The Beckett Report: Seeing What We Want to See

By Louie Woodall / @LouieWoodall

Interpreting the Beckett Report has become akin to reading tea leaves in a two-bit psychic’s end-of-pier hovel: everyone sees what they want to see.

Many of us within Labour have leapt on the Report’s assertion that Labour did not lose because it was too left wing. To some, this vindicates completely and uncritically Labour’s current direction.

Of course, like most things in politics, things are not as black-and-white as all this, as the report itself makes clear. While Beckett admits that “many of our most ‘left wing’ policies were the most popular”, and that “an analysis by BES [British Election Survey] suggests that some of those who supported us would have been less likely to had they seen us as less left wing”, she also writes that Labour still lost left voters to the SNP and Greens, and haemorrhaged voters associated with the political centre ground.

What to make of this web of contradictions? First of all, that “left wing” does not recognise the distinction between ”left” and “left-of-centre”. Yes, the raw BES data on which Beckett’s findings are based, does show that the respondents who were most likely to vote Labour were those who saw the party as ‘on the left’. However, it also shows there was scant difference in the likelihood of voting Labour between someone who thought the party was very left wing, and someone who thought it sat just left of centre.

What to take from this? That Labour need not bawl out ‘The Internationale’ at every turn in order to win over those inclined to vote for a left wing government. Minute changes in political positioning are enough to shift perceptions of a party from the perspective of those outside the ‘Westminster bubble.’

Second of all, the findings show that ostensibly left voters do not provide a reliable foundation on which Labour can build a winning electoral coalition. The BES data shows that respondents on average identified Labour as fairly left wing – but the election recorded a bigger bump in the vote share for the Green Party, of +2.8%, than for Labour, at +1.5%.

Sickeningly, in Labour-Conservative marginal seats, those which Labour were desperate to hold on to, the Tories in fact gained a 0.74% share of those who had voted Green in 2010.

In Conservative-Labour marginal seats, which Labour had to win, the flow of Green voters to the Tories clocked in at 0.34%.

Essentially, in an election where Labour was broadly seen as left wing, the party was still unable to rally avowed left voters to its cause – and even lost some to the Tories.

Third and most important of all, the Beckett Report shows that so-called “popular” left wing policies do not win elections. This is the most inaccurate meme of the day.

Sure, nationalising the railways is popular. Sure, increasing the minimum wage is too. And yes – increasing the top rate of tax gets a big thumbs up from the British people.

But people do not vote for these things. They vote on the things they care most about. And those things are not nationalisation, higher wages, and tax reform.

How can I know this? Because Ipsos-Mori, the polling company, runs a monthly “Issues Index” where it collates answers to the question “What would you say is the most important issue facing Britain today?” and “What do you see as other important issues facing Britain today?”.

“Nationalisation/Government control of institutions” was considered an important issue by just 1% of respondents in May 2015. “Privatisation”, its corollary, scored a paltry 2%. “Taxation”, meanwhile, stirred the blood of a mere 8% of voters. And while low pay was branded the most important issue by 11% of respondents in the month of the election, this figure pales in comparison to the 40% who said “immigration” and the 44% who said “the NHS”.

Yes, the argument could be made that things like nationalisation and taxation could be conflated with the economy-at-large in such a survey, and that some of the 36% who said the “economy” was the most important issue meant to include things like rail nationalisation and tax reform – but that’s one hell of an assumption. I wouldn’t bet an election on it.

In addition, it’s important for us on the left to remember that people don’t vote for single policies – but for a coherent programme for government. If a single-issue “Nationalise the Railways” party put itself up for election in 2020, it would get creamed.

In fact, I don’t need a fantasy party to make my point. The National Health Action Party provides a living, (barely) breathing example. The single-issue party fielded 12 candidates in the 2015 general election, with each winning an average percentage vote share of – wait for it – 3.26%.

Individual policies do not turn a political party into a party of government. Individual, left wing policies especially so. The Beckett Report implores the party to think beyond the policy shopping list and focus on the big ticket items on which elections are won or lost: economic competence and national leadership. Unless Labour does so, it is doomed to irrelevance.



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