Perhaps not so great after all.

Photographer: Mary Turner/Getty Images

Labour's Lean to Left Spells Election Disaster

Matt Singh runs Number Cruncher Politics, a nonpartisan polling and elections site that predicted the 2015 U.K. election polling failure.
Read More.
a | A

Even before Jeremy Corbyn's landslide victory in the U.K. Labour Party leadership contest earlier this month, his potential to reach beyond Labour's base to parts of the electorate that didn't vote Labour in 2015 had been widely discussed. Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, with one eye on the radical wing of his own party, this week dismissed Corbyn as proof of Labour's "delight in losing." As one of the most left-wing leaders in Labour's history, Corbyn represents the party's most decisive move yet away from the center ground championed by Tony Blair and New Labour from the mid-1990s. Will it succeed?

QuickTake Britain's Multiparty Politics

Following Syriza's election victories in Greece and the ascent of Podemos in Spain, many on the left in Britain are hoping that Corbyn's victory is a harbinger of electoral gains. History, however, sounds a cautionary note.

Though the past isn't necessarily a guide to the future, we can learn from the historical relationship between political ideology and electoral performance. To do this, it's helpful to have an objective measure of a party's left-right positioning. One such resource is provided by the Manifesto Project Dataset of the Berlin Social Science Research Center (WZB), a comparative study of party platforms since the World War II. It includes a variety of variables, one of which is economic planning, to measure how socialist a party's policies are deemed to be:

From 1979 to 2010 (the most recent election for which the data is available) we can observe a -0.85 correlation between the Labour-Conservative policy gap on this measure, and the Labour-Conservative difference in vote share. In other words, Labour's electoral performance relative to its principal opponent (shown on the Y axis) has been 85 percent negatively correlated with how far it stands to the left of the Tories on economic issues (shown on the X axis), as measured by their respective manifestos at each election.

That history suggests hard-left policies are unlikely to be well-received by the electorate, albeit with important caveats. While a party's manifesto gives a strong indication of its positioning, it may not tell the whole story. In 1997 and 2001, for example, the study rates Labour's manifestos as even less socialist than those of the Conservatives -- likely reflecting a particular emphasis by New Labour on a more market-oriented stance, as it fought to build credibility on its stewardship of the economy. Additionally, perceptions of a party and its leader can differ, and the context is often important, too.

Nevertheless, the evidence does support the theory that a more centrist Labour platform on economic matters has tended to go hand-in-hand with success at the ballot box.

Running from the wings, rather than the center, has also proved unsuccessful for oppositions on the right. In the years following their disastrous 1997 defeat, the Tories under William Hague and later Iain Duncan Smith campaigned on traditional right-wing issues such as immigration and Europe. This continued after voters delivered a second landslide defeat in 2001, culminating in Duncan Smith being ousted as leader in mid-term, after a little more than two years.

A further consideration, given Britain's first-past-the-post electoral system, is that parties targeting their core supporters, rather than unaligned voters, quite often find themselves winning in safe seats but falling short in closer contests. In 2005, Tony Blair won a comfortable 66-seat majority despite a historically low share of winning votes because those 9.6 million votes were in exactly the right constituencies. Labour-voting moderates turned out in sufficient numbers in smaller cities and market towns in areas such as the Thames Estuary and English Midlands, even though they stayed home in Labour's traditional heartlands. In 2015, Ed Miliband's support followed precisely the opposite pattern, and Labour lost heavily.

The ideological distance between Corbyn and some of his MPs creates a conundrum for some on the right of the party. Many are hugely loyal to Labour and will feel that the best place from which to pursue moderate center-left goals is from within the party, with a longer-term aim of retaking control of the party (perhaps later in the current parliament if Corbyn's agenda yields poor results in mid-term elections).

There also have been suggestions that some moderate Labour MPs might defect to other parties, or even create a new center-left party. There is a precedent for this. In 1981, following the election of left-winger Michael Foot to the Labour leadership, a "Gang of Four," swiftly followed by others, quit Labour to set up the Social Democratic Party, which fought elections in the 1980s in a centrist pact with the Liberals.

The failure of the Liberal/SDP Alliance to break the two-party mold, under what were arguably more favorable circumstances than exist today, can be explained in a large part by the electoral system, which tends to penalize both smaller parties and those whose support is evenly spread across the country. This is still very much the case today, as illustrated by the failure of UKIP, with about 13 percent of the vote, and the Green Party, with 4 percent, to win more than a single seat each at the May election.

Thus Labour moderates, however dismayed they may be by Corbyn's victory, might wish to think carefully before jumping ship.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Matt Singh at matt@singh.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Mark Gilbert at magilbert@bloomberg.net