British Conservatives have, in recent years, been very lucky in our opponents. The opposition Labour Party was led first by Ed Miliband, and then by Jeremy Corbyn. Neither had substantial public appeal, and both failed to address the structural weaknesses faced by the Labour Party, in particular the party’s isolation from public opinion on the associated issues of immigration and identity. Miliband struggled to connect with the public, and stuck with several deeply unpopular policies. Corbyn managed to go further, making Miliband look like a second Machiavelli. If the current trajectory continues, the next leader of the Labour Party is likely to be some bloke in a V for Vendetta mask.
There is however a danger that incompetent Labour leadership will lead to Conservative complacency, particularly regarding the popularity of some of Labour’s economic policies. Both Miliband and Corbyn promoted certain left-wing economic populist ideas that are, objectively, quite popular with the general public. Their defeats and poor poll ratings occurred despite these policies, not because of them. As such Conservatives shouldn’t delude themselves about the popularity of the current economic model. A well-led Labour Party, which changed to reflect public opinion on issues like immigration and defence, could beat the Conservatives on a left-wing economic platform.
One of the biggest myths in British politics is that public opinion exists as a ‘centre-ground’, somewhere between the positions of the Conservative and Labour Parties. But on a number of issues, notably immigration, law and order and terrorism polling suggests that public opinion leans to the right of both the Labour and Conservative parties. A YouGov poll from 2015 found that 54% of the public supported ‘a total ban on immigration into Britain for the next two years’, a position to the right of UKIP’s 2015 manifesto.
Conversely, on certain economic issues public opinion is quite a bit to the left of both the Conservative party and the Blairite wing of the Labour Party. As a result some of the populist economic policies advocated by Miliband and Corbyn, which I believe would damage the national economy, score well with the public. Miliband advocated rent controls, which economist Assar Lindbeck described as the best technique for destroying a city ‘except for bombing’, a freeze of gas and electricity prices, and an increase in the top rate of tax to 50%. Polls showed that these measured had the support of 60%, 63% and 61% of the population respectively. Corbyn has gone further still, advocating the renationalisation of the railways, which around 58% of the public support, and last week announced (imprecise) proposals for a cap on boardroom pay. The announcement was typically chaotic, with Corbyn initially appearing to be proposing a maximum wage before backtracking to something approaching a ratio, but my suspicion is that the policy itself will prove popular.
Considering the appeal of some of their economic populism, Conservatives should be grateful that the Labour Party has had such unpopular leaders, and has refused to reflect public opinion on a number of key issues in recent years. Miliband’s personal ratings were consistently below Cameron’s, whilst Corbyn’s approval rating is currently at 14%, well below Theresa May on 47%. Indeed Corbyn currently has a lower approval rating than May amongst people who voted Labour in 2015, which admittedly takes a special political talent.
Labour has spectacularly failed to represent public opinion on a number of electorally significant issues, primarily immigration, law and order, and defence. At a time when the majority of the public back significantly reduced immigration, Corbyn decided to visit the Calais migrant camp, and argue that its inhabitants should be given asylum in the UK. I doubt he would have behaved any differently if he was being remotely controlled by CCHQ. Moreover some of Corbyn’s defence suggestions, such as keeping the Trident submarine fleet but getting rid of the missiles, are beyond ridiculous.
To sum up: Conservatives should note that the current unpopularity of the Labour Party doesn’t reflect a rejection of left-wing economic populism, or support for the current economic model. Many of the economic policies advocated by Miliband and Corbyn have been genuinely popular. The Labour Party has been held back by the poor quality of its leadership, and its refusal to represent public opinion on issues such as immigration. Both these factors could change, and if they do Labour could find that its populist economic policy becomes electorally successful.