Left, Right and Centre

Lorna Finlayson

Opinium and the Social Market Foundation have released a report based on a survey of 2000 people in the wake of the Brexit vote. Respondents were asked for their views on various policies, and to say where they saw themselves on the political spectrum. The report's conclusions, repeated in the press, were that public opinion is currently centrist-to-right-wing, and the left is split over policy in a way that the right is not, above all over immigration. The report also identifies Britain's eight ‘underlying political tribes', the two largest of which – ‘the Our Britain tendency’ and 'Common Sense' – make up 'around 50 per cent of the population' and 'hold a range of traditionally right wing views, offering a solid foundation on which to aim for the 40-42 per cent of the vote which normally guarantees a healthy majority under our electoral system.'

In the Observer last Sunday, Toby Helm (formerly the Telegraph’s political editor) wrote that the report will be 'grim reading' for Jeremy Corbyn:

Ominously for Corbyn, the polling ... found that while 77 per cent of voters place themselves as somewhere near the political centre (centre left, centre or centre right), only 20 per cent believe the Labour leader occupies any of that territory, with 47 per cent regarding Corbyn as solidly left wing.

The inaccurate subheading on Helm’s piece shifted the emphasis, asserting that ‘77 per cent of British voters see themselves as centrist or right of centre.’ There is a worrying slippage here between the claim that most people think of themselves as being politically at or near the centre – a claim so unsurprising as to border on the tautological – and the further suggestion that public opinion is weighted towards the right. True, 75 (not 77) per cent of those surveyed by Opinium described themselves as centrist or right-of-centre. But it is also true that 70 per cent described themselves as centrist or left-of-centre. Depending on which way you spin the same information, the impression given is very different.

It’s clear that people identify themselves with the political ‘centre’. It’s less clear what that means. For commentators like Helm, the logic is simple: most people think of themselves as centrists; few think of Jeremy Corbyn as centrist (47 per cent think he is ‘left wing’); therefore, neither he nor any other candidate perceived as leftist can appeal to voters. But the logic is seriously flawed. For one thing, Helm assumes that people who think of themselves as centrist will only vote for others they regard as centrist. Not necessarily true. Why, for example, did Ukip supporters (who regard themselves as centrist, by the way), surveyed during the Labour leadership contest in 2015, prefer Corbyn to the other candidates? The other point is that the terms ‘left’, ‘right’ and ‘centre’ are sensitive to context. They only really make sense – if they make sense at all – relative to some assumed comparison class. Compared to other MPs, it is uncontroversial that Corbyn is ‘left wing’. When assessing ourselves, however, we may be more likely to operate with a comparison class such as ‘the general population’, ‘my neighbours’ or ‘people I know’.

More to the point, when you ask people about policy, they frequently express support for policies well to the left of the political ‘centre’ (‘defined for a generation’, according to the Opinium-Social Market Foundation report, ‘by social and economic liberalism with a balance between commitment to the free market and social programmes to mitigate its disruptive effects’), regardless of their self-descriptions. For example: a 2015 poll found 60 per cent in favour of renationalising the railways (a policy for which Opinium also found support among their respondents); most people believe that the NHS, the energy companies and the Royal Mail should be run by the public sector; and in 2016, YouGov reported that British people view socialism more positively than capitalism. Even among the two large ‘tribes’ which the Opinium-SMF report places on the ‘traditional right-wing’, respondents were significantly more likely to give benefits claimants the ‘benefit of the doubt’ (rather than taking what the pollsters considered a ‘hard line’), and to say that benefits should be based on ‘need’ rather than on ‘contribution’.

This is not to pretend that the majority of the British public are closet lefties. Views are as mixed and as malleable as the people who hold them. But just as the recent reports of ‘reds under the bed’ are greatly exaggerated, so too are the premature declarations of death that are currently being issued to anything that moves on the left of Blairism.

Read more in the London Review of Books

Paul Myerscough: Corbyn in the Media · 22 October 2015


  • 17 September 2016 at 6:10pm
    Greencoat says:
    'Why, for example, did Ukip supporters (who regard themselves as centrist, by the way), surveyed during the Labour leadership contest in 2015, prefer Corbyn to the other candidates?’

    Possibly because it has always been obvious that Jeremy Corbyn will lead the Labour Party to disaster, which is precisely what the vast majority of UKIP supporters want.

    • 19 September 2016 at 9:22am
      Alan Benfield says: @ Greencoat
      I think you misunderstand the extent to which populist movements often incorporate what are generally regarded as 'left-wing' ideas into their world-view.

      A feature of many of the populist parties across Europe is that, although generally regarded as 'right-wing', they often include issues usually regarded as left-wing (or at least 'socialist') into their platform. The PVV here in The Netherlands is a case in point, as is the FN in France. This hardly surprising: the populist parties are appealing to a constituency which largely feels ignored or disadvantaged by mainstream politics and to whom things like the cost of housing, pension age, full employment, immigration, etc. are important.

      To assume that the majority of UKIP supporters play the silly political games you suggest is thus foolish: they prefer Corbyn (even if they wouldn't vote for Labour) because he espouses ideas which speak to them, just as has happened with Bernie Sanders in the US. The reason why so many UKIP supporters, many of whom were previously Labour voters, left Labour was that they felt that Labour had left them behind and no longer represented them - a problem which has also been evident in the demongraphics of support for the Democrats in the US.

  • 17 September 2016 at 7:20pm
    David Timoney says:
    The commercial purpose of segmentation is message differentiation, which is ultimately a factor of the variety of goods offered, not any natural subdivison of the market. If all you make is a black Model T Ford, you don't worry about "tribes".

    As commodities have become profuse, segmentation has increased, but there has been no increase in the basic political propositions in most Western democracies. If anything, the postwar era saw a reduction in the range of political goods. Today, even where PR is the norm, two parties will usually account for 60-75% of the votes.

    I suspect the appearance of this guff is about more than the daft claim (which you rightly pull apart) that "the left" is always and everywhere unpopular. It has the whiff of yet another punt by centrists for electoral reform, but perhaps with a greater sense of urgency now that neoliberal technocracy appears to have simultaneously lost its berth in both the main political parties.

  • 17 September 2016 at 8:06pm
    sol_adelman says:
    If you asked people whether they agreed with the specific policy programme that the British establishment defines as the commonsense centreground - that is, privatisation, deregulation, 'liberalisation' of housing and labour markets, austerity, etc - how many would still regard themselves as "centrists" ?

  • 20 September 2016 at 6:42am
    Peterson_the man with no name says:
    In March 2015, YouGov did a survey asking people where they placed themselves on the political spectrum, from -100 (far left) to +100 (far right), and to place the political parties on the same spectrum. Curiously, the average figure for the whole electorate (-7.1) was almost exactly the same as the perceived figure for the Lib Dems (-7.4); while Labour was seen as way off to the left of the public (-36.4) and the Conservatives far to the right (+50.7). So if it was true that the key to winning elections is to occupy the centre ground, Nick Clegg should be Prime Minister today.

    What probably happened with the Lib Dems under Clegg was that they became seen as left-wing on issues where public opinion leans to the right (immigration, Europe*) and right-wing on issues where public opinion leans to the left (nationalisation, the NHS). So being the wrong kind of centrist can be worse than being an extremist.

    * Yes, I know that opposition to the EU isn't necessarily right-wing; but it's generally perceived as such nowadays, and that's what's important here.