British Politics

Left-wing policies and the riddle of the progressive delta

Many progressive policies poll well with electorates on both sides of the Atlantic. So why does the Left keep losing at the ballot box? And can the tide turn? 

Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner outside of the House of Commons as Boris Johnson faced PMQs and calls to resign over the Downing Street lockdown parties.
Credit: Vuk Valcic / Alamy Live News

Electorally, it is no understatement to say that the last ten years have been rough for the Left in both Britain and the United States.

Though more fundamentally centrist in nature, Joe Biden’s Democratic Party seemingly bucked the global trend in right-wing populism for a while, by amassing an electoral coalition that included everyone from fans of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Josh Gottheimer, and Elizabeth Warren to Joe Manchin. However, he currently faces a tough midterm election and has a thin majority in both houses.

That said, it is not all doom and gloom for progressives.

A former chief of a progressive think tank once defined the term as “support for reform and modernisation, a cynicism about entrenched institutions and an open-mindedness about changing those institutions – and a belief that new technologies are beneficial to mankind, if they are properly harnessed.”

Therefore, if we consider progressives to be those seeking to make positive and sustained systemic change (though, in the US, the term is often used as a synonym for the Democrats’ more leftist wing), many opinion polls have started to show some promising results for progressive policies, even in some conservative heartlands. 

The UK Labour party has also seen its polling improve lately, even narrowing the gulf on some issues that have not traditionally been favourable to them. Could this be an early sign that the delta between progressive parties and policies is closing?

Progressive policies come in many forms, from more humane approaches to criminal justice to the increase of the minimum wage and an expansion of public transport and housing. 

The most classic example of a progressive policy is tax increases on high earners (whether via a wealth tax or income tax) to reduce social inequality and finance public provisions. This polls well on both sides of the Atlantic and is something many progressive parties have championed worldwide.

By contrast, when the UK Conservative government required more tax revenue, they chose to increase National Insurance contributions – which will see anyone earning more than £12,875 a year pay more (a decision that split public opinion).

A second field of current progressive thought revolves around the decriminalisation of soft drugs, such as Cannabis. In the US, progressive state governors have already made moves in this direction. As reported by Politico, even some of the most conservative states in the union are already looking to legalise marijuana for medical purposes and (in some instances) recreationally.

In fact, decriminisaliton-policies are popular with considerable swathes of the public. According to the latest YouGov tracker data, 43% of people surveyed believed that decriminalising soft drugs would not affect drug use, with a further 8% believing that drug use would go down, compared to 36% of people who thought drug use would increase. 

Even 40% of those over 65 (traditionally sceptical of drug legalisation) believed it would make no difference to levels of drug use.

When it comes to the specific question of legalisation, a separate YouGov poll in April 2021 had 52% of those asked either tending to or strongly supporting the legalisation of cannabis, to 32% either tending to or strongly opposing (15% “don’t know”).

Minimum wage increases are championed by progressives on both sides of the Atlantic, from the “Fight for Fifteen” movement in the US to various campaigns (and policy platforms) in the UK. This issue also polls well across virtually all age groups in the UK.

In a survey taken by YouGov between October to August of last year, every age group asked had a majority saying that the minimum wage for over 25s was either “a little too low” or “much too low”. The options of “a little too high” and “much too high” barely made it into single digits.

Access to healthcare is also an issue that progressives regularly campaign on.

A poll of “Single Payer” healthcare in the US by the Pew Research Centre found “63% of US adults say the government has the responsibility to provide health care coverage for all.”

In the UK, the healthcare situation is different, but the National Health Service (a fundamentally socialist idea) continues to poll incredibly favourably with the British public.

A poll conducted by YouGov around the NHS’ 70th anniversary saw 87% of Brits declare that they “are proud of” the health service – polling numbers that any individual politician or party can only dream of.

Why progressive parties have not always been able to capitalise on the popularity of progressive policy is a highly complex issue. There is no one-size-fits-all diagnosis for the electoral problems the political left has suffered over the last ten years, especially in the UK. 

There have been several instances where the most technically “progressive” offers to the public have been rejected. 

For example, Senator Bernie Sanders offered voters in the Democratic primary a very progressive agenda in the US but ultimately lost to an overwhelmingly centrist field of contenders, including Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg and Kamala Harris. 

Labour’s 2019 UK manifesto contained many progressive policies that individually polled well, such as increased funding for the health service and a minimum wage rise. However, they faced an electoral rout, with the Conservative’s gaining an 80-seat parliamentary majority.

It is essential to point out that each election must be evaluated for the circumstances that it took place in – various factors can affect electoral outcomes that don’t reflect traditional policy, like Brexit and Coronavirus.

However, there are other systemic reasons why the popularity of progressive policy isn’t always directly translating into electoral success, especially in the UK.

