Why Non-voters Would Not Flock to Corbyn

There is a common misconception driving much of Corbyn’s support amongst Labour members. To many it seems obvious that those that don’t vote would unquestionably vote for Labour under Corbyn. This is wrong; Labour’s experience of the 1980s, the rise of UKIP, and simple polling data provide a conclusive and almost universally overlooked case for resisting the temptation to become a radically left wing social club.

When Labour lost in 1979, the party began soul searching. Thatcher, a radical new politician that stood against everything those on the left and the right of the Labour party believed in, won an overwhelming majority. Feelings of anger and a siege mentality saw Labour swing to the left, selecting Foot and Kinnock as Labour’s leaders under Thatcher. Both leaders lost woefully.

Labour was lulled into the same sense of security throughout the 80s as Corbyn’s supporters today. Becoming an extremist party encourages fanatical support, a feeling of revolution, and an insular outlook. People within the party wholeheartedly believed that they were more popular than Thatcher’s Tories, because those that agreed with them would go to the ends of the earth to support them. The party clung to the idea that people liked some of Labour’s polices, and overlooked the fact that people were more than capable of agreeing with a handful of policies while still vehemently disliking the idea of a radical left wing government.

Contrary to popular belief, far-left Labour did a lot of harm. Rather than hold Thatcher to account, a radical Labour allowed Thatcher to swing further to the right without proper accountability. In doing so, the centre of British politics forever shifted. Now middle England believes in whole or in part in a broad free market, and in a neo-liberal future.

The assumption that a radical left wing Labour party could do better than a radically left wing Labour party during the 1980s, before the centre ground was so securely dragged forever away from the left, hinges on a severe misunderstanding of May’s general election results. Its lazy analysis, if you can even call it analysis, to suggest that non-voters are universally Labour at heart.

May taught Labour a few things. Arguably that Labour can’t win while alienating middle England, but maybe we should ignore that one. Much more importantly, it taught us that the very same non-voters that advocates for a radically left wing Labour have claimed for decades only needed an excuse to vote Labour became UKIP’s core vote. UKIP being, according to its leader, the UK’s ‘only real Thatcherite party’ it serves as proof that the electorate aren’t as simplistic and tribal as some politicians would like to imagine.

The vast majority of these first-time-in-a-decades voters came out for UKIP. Of those, the vast majority actually have roughly neo-liberal views on economics, roughly libertarian views on the state’s role in their life, and right wing views on things like justice, defence and Europe.

Alarmingly for lazy political theorists, amazingly for democracy, this is a symptom of a very important development. Today’s voter doesn’t treat their political party like a football team, supporting them no matter what, blindly following or ready to come back and sing from the terraces whenever something exciting happens. Today’s voter has complicated views and actually needs convincing, rather than reminding.

There are no quick wins. Roughly the same proportion of voters and non-voters actually trust politicians. Less than half of non-voters cite either politicians ‘all being the same’ or say what they believe isn’t represented by politicians, with only 17% of non-voters claiming they don’t vote because politicians don’t represent their views. Of course, of non-voters who don’t feel candidates represent their views, not all of them are left wing. With the collapse of the far right, there were actually around 100 more constituencies without a far right candidate than without a hard-left TUSC candidate (with TUSC only receiving 0.1% of the popular vote). Moreover, an awful lot of people hold unconventional political views that cannot be covered by the left or the right.  

No matter what the results of any vague polls (knowing after May’s election to wary of narrow speculative polls), there is no guarantee that any of Labour’s potential leaders can actually convince red UKIP to go Labour. Certainly to say a radically left wing Labour leader can is tenuous at best.

Labour today risk making the mistakes of the 1980s. Focussing on the few, and becoming the party for the few hard-line Socialists still out there, Labour risk alienating the middle and frankly wasting time trying to convince complex non-voters that they’re a simple made up statistic. And, as it feels I need to keep shouting, there is no virtue in consistent heavy defeat. Without a strong centre-left Labour party, the Conservatives can do what they want.