Monday, April 14, 2008

Why do people vote Labour?

This May 1st literally millions of people are going to vote Labour. A party set up over one hundred years ago to represent the interests of the working class but who have, in government, overseen war, privatisation, the criminalisation of the poor, the erosion of civil liberties and increasing favouritism towards the super rich.

My theory is this, and correct me if I'm wrong, that you essentially have four main camps.

Firstly we have the traditional Labour voter. They vote Labour to defend the NHS, for better housing, for more social justice. These are not (on the whole) stupid people, despite the fact that it looks difficult to square this particular circle. They've voted Labour all their lives and they have not yet reached that moment where they finally make the break with "their" party - although Christ knows there have been plenty of opportunities.

I voted Labour in every election local, parliamentary and European from '89 (when I first voted) right up to and including the magnificent victory on May 1st 1997. I don't even regret it. Since then I think I've voted Labour twice - on both occasions in local elections where I've personally known the candidate and there was nothing better on the table. I did not do it with delight, but I don't feel shame either.

For me the shock came early. I had absolutely no illusions in Blair or the Labour Party but when the Kosovo war happened there was a moment that can be defined as the difference between knowing something in theory and knowing it in practice. It's like being hit by a policeman - you know it happens but when it does you still think "This should NOT be happening!" and, of course, "Ow!"

Others found their break latter, often in strange places that we've all conveniently forgotten. How many Labour members left over the attempts of Labour to stitch up the London Mayoral election of 2000 or the Welsh leadership election not long before? That's all the mists of time to me but for hundreds, maybe even thousands of people out there that was the moment they said "to hell with it, I'm tearing up my party card."

It is incredible that there are still people of this ilk hanging in there. I know in my heart of heart it is just a matter of time before they also leave the party. Maybe over some local council fiasco, maybe over some new bombing campaign, who can say, but leave they will. I know that some still believe it is possible to reclaim Labour - but I just don't see it happening.

The second group are people who, in other times, would be Tories. Some Labour Party branches are made up exclusively of this sort. They didn't just tolerate Blair to get elected, they believed in Blair with evangelical zeal. Depending on which side their career is buttered they'd be happy to join the Tories or Lib Dems should political fortunes turn that way. At least that's what group one hope!

The third group are those who have a local loyalty. They despise the national party but Cllr Dubbins is a lovely fella who really cares about the people in the ward and works ever so hard. And most of the time that's totally true. As I say I've voted for the Dubbins' in the past myself. The problem of course is that your vote for local gas and water socialism also feeds into legitimising a systematic bias towards the owners of the gas and water rather than the users.

That's a problem. It's why socialists end up voting against Jeremy Corbyn because, whilst they admire him, they cannot put a cross next to the box with the government logo. I'm thankful it's not a decision I'll have to make.

The last group are the addicts. The worst aspect of old Labour if you will. Not politically principled but politically tribal. Ethical foreign policy or selling arms to the Saudis? Its all jam to them as long their team's in power. When they say "you have to support Labour or the Tories get in" it isn't a fear of the "return" of Thatcherite policies but a loss of their expenses chits and their much undeserved feeling of self importance. When I hear that phrase wheeled out I always look for the quality of their suit to see where they are coming from.

There's so much focus on how Labour's vote is in decline, and it's true they very much have the appearence of yesterday's men (and women). What's fascinating to me is why people continue to vote Labour despite it all. Whilst I have sympathy with all of the above categories (and there are probably more, like "went to school with the candidate" which I came across at the weekend) I suspect they are doing little with their vote to further a progressive and fresh way of doing things.


scott redding said...

There are times when I wonder when non-Blairites will leave Labour. A great number were holding on for years, literally, waiting for Gordon Brown, and I think they're getting shock after shock (whether it's British Jobs for British Workers, or Trident, or nook-lur power, or 48 day detention, or staying in Iraq, or these ludicrous ideas around Army cadets, or city academies sticking around, or his avalanche of reviews and sheer dithering).

neil h said...

After the Thatcher years in 1997 there was such a sense of optimism and hope for the future, and I know I felt that maybe for once politics might make a difference for ordinary people. When I realised that new labour were pretty much the same as the the tories, if not worse, it was like being kicked in the teeth.

dearieme said...

Haven't you overlooked the client groups?

donpaskini said...

The underlying assumption of your analysis seems to be that everyone follows day to day politics as closely as you (and I) do. They don't. (I think your categorisation works a bit better if you are talking about Labour activists).

There are, for example, a lot of people who spent years unemployed while the Tories were in charge, but have been in work since 1997. Or people whose wages have gone up since the minimum wage or tax credits were introduced. Not to mention those who were already doing alright in 1997, and are even better off now.

There are lots of pensioners (particularly in the North of England) who have more disposable income because of Pension Credit than they have ever had during their working lives. Or parents who are getting extra child benefits and services like Sure Start.

