The future of the left since 1884

The road from right to left

Politicians of all colours often talk about reaching out to all of Britain and to all Britons - but rarely does the British public see any evidence of it. There seems to be broad agreement among essayists - from George Orwell...


Politicians of all colours often talk about reaching out to all of Britain and to all Britons – but rarely does the British public see any evidence of it.

There seems to be broad agreement among essayists – from George Orwell on the left to Roger Scruton on the right – that the British are a conservative people accustomed to the Whig tradition of gradual change. For the median voter, at whom any political party must surely aim their policies if they seek electoral success, the default perspective on the world is to keep things broadly as they are, but if an impressionable leader and some good sensible progressive ideas come along, to take a gamble and run with them. These ideas must always be in tandem with the status quo, moulding existing conditions to changed needs. Labour’s three most successful leaders – Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson and Tony Blair were entirely in this tradition, at the time of their first election victories at least.

I have an unusual experience of British politics having been, until just after the last election, a Conservative, and a PPC for that party no-less. I was born and raised in the comfortable shires of middle England – born in Oxford and schooled in Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire. In the constituencies where I lived in as a child, which remained staunchly Conservative even in 1997, the young fall into an entrenched conservative mentality which, unsurprisingly, virtually every one of them accept. This applies to all social groups – even those living, say, in social housing. In an urban or even suburban area this group would be a natural constituency for Labour. But in the shires, they are blue.

For many reasons – I stood for a seat in Glasgow containing some of the most deprived housing estates in Europe and was shocked by what I saw; I worked in the City for six years after university, gaining an uncomfortable insight to the culture of Britain’s financial services sector; and by further exploration of political philosophy reached the conclusion I am progressive rather than conservative – I have spent the past two years transitioning to the left. I must be rare, as a delegate for my CLP and an ex-Conservative PPC, in having observed the mentality and operational functioning of Britain’s two largest political parties.

At this juncture it is important to note that the Conservative party in England is not really a political party at all. It is composed of small groups of activists, the vast majority of whom do not have ideas or seek the improvement of our nation, primarily because they come from places that do not need much improvement. The Conservative party serves a social function, and is above all safe. This safety – safe because it is for the most part bereft of ideas – translates into political success based on a faith that the Conservatives are the natural party of government.

This poses a problem for the Labour party, and it was ever thus. Before the strange death of liberal England it was the same for the Liberal party, and before them the Whigs. The impression that to vote Conservative is to be patriotic, since the Conservatives are the natural party of government, is common not only in rural England, Wales and Scotland, but in large and small provincial towns, and in a plethora of suburban constituencies too. Persuading voters out of their safe harbour of Toryism is not easy, although it is absolutely possible.

While my experience of the Conservative party is all bridge parties and bingos, the Labour party is resolutely a mass movement, democratic and process-driven. In meetings of CLPs there is a desk at the front filled with local party officials shuffling papers; motions are announced and points of order called. In one ward AGM I attended voting for the positions began at 7.30pm and ended just before midnight. I sometimes have to pinch myself to shake my disbelief. This is not to say either of these parties’ style is right or wrong – but they are manifestly different. Labour should surely use its organisational merits – which I might suggest are substantial – as a weapon if it is to defeat the cosy patch-and-mend philosophy of its opponents.

I do not buy the running view of the commentariat that the Labour party is finished, either in the forthcoming election or after. The left is already fed up with being deprived of power and so will organise; at the same time the British people will grow sick of Conservative government and seek leadership with progressive ideas: the electorate did so in 1906, in 1945, in 1964 and in 1997. Of course neither in the shires nor in marginal semi-urban seats, such as Gloucester or Milton Keynes, will this success fall into the laps of Labour. It must be earned. How might the Labour party do this?

Success in rural Britain begins and ends with Labour being what political scientist Sigmund Neumann cited as a party of ‘social integration’. New Labour, for all its faults real or perceived, was such a party. When this ended, when Labour decided to stop being a ‘catch-all party’ as it had been under Attlee, Wilson or Blair, floating voters drifted back to Conservatism. Leadership of course does matter and needs to reach out to to  those regions not accustomed to voting for progressive politics, if it is to have any hope of victory. There are, of course, some shire counties which will be forever blue: stockbroker belt Surrey, Buckinghamshire and Hampshire. But there are swathes of places, including the many seaside towns or large provincial centres, where there is a core Labour vote large enough to clinch the seat if Labour becomes a party of social integration once more.

Personality, acceptability and sentiment matter a lot; but ideas and policies do too, and probably equally as much. Some strategists I meet in Labour have a Cameron-type view of the world. That is to say, ideas and policies do not matter: the median voters cannot see beyond the end of their car bonnets. I am not convinced this was ever the case and these attitudes are as misguided as they are offensive. Labour’s victory in 1945 was absolutely about ideas and policies; as was the Liberals’ landslide in 1906 and Wilson’s victories in the 1960s. New Labour’s ideas came late, were a mixed bag and bequeathed a legacy that is now awkward to defend: an obsession with deregulation, a strange half nationalisation of the railways, and of course PFI. Labour won in 1997 because the Conservatives lost and they were led by a leader acceptable to desperate floating voters. New Labour was good on values – which it later struggled to define – but not on policies. It is not a model to emulate; 1945 and 1964 are.

A UK-wide vision must articulate policies aimed at the median voter, whether in Northampton, Wrexham or Stirling. Labour’s asset is that it remains the party of the public sector – and public services are still used by almost everyone, urban or rural. Polling consistently shows voters want the removal of private suppliers from the health service; they want a wholly publicly-owned railway. These are popular policies which need working through quickly if for a convincing manifesto. A new Beveridge report-style commission is sorely needed – what could be better to advertise the Labour party as a party of social integration?

Likewise Labour must not shun voters, haemorrhaging from its own core vote to Ukip, who  believe the British government owes a greater duty of care to its own citizens than it does those of any other country. Before a national vision is realised by the Labour party – something which, as a progressive party with ideas, is entirely within its gift – it must reconcile itself to a reality that never ended in the shires of England, but has since spread to constituencies be they in Labour’s industrial heartlands or the provincial towns the party needs to win if it is ever to form a government again. The Conservatives have recognised their ability to win floating voters on the immigration debate and, if polling is anything to go by, this is buoying their support on a rising tide.

In a world where a progressive government is needed more than ever to face the challenges of the future, Labour’s manifesto must present itself as a platform of coherent ideas with the median voter in mind: ‘small c’ conservatives, usually retreating to their safe harbour of Toryism, determine who governs Britain.


Oliver Lewis

Oliver Lewis is Labour Councillor for New Addington and co-runs the UK-wide campaign to Bring Back British Rail, for rail renationalisation.

Fabian membership

Join the Fabian Society today and help shape the future of the left

You’ll receive the quarterly Fabian Review and at least four reports or pamphlets each year sent to your door

Be a part of the debate at Fabian conferences and events and join one of our network of local Fabian societies

Join the Fabian Society
Fabian Society

By continuing to use the site, you agree to the use of cookies. more information

The cookie settings on this website are set to "allow cookies" to give you the best browsing experience possible. If you continue to use this website without changing your cookie settings or you click "Accept" below then you are consenting to this.