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Has public opinion really shifted to the left?

Why did a left-wing agenda work for Jeremy Corbyn but not Ed Miliband?

RIP capitalism, you had a good run. That seems to be the verdict of a new report by the centre-right Legatum Institute, chock-full of interesting polling from Populus.

When people were asked what they thought about a range of economic issues, 83 per cent favoured public ownership of water companies, 77 per cent wanted to re-nationalise electricity and gas companies and 76 per cent wanted the railways back under state control. More voters expressed favourable statements about socialism than capitalism, and the reputation of capitalism is scarcely better than communism. Support for increased taxes and higher public spending has overtaken support for spending restraint and lower taxes for the first time since the mid-Noughties. 

"The ground is shifting", writes Fraser Nelson in today's Telegraph. "After decades in which the market has held sway," the New Statesman's George declares, "Voters are ready to summon Leviathan from the depths." Both men put public voice on what many Conservative MPs are saying forlornly in private: that just as Jeremy Corbyn argued in his speech, the centre-ground of politics really has moved to the left.

Are they right? I'm not convinced. One of the neglected truths of the last two years is that the ideas that Corbyn puts forward have, for the most part, always been popular. That was what sustained morale and hope in the leader's office even when their allies in the commentariat were calling for him to go or making eyes at Clive Lewis: that Corbynism would carry them through even if Corbyn couldn't. That, too, was what Ed Miliband's allies believe their own programme of left-wing policies would do for them.

Bluntly these policies weren't kept off the menu during the last Labour government because they were unpopular or some airy nonsense about the "Overton Window" but because Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, rightly or wrongly, didn't believe that they worked. As for support for greater levels of public spending, it's long-documented that the longer the Conservatives are in office the greater demand for investment in the public realm and the longer Labour are in office the greater the support for status quo spending.

The interesting question is: why did it work for Corbyn but not Miliband. There are a whole range of possible reasons, ranging from Corbyn's greater credibility and clarity as a proponent of left-wing policies to the calamitous Tory campaign in 2017.

But perhaps the answer could be found at Labour's conference in Brighton and the Conservative gathering in Manchester next week? The biggest change in Brighton since Labour's last visit in 2015 wasn't the mood of the party: it was the person sleeping rough in every alcove around the conference centre late at night. Brighton has seen a 100 per cent increase since Labour last came to town.

The increase in the number sleeping rough is smaller in percentage terms in Manchester but greater numerically. Why wouldn't demand for public spending be on the up? (I don't think it's exactly a coincidence that the demand for more spending started to tail off once the Blair government had got us to the European average in health and education, either.)

And actually there is a measure of Tory hope to be found in Legatum's report. (Not least because the Conservatives kept winning for a full 12 years after the public started to hanker for greater public spending.) It's in the supposedly feckless young. The under-40s actually have a more positive view of capitalism than their elders.

It's perhaps more useful for the Conservatives to ask themselves what the under-40s don't have but the over-40s do. The answers were made clear in demographic analysis by Opinium for the Social Market Foundation: the under-40s don't like culture wars and they can't get a mortgage.

As I write in my NS column this week, the Conservatives can win again if they refrain from saying witless things like "citizens of nowhere" and get more people on the housing ladder. It's Labour's good fortune that they are instead talking about "making the argument" for capitalism rather than talking about "making capitalism work". 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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Tackling tuition fees may not be the vote-winner the government is hoping for

In theory, Theresa May is right to try to match Labour’s policy. But could it work?

Part of the art of politics is to increase the importance of the issues you win on and to decrease or neutralise the importance of the issues your opponent wins on. That's part of why Labour will continue to major on police cuts, as a device to make the usually Labour-unfriendly territory of security more perilous for the Tories.

One of the advantages the Conservatives have is that they are in government – I know it doesn't always look like it – and so they can do a lot more to decrease the importance of Labour's issues than the Opposition can do to theirs.

So the theory of Theresa May's big speech today on higher education funding and her announcement of a government review into the future of the university system is sound. Tuition fees are an area that Labour win on, so it makes sense to find a way to neutralise the issue.

Except there are a couple of problems with May's approach. The first is that she has managed to find a way to make a simple political question incredibly difficult for herself. The Labour offer is “no tuition fees”, so the Conservatives essentially either need to match that or move on. But the one option that has been left off the table is abolition, the only policy lever that could match Labour electorally.

The second, even bigger problem is that it it turns out that tuition fees might not have been the big election-moving event that we initially thought they were. The British Electoral Survey caused an earthquake of their own by finding that the “youthquake” – the increase in turn-out among 18-24-year-olds – never happened. Younger voters were decisive, both in how they switched to Labour and in the overall increase in turnout among younger voters, but it was in that slightly older 25-35 bracket (and indeed the 35-45 one as well) that the big action occurred.

There is an astonishingly powerful belief among the Conservative grassroots, such as it is, that Jeremy Corbyn's NME interview in which the he said that existing tuition fee debt would be “dealt with” was decisive. That belief, I'm told, extends all the way up to May's press chief, Robbie Gibb. Gibb is the subject of increasing concern among Tory MPs and ministers, who regularly ask journalists what they make of Robbie, if Robbie is doing alright, before revealing that they find his preoccupations – Venezuela, Corbyn's supposed pledge to abolish tuition fee debt – troublingly marginal.

Because the third problem is that any policy action on tuition fees comes at a huge cost to the Treasury, a cost that could be spent easing the pressures on the NHS, which could neutralise a Labour strength, or the financial strains on schools, another area of Labour strength. Both of which are of far greater concern to the average thirtysomething than what anyone says or does about tuition fees.

Small wonder that Team Corbyn are in an ebullient mood as Parliament returns from recess.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.