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Was Blair right: are Labour really too left-wing to win in May? By Ed Fieldhouse

The British Election Study Team

Whilst many of us were thinking about how to celebrate the New Year, Ed Miliband might have been forgiven for eschewing the Champagne and going for something a little stronger. Although former PM Tony Blair’s popularity amongst the British public is hardly meteoric, and his public utterances on British politics relatively few and far between, they still have the power to upset Labour’s leadership. So when he gave an interview to the Economist suggesting Ed was a little too left-wing it was bound to cause ructions. What he actually said was “I am still very much New Labour and Ed would not describe himself in that way, so there is obviously a difference there,” and “ the Labour Party succeeds best when it is in the centre ground.” Perhaps more crucially he described the 2015 Election as shaping up to be one “in which a traditional left-wing party competes with a traditional right-wing party, with the traditional result” (a Tory Win). But is this a reasonable claim? For one thing, there are other more important factors than ideological positioning – not least economic competence and leadership. Notwithstanding this, it is by no means clear that history proves Blair’s case one way or the other. Nobody would argue that the 1945 Labour Party was not radical in its objectives but was elected to office with a huge majority. On the other hand, recent history does support Blair: poor results under Foot and Kinnock (on the left) were matched by record breaking majorities for Blair himself (in the centre). So rather like Geoffrey Boycott’s observations on test batting, Tony Blair’s take on Labour politics are motivated primarily by his own record and legacy.

What history does suggest is that the context matters: it’s OK to be radical when the electorate demand it (1945), but in 1997, when Labour’s traditional working class vote had declined and the electorate had grown accustomed to low personal tax rates and low interest rates, occupying the centre was the dominant strategy. What is important is not whether Labour are slightly more to the left of centre, but how this compares with to where voters’ preferences lie, and whether rival parties take a more or less centrist position. In very simple terms, this is at the heart of the ‘Economic Theory of Democracy’ in which Anthony Downs made famous the ‘median voter theorem’, which stated that a majority rulevoting system will result in the outcome most preferred by the median voter (as defined on a one dimensional spectrum like left-right)[1]. As I suggested above, elections are about much more than this, and plenty of political scientists have critiqued, modified or abandoned Down’s spatial model. Nevertheless, it is enlightening to take this idea as a starting point in order to assess Tony Blair’s claim and to examine data from the British Election Study which, in recent times, has asked about respondents on left-right placement[2] and also where respondents view the main political parties[3].

Figure 1 shows the responses to these two questions on an 11 point scale (zero to ten) for post-election BES in-person surveys since 1997[4] and for the most recent 2014 BES internet panel (wave 3, fielded during September-October 2014). A low score represents a more left-wing position and a high score a more right wing position. The grey line shows that the mean position of the electorate was approximately 5 (i.e. in the centre) at each time point (the median position is 5 in each of the datasets). The red line indicates the mean position of the Labour Party as perceived by respondents. As Blair suggested, Labour is now slightly further away from the centre ground with a mean perceived position of 3.2 (and median 3) than during his time in charge, including 1997 when he was first elected PM.

Figure 1

Ed Labour LR fig 1

It is important to see this in the context of where the other parties stand. Figure 2 shows the average placement of parties by BES respondents, and by political scientists who responded to the BES expert survey. We see that whilst respondents see Labour rather left-of-centre, the Conservatives are seen as much more right of centre and only slightly more moderate than UKIP. Whilst the Lib Dems are in the middle ground, it seems unlikely that this will save them from electoral disaster. Our sample of experts corroborates the perceptions of voters: there are no substantial differences between the average expert assessments and the average voter perceptions, though there is a suggestion that compared to the experts, voters are more inclined to agree with Blair and see Labour as left wing.

