This is an experiment. You can judge how successful it is. I am trying it because with this election there has been a lot of talk about a revival in Blue Labour to recapture the Red Wall. The Conservatives have been playing to socially conservative voters since at least William (‘a foreign land’) Hague. So why has the strategy succeeded so well in 2019 when it has had at best modest success before now?
We can represent all this in a simple diagram that is now widely used
The precise positions of the party leaders could be the topic of endless discussion, but for this post I just need them to be roughly right, and for the directions of travel to be right. Blair was fairly liberal but moderately left wing. The Tories since Thatcher have always been pretty right wing in economic terms, and where we have seen movement has been mainly on how socially conservative they are.
If people are uniformly distributed around this map, then the centre is the place to be in a two party, FPTP system. Parties do not go there because their ideology/principles, maintained mainly by their members, stops them.
Blair won because in economic terms he was closer to the economic centre ground than the Tories. After 18 years of Tory rule voters wanted better public services. Yet after the Thatcher revolution in the Conservative party the Tories were stuck with taking a right wing stance, so they tried to shift the debate on to social issues where either side was some way from the centre. A focus on immigration was a way of doing that, with the added advantage of being perceived to be pro-worker and pro-public services (the lie that immigration significantly reduced wages and put pressure on public services).
This move had some effect, reducing Labour’s vote. Yet under good economic times (and economic times were good under Labour for ten years) the immigration issue was not enough to defeat Blair. Public services were getting better. As Theresa May put it, the Tories were still known as the nasty party. This is why Cameron tried to portray himself as a liberal conservative. In opposition he tried to move closer to the centre in both economic terms (accepting Labour’s levels of government spending) and social terms.
But everything changed after the Global Financial Crisis. Regrettably, social conservatism has more appeal when times are bad, at least in part because the (incorrect) real wage/public service argument gains traction. Yet at first sight that should have been counteracted by Osborne moving sharply right with anti-Keynesian austerity (spending cuts in a recession). So although Cameron had tried to move nearer the centre on social issues, in economic terms by 2010 he moved further away.
Here is where we have to make an important modification to this apparatus. In a country where one party has a media that is very sympathetic to the right, it can change how its policies are perceived. Cameron dressed austerity in socially conservative terms (the government is like a household). For various reasons that I and others have documented at length, a policy that was sharply contrary to basic economic theory was adopted by most of the media as a necessity, and the media therefore turned it into a sign of good government.
So austerity was not perceived by most people as a right wing shrinking of the state at great social cost (higher unemployment and lower real wages), but as a neutral policy signifying economic competence. Once we allow for this it is clear that for many Cameron was now closer to the centre is perceived economic terms, and so became the government in 2010.
Austerity was so successful that Labour eventually concluded they would have to accept it to some extent. Miliband not only moved nearer the centre in economic terms by accomodating austerity, he also did so by trying to appear more hawkish on immigration (remember the mugs). But Labour do not have a means of influencing perceptions, so their perceived position was their actual position. In addition Miliband was tainted with the perceived incompetence of the Labour government and was not closer to the centre compared to Cameron’s perceived position, so he lost.
Ed Miliband’s defeat in 2015 was narrow but hard for Labour to take. Most of the political commentators (as they always do) said Labour should move to the right, and after the 2015 defeat they began to before the leadership elections. Recall that parties find it hard to move to the centre because their members will not allow it. That post 2015 rightward drift and the apparent acceptance of austerity was too much for the membership, and they voted for Corbyn.
There are more than two parties in the UK. So far we have been able to do the analysis without mentioning them but now they become crucial. Cameron by becoming more socially liberal allowed UKIP to gain votes. His response was to offer a referendum on the EU. Brexit, particularly a hard Brexit, should be an easy fail according to this diagram. It is socially conservative and right wing: trade restrictions are created so that labour and environmental regulations can be scrapped and not to preserve workers jobs. Its true position is close to Johnson’s in this diagram, while staying in the EU is a pretty centrist idea.
Brexit shows more than anything how we have to think about perceptions. What made Brexit a narrow winner when its true position suggested an easy loss? In short a brilliant if totally dishonest campaign that painted it as something it is not. Project Fear, with the help of the media, completely nullified the right wing economic dimension of Brexit, and turned it into a plus by talking about more money for the NHS. Staying in the EU was successfully painted as ultra liberal (letting the whole of Turkey come to the UK). As with austerity, the perceived position of parties and policies is what matters when it comes to winning elections and a referendum.
Now you could say that by allowing perceptions I can put party’s positions wherever I need to get the result I need. But just as we have good empirical evidence that austerity was perceived as economically neutral by much of the population, we also have good evidence that those who voted for Brexit thought it would have no negative impact on the economy or their personal incomes.
That Corbyn came close to defeating May was not a surprise if you look at his position on this diagram, once we recognise that what Corbyn managed to do in 2017 was neutralise Brexit as an issue. Because he remained as close to the centre as May, he gained votes once his policies became clear as a result of his manifesto. Without his portrayal in the right wing press he might have won.
So what changed by 2019? He was not able to neutralise Brexit, because parliament had agreed a deal. He had to choose, and whatever choice he made would lose votes. For that (not good) reason he delayed choosing, which allowed the resurgence of the Liberal Democrats (and Greens) who portrayed themselves as the true Remain party.
Yet Corbyn is still closer to the centre than Johnson. He lost badly partly because Brexit is perceived as neutral in economic terms by many, so Johnson’s perceived economic position has become synonymous with Brexit. However crucially he also lost because the UK is not a two party system. The Liberal Democrats, the SNP and the Greens are all perceived to be in liberal/left space, and together with Labour they won more votes than Johnson and the Brexit party put together.
The lesson of all this is twofold. First, this two-dimensional diagram can explain a lot, once you replace the parties’ actual position against their perceived position generated with a right wing media. Of course it leaves out a lot (the popularity of leaders, which is related to their charisma, the effectiveness of campaigns etc), but it seems like a good place to start. Second, as long as the Conservative party has the monopoly of the right wing/socially conservative vote, left social liberals cannot afford to split their vote among several parties. If Labour ever made a significant move in a socially conservative position, as Blue Labour wants, it would be defeated by yet more votes going to the other left/liberal parties.