Has public opinion really shifted to the left?

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

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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 political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics. He also co-hosts the New Statesman podcast.

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