The Fabian Society’s latest report, which paints a doom-and-gloom picture of Labour’s chances at the next election, seems to have hit a nerve among the left’s most prominent commentators.
Surely this is because there’s some truth to it: the Fabians’ estimation that Labour will struggle to win even 200 seats backs up the other evidence out there (all to be consumed with a pinch of salt after last year’s car crash polling errors) that Labour has lost its heart, its soul, and its supporters.
At the Guardian, Owen Jones laments the findings, but argues that Labour’s problem is not one of policy, but rather of clarity. “Research suggests that voters don’t think Labour is too left wing,” he asserts, “…they just don’t know what the party stands for.”
My Google-searching leads me to think the research Jones refers to was by the IPPR, focused on Ed Miliband’s loss in 2015. Perhaps that was true then; after all, Jeremy Corbyn makes Miliband look like a radically-centrist, market-oriented saint by comparison. But it is a grave mistake to underestimate the extent to which the public is aware of Labour’s new left wing agenda – and the extent to which the public is rejecting it.
While there is support for quite a few of Corbyn’s policies – including a higher minimum wage and increased corporate tax rates – the top five most important issues facing Britain, according to polling by Ipsos MORI, are dominated by public policy areas where the Corbynite philosophy falls flat: immigration, the EU, and the economy. (The outlier is healthcare, which also consistently ranks highly and is an area where Labour is still thought to be more trusted by the public).
There is no ambiguity about Corbyn’s stances on these issues. On the economy, he and shadow chancellor John McDonnell have been upfront about their desired spending sprees. On the EU, Corbyn made no effort to hide his clear disdain towards the referendum and Labour has failed to take a clear position on Brexit subsequently – noticed by people on both sides of the aisle, for whom the issue is a near and dear one. And on immigration – where I happen to agree with Corbyn – the general sentiment towards free movement falls far from our glowing opinions of it.
Labour cannot blame its unpopularity on unclear messaging – but Labour is not alone in its struggle. While 2016 dealt a blow to the social democrats and socialists on the left, free marketeers on the right face problems of their own. Theresa May out-and-out rejected the libertarian right in her party conference speech in October, while her chancellor followed up a few weeks later with total abandonment of deficit reduction and fiscal prudence.
In the UK and in the US, governments are turning their backs on the migrants who contribute far more to tax revenues than they take out. And while the major players at the helm of the Brexit negotiations seem to be genuinely interested in securing free trade deals, in Trump’s America, there are rising concerns about the President-Elect’s desire for the country to become far more protectionist and inward-looking.
Perhaps free market policies haven’t been rejected as badly as Corbyn’s socialism (in the States there are whispers of serious tax and regulatory reforms that could greatly liberalise the economy), but the pro-capitalist, pro-globalist ideologies have been wrongly – and sometimes deliberately by our opponents – conflated with crony capitalism and the sell-out of the native labour force.
What can be done? The honest answer is that we must be better. There are clearly holes in the messaging of free marketeers, areas where we have failed to resonate with the public. We must use evidence, and conviction, and every other tool at our disposal to make a better case for why liberalism and capitalism make the world a more prosperous place. If we can make our case in a fresh, new, personalised way, I suspect that the overwhelming benefits of free societies and free markets will win the day.
We cannot pretend it will be easy. But if free marketeers take the same approach as Labour and hide behind excuses, we will face the same slide into irrelevance. We must both step up to be better. And then we can challenge each other, challenge our audiences – and present a real challenge to the status quo.