For a start, having serious policy discussions in the current media environment is particularly challenging. 

While print media in the UK has seen a decline in physical copies sold, they still hold a dominant sway over our national political discussion, and not in a direction that is favourable to discussing progressive policy. reports that “given the degree of political parallelism, many have observed with concern the disproportionate right-wing weighting in the political orientation of the UK press.”

Tied in with this, serious policy discussion has also taken a backseat with some corners of the media (and occasionally parliament) in favour of so-called “culture war” issues surrounding identity, history and more.

Historical branding problems (whether deserved or not) can also result in a trust gap between the public and the party over its ability to deliver the progressive policies that poll well.

For almost two decades, ever since the 2008 global financial crash, the British Right has successfully cast the Labour party as bad on the economy. Despite it now being close to fifteen years on, virtually every Tory leader since that time has cited ex-treasury secretary Liam Byrne’s joke to his successor – a letter reading “there’s no money left” – as part of their “greatest hits” of economic attacks.

Perceptions like these can lead to doubts about whether a policy can be implemented, no matter the popularity.

Adding to questions surrounding deliverability, inter-party trouble can also damage the public’s confidence. Internal divisions have never truly left Labour, with former MP Laura Pidcock recently quitting the party’s National Executive Committee, calling it “hostile territory for socialists.”

From a wider angle, general scepticism towards politics and political discourse cannot help but lead to problems in the communication and debate of progressive policy, with just 1% of those surveyed by YouGov in late 2021 considering Westminster to have done “a very good job” of “debating issues of public concern in a sensible and considered way.”

This general malaise can often extend to the ability to deliver multiple progressive changes being seen as unrealistic, no matter how well the individual policies may poll – a perception problem that almost certainly led, in part, to Labour’s 2019 defeat.

Yet, to quote Bob Dylan, the times they are a-changin’. Recently, polling has improved for the UK Labour party, with polls on voting intention during January seeing them anywhere from four to eleven percent ahead of the Conservatives.

A big part of this swing will involve voters turned off by the government by the alleged Downing Street “partygate” and wider Tory-sleaze scandals. Therefore, how voters would respond to a change of leadership within the Conservative party is a matter of some speculation.

According to various YouGov tracker polls, the Conservative party still retains a comfortable lead on traditionally favourable issues like defence, the economy and Brexit, with a smaller lead on law and order.

Similarly, Labour maintains a strong lead on issues that have traditionally played well for them, like healthcare, education, and housing. Keir Starmer has also made a big pitch to make the party appear more “patriotic” and other attempts to win back “Red Wall” voters – a strategic shift that appears risky, given the Conservatives’ decades-long, successful campaign of smearing Labour as unpatriotic. 

However, Labour also appears to be gaining ground on some of the issues upon which Labour has traditionally polled weaker. As of January 31, 2022, YouGov now has Labour at 21% on the handling of immigration, just two points behind the Conservative party, with 26% of those surveyed saying they weren’t sure. For context, back in May, the Conservative party polled at 33% to Labour’s 17%.

Dealing with unemployment, which at one point saw the Tories enjoy a nine-point advantage towards the middle of 2020, now sees Labour with an eight-point lead, representing a golden opportunity to return the party to material, progressive policies designed to improve the financial position of working people. 

Whether current polling represents a temporary bounce that is due to the Conservatives’ present weakness, or a more fundamental move of voters towards Labour remains to be seen.

However, there are signs that the electorate could indeed be shifting in a more progressive direction. 

Former Labour leader Ed Miliband faced criticism from other parties for his policies at the 2015 general election. Now, many of the things he advocated for have moved into the political mainstream and have even been adopted by the ruling Conservative party – like minimum wage increases and infrastructure spending (in the guise of “levelling up”). Similarly, although in corporativistic and phoney fashion, pro-worker-arguments are finding their way into the Republican Party through so-called National Conservatives, such as Josh Hawley and Marco Rubio. 

That said, there are some progressive policies that, despite polling well, would seem to be unlikely to make it into a new manifesto. Though the Labour Mayor of London announced a pilot scheme that would see young people caught with small amounts of cannabis avoiding arrest, Labour Party Leader Sir Keir Starmer indicated he was not in favour of changing national drug laws – a contradictory message that may not play well with the public.

While there is currently no full manifesto published, the Labour party did make some announcements on policyat its conference in Brighton last year, many of which allude to some progressive commitments.

With a general election not due until 2024, Labour would be wise to lean into progressive policies where it is popular with the public but work hard on breaking through to voters with its policy communication and credibility arguments – by no means an easy task.

Jon Fellowes is a freelance journalist, blogger, content creator, and scriptwriter. Regularly writing on politics, music, film/TV and culture, his bylines include Manchester Evening News, Birmingham Live, MyLondon, Bristol Live, and many others.

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