Figure 2

Ed Labour LR fig 2

 The preceding analysis tells us about average position but nothing about the distribution of voters’ preferences. Figure 3 shows the distribution of respondents’ placements of both Labour and the Conservative on the 11 point scale. We see that there is a fairly wide distribution of perceptions of where Labour stands, with a fair number (17%) putting Labour on the extreme left, but a significant minority seeing them as right of centre. The most common positions are on the centre left (positions 2 to 4) broadly in line with the expert placements. What is more interesting, however, is that whilst Labour might be seen as a little off the centre ground, they are not regarded as far to the left as the Conservatives are to the right. Over 20% of voters regard the Tories on the extreme right-hand end of the scale, and the modal position is at point 8, further from the median voter (5) than Labour (3).

Figure 3

Ed Labour LR fig 3

 The last and perhaps most important piece of the jigsaw is to see how far away parties are from their own voters (who they want to keep) and from their rivals whose votes they want to steal. Using the 2 questions analysed above, I subtracted the party’s perceived position for each respondent from his or her own position, so that if those intending to vote for a particular party are, on average, to the left of Labour the score is negative; and if they are to the right the score is positive. The resulting statistic is broken down by 2015 vote intention in Figure 4. What we see is that Labour are actually a tiny bit to the right of its own supporters which is the natural place to be for a party on the left that wishes to attract new support (a difference of -0.15). This again compares favourably with the Conservatives (not shown here), who are regarded, on average, as slightly to the right of their own supporters, and even to the right of UKIP supporters (-0.8). Indeed only BNP supporters see themselves as more right wing than the Conservatives. Moreover, Labour is also to the right of some of its’ potential threats in the shape of the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens. On the other hand it is moderately to the left of Liberal Democrats and those who say they will not vote or don’t know how they will vote. All these are potential sources of support in 2015, but arguably Labour are not so distant from these voters to be a major concern. The main danger of leaving the centre open to the Liberal Democrats is somewhat negated by their current unpopularity and their participation in the coalition. Of course these figures only give the average position and do not reflect how the preferences are distributed. While the average UKIP or Tory voter is well to the right of Labour there are many Conservative and UKIP supporters who are in the centre ground and whose votes Miliband cannot afford to write off. For example, nearly four in ten UKIP supporters and 16% of Conservative voters place themselves on the centre point or to the left of centre.

Figure 4

Ed Labour LR fig 4

Whether Ed should take Tony’s advice is by no means clear-cut. Yes, Labour are rather more left than they were under Blair’s successful election campaigns, but the threats to Labour are entirely different. Following 5 years of coalition, the 2015 Election will be unlike any previous elections, with the prospect of at least 7 parties realistically competing for seats (not even including Northern Ireland), and with Labour facing threats on both left and right. Moreover, Labour’s perceived potion on the left is more one of image than one of policy. Arguably there is little between the major parties on major issues of policy, with Labour desperate to appear as fiscally responsible as the coalition. This perhaps explains why experts place the two major parties closer together than do voters. The dividing lines appear to be more about what the parties choose to talk about rather than any great differences in policy. The main substantive difference between the two largest parties is the Conservatives aspiration to cut personal taxes in contrast to Labour’s prioritisation of spending on health and the slowing down of the marketization of the NHS. Unfortunately for Labour being too left-wing is not really Labour’s biggest problem. A much greater concern is Miliband’s personal ratings and the party’s tarnished reputation for handling the economy. Only one fifth of BES respondents think that the Economy would be getting better under Labour, and only a quarter give Miliband a positive leadership rating (Defined as a score of 6 or higher on an 11 point scale).  Moreover, given the unique circumstances of the 2015 Election, it is unlikely to be one in which a single traditional left-wing party competes with a single traditional right-wing party, and even if Labour and Conservative were the only options open to voters, Labour actually appear closer to the centre ground than their old rivals.

[1] Downs, Anthony (1957). An Economic Theory of Democracy. New York: Harper.

[2] In politics people sometimes talk of left and right. Where would you place yourself on the following scale?

[3] In politics people sometimes talk of left and right. Where would you place the following parties on this scale?

[4] The questions were not asked in 2010.