“’Britain is broken – people are getting poorer, nothing seems to work properly, and we need big changes to the way the country works, whichever party is in government’.” In my latest polling, an extraordinary 72 per cent agreed with this statement, including more than half of 2019 Conservative voters. Only just over one in five took the alternative view…”
Yes, this really is a Tory blog. As he rolls his findings out things get grimmer and grimmer for the Tories, but not only the Tories. If Ashcroft is right, the very pledges that Starmer has ditched are the very policies that are popular with the electorate.
Take the question of the public ownership of railways, water, electricity and gas. According to Ashcroft’s work there are clear majorities among 2019 Labour Voters, 2019 Tory voters and voters who voted Tory in 2019 but are now disaffected, for taking these sectors into public ownership as opposed to ownership by private companies. For 2019 Labour voters, the percentage of support for public ownership ranges from 72% to 75% across the four sectors. But even true-blue steadfast Tories ranged from 59% to 65% in support of nationalisation.
Or take the question of public spending on services, an ‘indulgence’ which provokes bouts of fiscal rectitude in Starmer as sure as plate of beans produces flatulence. According to Ashcroft, Starmer need not suffer. A majority of voters see the need for such expenditure:
“…in a separate question on whether domestic spending in various areas should rise, stay the same or fall, people wanted to see increases in nearly all areas – especially in health and social care, schools, the state pension and help with bills during the cost-of-living crisis.”
Perhaps, of course, Starmer is less motivated by his constant emphasis on electoral popularity than he is by ideological conformity – conformity that is to the principles of neo-liberalism that underpin his beloved EU and conformity to the ideas of the coterie of spokespeople for corporate capitalism that hang around Starmer’s “project” like a bad smell.
For many on the left, this will simply reinforce what they believe is a dire need for a new left-wing party. Faced with the many previous failures of such a project, its advocates will nevertheless tell you that this time is different; that all previous serious examples were in 20th century and in any case were hampered by the first past the post electoral system.
Neither of these positions is true. The best and most successful attempt to form a political and electoral alterative to Labour is the Scottish Socialist Party at the start of 21st Century. Tommy Sheridan won its first seat in the Scottish Parliament in that institution’s first elections in 1999 through the regional list system where he received 2% of the vote. The second Scottish Parliament elections took place in 2003 soon after the decision by the New Labour government, supported by the UK parliament, to invade Iraq. The SSP won five additional regional list MSPs across Scotland with 4.7% of the vote. It seemed like a breakthrough moment especially when the Scottish section of the RMT affiliated to them, leading ultimately to the ‘expulsion’ of the RMT from the Labour Party.
There was, however, no breakthrough in terms of political influence in neither the Scottish Parliament, nor in wider civic society and certainly not in the unions. Even before the crisis in the SSP’s leadership which led to Sheridan’s resignation and his decision to set up another party called ‘Solidarity’, the reality of trying to build an alternative to Labour was becoming impossible to ignore. Academic Gregor Gall, an SSP member noted in 2004 in Scottish Left Review: “…The SSP as the most advanced political formation to the left of Labour lacks the credibility of critical mass because of its relatively small size. Quite apart from only operating in Scotland (sic), without further union affiliation and support, other unions will not see the SSP as a credible option. Moreover, and without further union support, the SSP will not grow to the extent that it would need to in order to present itself a genuinely mass party of the working class.”
In October 2006 the RMT voted to reverse its 2003 decision to affiliate to the SSP. In the 2007 Scottish Parliament elections, the SSP got no seats and 0.6% of the vote. Of course, the rise in support for the SNP, and the leadership crisis in the SSP played a major role, but so did the failure of the SSP to make a significant intervention in Scottish politics. It is also worth pointing out that while the SSP was on the rise, the loss of the RMT robbed the Labour Left of the important political weight the RMT had provided.
The SSP’s offer of a serious alternative to Labour also drew in many disillusioned socialists from the Labour Party, only to deepen their alienation from political activity in the fractious and futile infighting that marked the SSP’s decline. Losing left activists badly weakened the Labour left making it more difficult, in already difficult circumstances, to fend off new Labour’s neoliberal assault.
Of course, it isn’t good enough dismiss the formation of a new left party and to argue for a challenge to the Labour Leadership by staying and fighting in the Labour Party, without some suggestion as to how that might be achieved.
What Ashcroft’s poll reveals is that many voters and in particular 2019 Labour voters are broadly hostile to neo-liberalism - the small state, the lack of regulation, underfunded public services and global warming. Instead, they support the Green agenda, immigration and even socialism (at least relatively speaking; they rated it 6 out of 10 as a force for good as opposed to 4 out of 10 for capitalism).
Starmer’s increasingly obvious belief that Labour can only get elected as some sort of Blairite tribute band ignores many in the Labour Party, not just socialists, but social democrats and many more who would not use such language to describe themselves, want something better than poor services, poor wages and a poor environment. Socialists must work with all of those hostile to the neo-liberal clique who are running the party, to expose their politics, isolate them and eventually run their ideas out of the party, before the Labour Party runs out of time, because we all know Labour’s failure is more likely to encourage a resurgent right than a radical left.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star on 14th September 2023