by Nick Wright
Most people in Britain want the energy sector — gas, oil, electricity, renewable — in public ownership. This includes a majority of Conservative voters.
A clear majority want the railways nationalised.
Most people prefer the postal service to be in public hands.
Opposition to the privatisation of the National Health Service is overwhelming, while the Tories and Lib Dems fear their brand is toxic on the question. This is why the Lib Dems are serving up a rhetorical smokescreen to hide their complicity in creeping NHS privatisation and why Tories – like communities secretary Eric Pickles on Any Questions recently — present themselves as partisans of the NHS.
A year ago now a YouGov poll for the union-backed think-tank Centre for Labour and Social Studies (CLASS) showed the way opinion was moving.
A solid two-thirds favour a nationalised railway system, 67% back a publicly owned Royal Mail, 68% opt for nationalised energy and a towering 84% want the NHS publicly run.
A dirigiste mood has the public firmly in its grip. Three quarters want a government-imposed price cap on energy costs, 72% favour government control of fares, nearly a half want government control of private sector rents while more than a third favour government controls on food and groceries.
The public service ethos is remarkably deep rooted and wide ranging. According to another YouGov survey, this time for the National Union of Teachers, 84% of parents are against state schools being run for profit.
Even on housing the damage that Thatcher’s ‘right-to-buy’ bribe inflicted on the idea of collective housing solutions has diminished as one generation cashed in on the deal only to find their kids priced out of the market.
Now a half think social housing should stay in the public sector against a diminishing third who remain content for the private sector to have a hand. All credit to the Brighton Greens who have proposed a block on council house sales in order to safeguard the remaining social housing and for pointing out that the sales policy has diminished the chances for local people to fid housing in their own neighbourhood.
Translated into government policy a programme that reflected these preferences would begin to match the kind of collectivist solutions that characterised the post war period when Britain’s deficit — the price we paid for the material costs of the alliance with the Soviet Union and the US that defeated the fascist powers — and which dwarfs the deficit that currently mesmerises the Labour Front bench.
The public policy debate, reflected in the dominant narrative in parliament — reinforced and sustained by the mainstream media — almost totally excludes serious debate about public entrepreneurship and ownership to focus on a bipartisan obsession on the part of the elite with an unending austerity programme to pay the costs of the bankers bailout.
It is a diminishing memory now, but the single event that gave salience to the subterranean tsunami of collectivist and anti-austerity opinion was Ed Miliband’s proposal to freeze energy prices for 20 months.
With this modest proposal it was if the Labour leader had found the magic ingredient that turns the base metal of the political gridlock into political gold. Ed Miliband found his voice and millions of British people heard it as an echo of their own thoughts.
Fast forward to this dismal season and the moment of magic is gone. Labour’s media operation limply triangulates to the right on social and economic policy both with Ed Balls neither able nor willing to find space between his policy and that of the chancellor. Ed Miliband is strangely detached from his party’s internal discourse on economic policy yet unwilling or unable to articulate an alternative policy or find a new tribune.
So Ed Balls stays in post — the empty echo of Gordon and Gideon – while other members of the Shadow Treasury team hesitantly seek tiny policy tweaks that might give the appearance of an alternative strategy.
The new polycentrism that makes voting less a tribal ritual and more a reality opinion poll has significant groups of voters able to go al la carte with SNP, Plaid, Green and UKIP all credible alternative destinations for a protest vote that, unlike in previous elections, might affect the actual composition of the next government.
It is entirely possible that the next administration could include ministers from any of these parties while it is not improbable that either a Tory or Labour minority administration would depend on parliamentary support on a supply basis from these parties or any of the Northern Ireland parties that take their seats.
Tories too can triangulate — as the new slimline Pickles amply demonstrates. While there are limits to the Conservatives ability to mask the harsh reality of their policies every Labour concession to the market mentality, every echo of the Tories’ privatising agenda, every squeak of unquestioning loyalty to the IMF/EU/World Bank orthodoxy gives the government parties room to manoeuvre.
