Friday, May 09, 2008

The Virtue of the Labour Party

I wrote recently on why Gordon Brown is politically doomed. Since then, things have got ever worse for him but I am still not sure the mainstream press quite understand why. They are all twittering on about his need for narrative or big ideas. This is rubbish. I explained earlier than Brown could never win the trust of the middle classes because they do not believe that he has their interests at heart (a belief which is, incidentally, 100% accurate).

So how can the Labour win elections and why did Tony Blair manage so well? Labour still has one priceless advantage over the Conservative Party. They are still perceived as fundamentally good. This is clear from the fact that even today people lie to pollsters about who they are going to vote for. The polls overstate Labour support and understate Conservative support consistently and continually. People just won’t admit to being anti-Labour because voting Labour is perceived as virtuous. Only You Gov, the internet pollster, gets the level of Conservative support right. Why? Because anonymously on-line people do things (for example looking at porn or admitting to supporting the Conservatives) that they would never do in public. Of course, in a secret ballot people don’t have to feel embarrassed about voting Conservative and Labour do correspondingly worse in real elections than in polls.

All this is common knowledge, but we can take the analysis a step further by noting that the middle classes actually want to be virtuous. As well as their material aspirations for conservatories, early retirement and luxury German cars, we aspire to be good. We feel better about ourselves if we can believe we are doing something for the less fortunate. A vote for Labour, in other words, is a kind of civic duty that allows the middle classes to feel that they have done their bit. And Labour still has that advantage, as all those people lying to opinion pollsters shows.

But there is a problem. The aspiration to virtue cannot override material desires. Only if people feel secure will they hanker after the spiritual goods that Labour can offer. With the economy looking shaky, it was always going to be hard for Labour (the Conservatives, conversely, can win when the economy looks bad, as they did in 1992, even if the economic problems were their own fault). But with the middle classes also deeply suspicious that Brown doesn’t care about them, Labour is in big trouble. Tony Blair made the middle classes a wonderful offer – painless virtue. They could feel good by voting Labour safe in the knowledge that it would cost them nothing.

The Labour Party doesn’t need a new narrative. It needs a new Tony Blair.

Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.

No comments: