forty eight per cent of Conservative voters are sympathetic to cutting red-tape, compared to 13% of current Lib Dems and 9% of Labour supporters. Forty two per cent of Lib Dems and 40% of Labour supporters want an interventionist industrial strategy, compared to 25% of Conservatives.

So how does this translate into the political preferences of Lib Dem supporters? During the summer, YouGov found that 54% of remaining Lib Dem voters would consider voting Labour, while only 36% would consider the Conservatives (defined as a 4 out of 10 chance of voting for the party in question). This finding is so striking because we are talking about current Lib Dem supporters not the defectors.  This pro-Labour bias comes on top of Lib Dem deserters splitting 4-to-1 in Labour's favour.

These new insights into the Lib Dems' remaining supporters should give both parties pause for thought. It suggests, for the Liberal Democrats, that a centrist appeal to classical liberalism will do little to consolidate the party's current support, let alone grow it. It demonstrates that, in the voters' eyes, the Lib Dems should reject 'equidistance' in favour of a pro-Labour bias.

Meanwhile, Labour politicians need to recognise that most remaining Lib Dem supporters continue to have left-leaning views. If the electoral maths demands it, Labour should stand ready to cooperate with a party that speaks for people who share their values and are deeply suspicious of Conservatism.

Labour and Lib Dem supporters have similar views on the role of government. Photograph: Getty Images.

Andrew Harrop is general secretary of the Fabian Society.

Getty Images.
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Tony Blair might be a toxic figure - but his influence endures

Politicians at home and abroad are borrowing from the former prime minister's playbook. 

On 24 May at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, a short distance from where he once governed, Tony Blair resurfaced for a public discussion. Having arrived on an overnight flight, he looked drawn and puffy-eyed but soon warmed to his theme: a robust defence of liberal globalisation. He admitted, however, to bafflement at recent events in the world. "I thought I was pretty good at politics. But I look at politics today and I’m not sure I understand it."

Blair lost power in the summer of 2007. In the ensuing nine years, he lost reputation. His business ventures and alliances with autocrats have made him a pariah among both the public and his party. A YouGov poll published last year found that 61 per cent of voters regarded Blair as an electoral liability, while just 14 per cent viewed him as an asset. In contrast, John Major, whom he defeated by a landslide in 1997, had a neutral net rating of zero. It is ever harder to recall that Blair won not one general election (he is the only living Labour leader to have done so) but three.

His standing is likely to diminish further when the Iraq inquiry report is published on 6 July. Advance leaks to the Sunday Times suggest that he will be censured for allegedly guaranteeing British military support to the US a year before the invasion. Few minds on either side will be changed by the 2.6 million-word document. Yet its publication will help enshrine Iraq as the defining feature of a legacy that also includes the minimum wage, tax credits, Sure Start, devolution and civil partnerships.

Former leaders can ordinarily rely on their parties to act as a last line of defence. In Blair’s case, however, much of the greatest opprobrium comes from his own side. Jeremy Corbyn inclines to the view that Iraq was not merely a blunder but a crime. In last year’s Labour leadership election, Liz Kendall, the most Blair-esque candidate, was rewarded with 4.5 per cent of the vote. The former prime minister’s imprimatur has become the political equivalent of the black spot.

Yet outside of the Labour leadership, Blairism endures in notable and often surprising forms. Sadiq Khan won the party’s London mayoral selection by running to the left of Tessa Jowell, one of Tony Blair’s closest allies. But his successful campaign against Zac Goldsmith drew lessons from Blair’s election triumphs. Khan relentlessly presented himself as “pro-business” and reached out beyond Labour’s core vote. After his victory, he was liberated to use the B-word, contrasting what “Tony Blair did [in opposition]” with Corbyn’s approach.

In their defence of the UK’s EU membership, David Cameron and George Osborne have deployed arguments once advanced by New Labour. The strategically minded Chancellor has forged an unlikely friendship with his former nemesis Peter Mandelson. In the domestic sphere, through equal marriage, the National Living Wage and the 0.7 per cent overseas aid target, the Conservatives have built on, rather than dismantled, significant Labour achievements."They just swallowed the entire manual," Mandelson declared at a recent King’s College seminar. "They didn’t just read the executive summary, they are following the whole thing to the letter."

Among SNP supporters, "Blairite" is the pejorative of choice. But the parallels between their party and New Labour are more suggestive than they would wish. Like Blair, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon have avoided income tax rises in order to retain the support of middle-class Scottish conservatives. In a speech last August on education, Sturgeon echoed the Blairite mantra that "what matters is what works".

Beyond British shores, political leaders are similarly inspired by Blair – and less reticent about acknowledging as much. Matteo Renzi, the 41-year-old centre-left Italian prime minister, is a long-standing admirer. "I adore one of his sayings,” he remarked in 2013. “I love all the traditions of my party, except one: that of losing elections."

In France, the reform-minded prime minister, Manuel Valls, and the minister of economy, Emmanuel Macron, are also self-described Blairites. Macron, who in April launched his own political movement, En Marche!, will shortly decide whether to challenge for the presidency next year. When he was compared to Blair by the TV presenter Andrew Marr, his response reflected the former prime minister’s diminished domestic reputation: “I don’t know if, in your mouth, that is a promise or a threat.”

The continuing attraction of Blair’s “third way” to European politicians reflects the failure of the project’s social-democratic critics to construct an alternative. Those who have sought to do so have struggled both in office (François Hollande) and out of it (Ed Miliband). The left is increasingly polarised between reformers and radicals (Corbyn, Syriza, Podemos), with those in between straining for relevance.

Despite his long absences from Britain, Blair’s friends say that he remains immersed in the intricacies of Labour politics. He has privately warned MPs that any attempt to keep Corbyn off the ballot in the event of a leadership challenge would be overruled by the National Executive Committee. At Methodist Central Hall, he said of Corbyn’s supporters: “It’s clear they can take over a political party. What’s not clear to me is whether they can take over a country.”

It was Blair’s insufficient devotion to the former task that enabled the revival of the left. As Alastair Campbell recently acknowledged: “We failed to develop talent, failed to cement organisational and cultural change in the party and failed to secure our legacy.” Rather than effecting a permanent realignment, as the right of the party hoped and the left feared, New Labour failed to outlive its creators.

It instead endures in a fragmented form as politicians at home and abroad co-opt its defining features: its pro-business pragmatism, its big-tent electoralism, its presentational nous. Some of Corbyn’s ­allies privately fear that Labour will one day re-embrace Blairism. But its new adherents would never dare to use that name.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad