Is Bennism a viable electoral strategy for Labour?

30 Apr 2018


Electoral strategy is, to coin a phrase, downstream from politics. And much like the ideological divide between Labour’s two factions, the differing sides have their own theories when it comes to electoral strategy.


This difference in strategy is most obvious when you compare New Labour’s flagship political broadcasts to the ones put out by Corbyn’s party. In 1997 you have a young, everyman leader strolling through Notting Hill on his way to vote in the General Election. A cast of smiling metropolitans excitedly greet Blair as D:Ream’s ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ blasts out over the sunny north London scene. The tone is unmistakably aspirational.


Compare that with Labour’s 2018 local elections broadcast on housing. The video portrays a grey, bleak Britain defined by hopelessness. The message is personified by harrowing stories, like a mother trying to make her son’s life in emergency accommodation more normal. Or an homeless ex-servicemen who admits to considering suicide.


On the one hand we have the social democratic wing. Their politics, most clearly defined by the New Labour era, rests on the idea of working within the pre-existing economic framework. Globalisation and financialisation are inevitable. For them, the role of a left-wing party is to allow for economic growth by encouraging markets, correcting where necessary and creaming off some of that growth for poorer citizens. This idea was put succinctly in a crass comment by Peter Mandelson, who in October 1999 said, “I’m intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich as long as they pay their taxes.”


This method of working within, rather than against, the general current of business was reflected in their electoral strategy. Over the New Labour period, the party actively sought out affluent and middle class voters. From 1992 to 1997, Labour raised their percentage of AB voters from 19% to 31%.


Where the social democrats aim for the centre ground, socialist electoral strategy is directed at an entirely different demographic. Corbynism, an ideology based largely on the ideas of Tony Benn, focuses almost exclusively on the worst off in society. This is the idea behind these Corbyn era election videos; to show the struggling classes that there's a party that recognises their suffering.


Where social democrats accept the basic premises of our inherited economic arrangements, Bennism is the idea that capitalism itself is the root cause of inequality and callousness. In 1981, Benn told the Labour Party conference: “We’ve tried to make capitalism work with good and humane Labour governments and we haven’t succeeded because it can’t work, because it rests on injustice.”


From this conviction, Labour’s socialists conclude that their electoral strategy should be to win over the downtrodden and the disenfranchised. In 2007, Benn said: “People in debt become hopeless and hopeless people don’t vote.” By showing hopeless people that there’s a party that cares, Corbyn’s Labour wants to turn them from disempowered non-voters to a significant voting bloc.


This strategy seems to have been at least partially successful. In the 2017 general election, Labour managed to win over 60% of 2015 non-voters. This represents around 24% of the 3.5 million increase in votes that Labour secured in last year’s vote.


The problem for the Bennite strategy is its unpredictability. It’s difficult to find out why these previous non-voters turned out for Labour, especially when complex policy debates such as Brexit are thrown into the mix. It’s even more difficult to know whether they’ll turn out at the next election. The New Labour approach is far more predictable - the middle-class and the affluent tend to vote.


While being unpredictable, the Bennite strategy could also be highly electorally lucrative. If all the eligible non-voters in 2015 had voted for their second candidate, it would have changed the outcome in 602 constituencies.


It’s also worth bearing in mind that national campaigns are only one element of the electoral battle. Elections are won and lost in marginal seats, the function of a national campaign is to consolidate held seats and lift the overall national vote share.


By the next election in 2022 (assuming we won't see another snap election), Corbyn will have been Labour leader for seven years - it’s difficult to maintain passion and energy over such a long period. What’s more, the current Labour party appears endlessly gaffe-prone.


But it’s also true that Conservative cuts will affect an even larger voter base. On current projections, local government is set to see a 77% cut in funding by 2020. Failing local services like social care and a cash-strapped NHS will leave more people struggling. A strategy based on hope for the worst off could well see Labour through to victory.

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