The effect of Cameron’s concession to the UKIP offensive is striking. When the prime minister announced that an incoming Tory government would hold a referendum on membership of the European Union he imagined that this would take the wind out of UKIP’s sails.
It has done exactly the opposite with every speech, every rushed government measure, adding legitimacy of sorts to UKIP and giving extra salience to the issue.
Labour’s confused thinking on the issue has been thrown into sharp relief by the public unveiling of an idiotically inept candidates briefing which instructed Labour’s legions to move on from the subject of immigration when it came up on the doorstep.
As the party slinks one step behind the Tories on the issue you despair of Labour’s campaign and media team which, on this issue as on the Scottish referendum, think it sensible to narrow the gap between their party’s policies and Tories’.
There is an increased spectrum of complications that foul the ground for those in Labour’s team that cling still to these outmoded triangulation tactics. Chief among these is the visibility of the migration issue. This is an area where suddenly there is less of a disconnect between the issues that grip the public and those over which the Westminster/Whitehall bubble now obsess over.
One way of looking at the issue locates UKIP as a lightning conductor for deep seated chauvinist and racist attitudes to immigration. There is undoubtedly a large element of this in the mix. But it may be more productive to see the rise of UKIP as an expression of more direct economic questions in which the entry of skilled and unskilled migrant workers into a labour market characterised by low pay, zero hours contracts, part time working and precarious job security stands as a symbolic representation of a loss of working class leverage.
Labour’s continuing failure the challenge the Tory anti trade union laws that it originally opposed when out of government but failed to repeal when in office is an issue that continues to resonate among trade unionists.
Miliband’s modest proposal to sanction employers who pay migrant workers lower rates of pay shows a glimmer of imagination. More of this kind of stuff would begin to detoxify the migration issue and focus attention on the cost of living, low wages, rising prices, zero hours jobs, rocketing rents, youth unemployment and lack of affordable housing. All issues where there should be clear red water between Labour and the government parties.
The ways in which class position and political perceptions are increasingly disconnected is illustrated in the Independent on Sunday poll that shows many voters see UKIP to the left of the Conservatives.
Although it remains a highly unstable vehicle for popular discontent UKIP has disrupted the cosy consensus and in the absence of a clear appeal to the progressive trend in popular opinion by Labour its populist slogans and the promiscuity it displays in adopting and abandoning policies gives its a passing appeal.
Here is the paradox. The IoS poll invited respondents to place parties and politicians on a left right spectrum. The average voter (or rather the respondents to this survey) is thus positioned somewhere to the right of Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems while Labour and Ed Miliband is positioned to the left with the Greens and Russell Brand out on a left wing limb.
That voters apparently see themselves as occupying the middle ground while the (undoubtedly common sense) policies they want implemented are objectively quite a way out on the left of the spectrum is a factor that seems to have escaped Labour’s team.
They are like field marshals fighting the last war but one.
In this new situation elections are not won by triangulating around the concerns of the average Tory voter but by an appeal that maximises the number of voters who can be won to a distinctive position.
If a decisive majority of people in Britain hold views, that in effect, are significantly to the left of those articulated by any of the mainstream parties a Labour strategy that triangulates around a point to the right is a losing strategy.
The crude triangulation tactics that New Labour favoured have thus lost their utility as vote winners.
Labour’s electoral base is increasingly detached from the party; more affected by mass abstention, particularly in working class areas and increasingly willing, indeed enthusiastic about alternatives.
A programme grounded on the idea that nothing must be done to alarm middle class and swing voters in a limited number of swing seats and that the working class base of the party’s electoral support has nowhere else to go has had its day.
The model is broken. Yet this New Labour reflex, which is grounded in a complete capitulation to the neo liberal agenda and to the assumption that Britain’s relationship to the USA and the EU is free of contradictions, is now a barrier to Labour winning a mandate to govern.
Labour needs a policy that challenges the dominant discourse in ways that connect to the increasingly settled views of the British people on the key economic issues. Such as policy is more easily found in the conference decision of the trade unions, in the programme of the People’s Assembly Against Austerity and in the minds of millions of working people.