Wages for public sector workers like nurses have gone up in real terms over the last ten years. Lots of people have come to the UK from all over the world, and found it a good place to live and raise a family. (The strongest Labour supporters that I ever found was when I canvassed a household of nurses from Sierra Leone).

Then there are people who care passionately about particular issues and feel that Labour have done the right thing, such as animal welfare or civil partnerships.

This isn't saying 'everything the government has done is great'. But there are still a lot of people who don't follow the political news closely but feel that they and their families have done alright since Labour have been in power. That includes a lot of people who haven't even heard of the Green Party.

Jim Jay said...

Neil: "After the Thatcher years in 1997" one of my great shames is that I feel sorry for John Major, the forgotten PM. Everyone poses it like this first Thatcher then Blair - Major was in power for years and everything - bless him, cough.

dearieme: I think you'll need to expand on that "point"

don: I don't think I've assumed that everyone follows politics closely and I should have stated in the post I don't think those four groups are of equal size.

I think we'd be underestimating people if we think, say, traditional labour voters had not noticed the war.

That said I think you're main point is right that the key thing is whether people are happier or not, whether their lives are better. I'm not sure we should be too complacent about that (not that I have to be of course).

I do think the economic situation last year was better than '96 in lots of ways - but I also think that people know there are real problems coming and are worried for the future. I'm not sure that people have great faith in Gordon Brown anymore either.

i could go on at greater length but don't want to hog the discussion such a quick one "That includes a lot of people who haven't even heard of the Green Party" Absolutely - although most people have probably heard that there is such a thing there are large swathes of the country where it is an abstraction at best.

Ed said...

Maybe there are 2 more groups?

1) Those who genuinely think (whether after deep reflection of not) that New Labour is, more or less, the best that we could hope for - a post-Thatcherite TINA sort of situation in which the Labour Party does the best it can (more or less) within the constraints of modern 'political and economic realities'.

2) The sincere Blairites - those who really think that neo-liberalism, privatisation, free markets etc etc really work in the interests of the majority and can be made compatible with ( a narrow sort of) social justice.

1 and 2 are quite similar, I suppose, but 1 is a bit more resigned to the best of a bad lot, whereas 2 is more enthusiastic.

DBX said...

So, how about Livingstone vs. Johnson? It seems to me that this isn't so much about Labour versus Tory or central conflated with local, as it is about someone who has extremely forcefully delivered many policies, public transport in particular, against someone who is an extreme ignoramus on local government and thinks the Routemaster is still a state-of-the-art vehicle.

I can see why people have an issue with the "extremely forcefully" aspect of Livingstone. But really, does it make sense to roll the dice on someone who is committed to extending National Rail's privatised dysfunction to TfL just because you want to poke Gordon Brown and the rest of NuLabor® in the eye?

No, for me, it's Mr. "My Way Or The Highway" for four more years, or until the Tories can find a proper LOCAL politician for London, and I'll save the tough love at the ballot box for consigning the national part of NuLabor® to the oblivion it so richly deserves.

Phil said...

I think Don's half-right - there are people, more or less in your Old Labour category, who despair of Labour and hate much of what this government does, but still suppport the Labour Party they vote for. Being unwilling to vote Green and physically unable to vote Lib Dem also helps.

(This isn't me, by the way - I'm voting Green in the council elections. But I'll be pissed off if the Lib Dem gets in.)

MikeS said...

I wasn't expecting much from the Lab govt post 97, but even my low expections were dashed. Within months, I started to become more and more disillusioned with Lab.

The final straw was the the Iraq war, when I just couldn't stomach them anymore. Painful as it was, I just had to make the break.

In a way, NuLab did me a favour, as I am now happily a member of the Green Party. Onwards and upwards.

Pippa said...

I canvassed a woman in her 50s or 60s last night who is not voting Labour for the first time in her life (she's voting Green :-) ).

That base is being chipped away at bit by bit....

MJW said...

Perhaps you have a romantic view of who the working class actually are, and what their real interests are? The term “working class” seems increasingly conflated with people whose defining characteristic is that they don’t work; these people are quite different in their culture and interests from those people who do work. Although we’re still some way off an explicit acknowledgement from socialist politics, the implicit acknowledgement via policy is that the barriers to “social justice” are no longer from without, but are from within.

pegboard said...

I'm trying to understand why people vote labour and your post is very interesting. I remember watching a man say he would (vote Labour) yet when asked why, and having each of his reasons statistically rubbished - schools, hospitals, social equality 9that was an interesting one - trying to explain the problems welfare causes people who do work to someone who has no wish to work) the gentleman continued to insist he would vote Labour because they were "the party of the working man".

This falacy just is not true. In fact, they're the party of the not-working man. Surely people should only vote on the basis of capitalist sensibilities.

It is irrational for people to just vote as they have always done so. Any decision of that magnitude should not be left to dogmatic ideology. If history were any consideration Labour would not exist as a party and socialism as a construct would be relgated to the dustbin of stupid ideas.

Green Gordon said...

Genius. Labour are socialist and falacies are not true.