Sunday, March 08, 2009

What do Labour members think?

Luke mentioned a recent survey conducted for Compass on the opinions of Labour Party members so I thought I'd have a quick look to see what state the party membership was in after eleven years of power.

The poll, which gathered the opinions of 907 party members, makes for very interesting reading. Now it's been clear that the Labour Party itself has not had a significant hard left presence for some time (no disrespect to those worthy few who are still sticking it out) so it was with interest to see that of the members taking part in the survey 11% thought of themselves as the most left wing it was possible to be.

Admittedly that is not as many as those who didn't think of themselves as on the left at all but an initially positive figure for those of us of the sinister disposition. However, I suspect this is some new free form use of the term very left wing that I've not come across before.

The survey asked about the performance of various top ranking government Ministers. Those who described themselves as very left wing were the most loyal to ministers than any other grouping. I find it rather curious that the very left wing members of the party were the most enthusiastic for Brown, Darling, Smith, Miliband and Harman. Even Peter Mandelson was the most favoured by this group with 26% saying he was performing "very well" (the highest of any group and 6% higher than for the total survey all together).

Young members were twice as likely as their elders to describe themselves as very left wing which, I have to say, I'm interpreting as the younger the Labour Party member the less likely they are to know what very left wing means as they are also the biggest enthusiasts for Peter Mandelson.

Labour's anti-capitalist current

When asked about capitalism a whopping 13% of Labour members thought it should be abolished altogether with many others saying it should be reformed (carefully or radically) with just 9% saying that it should be left as it is or they didn't know. I look forward to the next manifesto.

In fact there are some parts of the survey that do reflect the traditional left to right axis. If someone has told you they want to abandon capitalism they are more likely to describe themselves as hard left and if a party member says they think capitalism generates prosperity and should be left alone they are most likely to describe themselves as in the centre or on the right.
However, before we get all dizzy I should point out that 12% of those who described themselves as on the right or in the centre thought capitalism should be abandoned. I'm only thankful there's no question as to what they'd like to replace it with.

Actually this is of a piece with some of the other findings. For instance the right were more likely to want an outright ban bankers' bonuses than any other group, 73% of the (self identified) right supported windfall taxes and more than half opposed even a limited sell off of the Post Office. Talking of which 14% of Labour's "far left" thought that either full or partial Post Office privatisation should take place.

What's left?

Now, I'm certainly not saying that people should just stay in their boxes and so I believe a bit of deviation from type is a healthy and good thing but frankly if you describe yourself as on the hard left whilst thinking Jacqui Smith is performing very well and that we should sell off the entirety of the Post Office (going well beyond anything publicly advocated by any cabinet member) then you're wrong. You are not very left wing but rather you are very confused and silly.

This is why it's important to know the content of what someone thinks before taking their word for what their political position is I suppose. If someone describes themselves as a feminist you still don't know what they think about war, porn, sex workers, abortion or who should do the washing up for example. Personally I find the labels people give themselves to be almost completely unhelpful at times.

The most interesting thing about this poll is what Labour members think of their own politics and how out of whack it really is when compared to the other political positions they hold. By my reading those who describe themselves as 'fairly left' at least appear to have the best understanding of their own politics and have kept their heads whilst everyone else has spun away. It's a shame there aren't more questions on policy as I'd be interested to see the break down of responses on the environment, nuclear power, Afghanistan and civil liberties, for example.

But that's not what the poll was about. It looks like Compass commissioned the report in the hope that it would prod the leadership to sound more left, but without influencing actual policy in any significant way. Unfortunately for them (and maybe us too) the most disappointed group are those who think of themselves as on the right of the party - which is rather inconvenient for the sponsors of the poll.


Strategist said...

Sounds like poor old Compass's survey has been well and truly sabotaged by young New Labour hack japesters. Nasty little bunch of creeps they are. Maybe the experience will teach Compass a little bit more about what they are dealing with.

My own view - Labour in opposition is non-viable as a single party. The New Labour zealots would destroy the party before letting the "centre left" of Compass etc take control.

Jim Jepps said...

Well, I suspect there will be a crisis in the Labour Party as soon as the sack of government is removed from the Labour potatoes... but I don't believe Compass will be an obstacle simply because they are wet enough to be digested by any serious political tendency and one of the many Blairite tendency's talents is their chameleon like ability to accomodate any idea that helps them gain power.

I suspect there will be a vicious faction fight but also probably a good deal of defection to the Tories by those Labour members who were never Labour in the sense we would understand it anyway.

It's speculation of course and I think the exact character of the problems will depend on the size of the defeat Labour faces.

donpaskini said...

Interesting, but always tricky dealing with small sub-samples.

e.g. 96 people defined themselves as 'very left wing', so about 6 people said that they were very left wing and wanted to privatise the post office - not sure it is possible to draw many conclusions about the state of the left in the Labour Party from that.

Similarly, fewer than 20 people defined themselves as 'fairly' or 'very right-wing'.

Jim Jepps said...

I think that's a goodd point to bear in mind Don and it's why I always try to include links to the source data so people can check this stuff for themselves.

Having said that in the very left category that was 6 people who wanted full privatisation (sell off the lot) another 8 who wanted partial privatisation (plus 2 don't knows) - that is actually quite a lot of people squaring the political circle in my view.

But you're right to be particularly skeptical of the sub sets.

I'm still scared by the fact that the lefties were the most loyal group to Brown and co.

Anonymous said...

nobody asked me

donpaskini said...

Thinking about this further, one possible and partial explanation about the apparent contradictions here runs as follows:

Take two examples, firstly an older person who has been active in the Labour Party and wider leftie campaigns for 30-odd years could self-define as 'centrist' because s/he is not a revolutionary socialist (unlike many of the people that they know and are friends with). As a 'centrist', they still want to abolish capitalism, but through parliamentary means or whatever.

Whereas a younger person who has recently joined the Labour Party might well be the only politically active person in their friendship group, or have the experience that most of their friends, acquaintances, parents etc. are Tories or whatever. Hence they would probably self-define as 'very left-wing', even when that means in policy terms thinking that Jacqui Smith is doing a good job or that if the government says that privatising the Post Office will deliver a better service, then fair enough.

(These are hypotheticals, but I've met plenty of examples of each).

I don't actually think that makes them 'very confused and silly', and I actually think it is counter-productive to write them off in this way.

donpaskini said...
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donpaskini said...
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Jim Jepps said...

Mark - you can tell us what you think now if you like - how Mandelson doing in your opinion :)

Don - well I was being cheeky with my confused and silly, I have to blow off steam sometimes I'm not actually writing off anyone I meet.

Those who put themselves on softish left seemed to have a better grasp and more reasonable politics in my view. But yes, I had considered that the young activists might not have any left role models with which to compare themselves and therefore might have an exagerated idea about how radical they are.

That's why it's a shame there wasn't more policy questions as without them the capitalism question is just so abstract.

The Provisional BBC said...

I also think there's a serious problem when doing a survey of members of a political party in that the tendency to second-guess how the results will be used goes up massively.

For example, I would likely answer fairly left-wing & abandon capitalism. But I wouldn't want to give results that would be used to create leadership speculation, so I would err on the side of being more rather than less favourable to the leadership.

Most of the results on specific policy issues were roughly what I would expect. The only one that wasn't was welfare reform - I suspect the reason is that most Labour Party members sadly don't know very much about it.