The Myth of the 76 and of the Tribe that Does Not Exist
At the general election the Conservative Party won 36.9% of the vote against Labour’s 30.4%; UKIP, the Liberal Democrats and the SNP scored 12.6%, 7.9% and 4.7% respectively; the Conservatives’ 11.3 million votes gained them 51% of the seats. Turn out was 66.1%. 76% of registered voters did not vote for our present government. Since then, social media profiles have become festooned with a “76” logo. It is proudly worn badge of opposition to the government.
I am one of that 76 but I have reservations. One of the most important parts of the democratic process is the concession speech: when the losing side acknowledges defeat and confers legitimacy on the winning side. For a brief moment, after the divisions of the campaign, we become one people again. The 76 are either in denial that the Conservatives won or are questioning the legitimacy of their win: it is rather like a losing football team complaining at the end of the match that all along they were playing rugby.
The opportunism is staggering. Before May 7th a number of people eloquently argued that should Labour only be able to form a parliamentary majority with the Scottish Nationalists, Ed Miliband could form a legitimate government. They were right then. And they are right now. This hypothetical government would probably have passed legislation with a similar percentage of the votes cast as the Conservatives have now. I wonder how many of the 76 would be advertising that three quarters of registered voters did not support the government.
The 76 are either in denial that the Conservatives won or are questioning the legitimacy of their win
The inference of the 76 is that there is such a thing as a progressive majority in the country. But this anti-Tory vote does not exist at all: it is a tribal misreading of how people who decide elections define themselves. Pollsters have again and again tried to show that support for a political party is not always a simple left/right decision. Every poll I saw during the 2015 campaign showed that if forced to choose between a government led by Cameron and one by Miliband, a majority chose the former. But the delusion persists. Because their political beliefs, party membership or voting habits define them, the 76 appear to hold that true of all people. It is to confuse being Conservative with voting Conservative. The 76 propagate a simple tribal mythology. A comforting mythology that forgets that UKIP voters are part of their number.
How voters switched at the 2015 election further demonstrates the mistake: Labour lost votes to the SNP and the Greens but they also lost votes to the Conservatives; they gained votes from the Liberal Democrats but so did UKIP. If there is a progressive identity among those voters who vote for left-wing parties, why did a large segment of voters leave a self-proclaimed one for a reactionary one?
The 76 assert that the will of the people has been thwarted, that a proportional voting system we would result in more left-wing governments. The next election will be fought under First Past The Post, a system that is not designed to reflect the will of the people but give stable government. In 2011 voters rejected even a modest (and in my view sensible) change to the voting system. Who is to say that they would endorse a more radical change? Had the vote share at last election been distributed by a proportional system the Conservatives would still be the largest party and with UKIP have a larger parliamentary majority (52%) to enact popular policies like EVEL, abolition of the Human Rights Act and probably a harsher benefits cap. (Note, I said ‘popular’ not ‘right’.) In all his glory Nigel Farage would have proclaimed a ‘new politics’ and become Deputy Prime Minister. How is that progressive majority looking for you now?
To win, Labour needs to forget about the progressive majority
Labour would not betray its principles by reaching out because the voters it needs are not Tories they just vote Conservative; they may not be progressives but they might vote for a progressive party.
To win, Labour needs to forget about the progressive majority. Political parties generally succeed when they accept their potential inheritance but mould it to their values. Labour needs to talk a language that potential voters can understand. Voters listen when political parties do something unexpected or talk in way they have not before. Remember that Gordon Brown talked about prudence but oversaw a 54% increase in spending on public services; David Cameron uses language that confuses many of his base but his agenda is essentially Tory. Accepting the Blairite logic of owning the centre ground does not mean adopting every jot of his agenda for 2020. The trouble Labour faces is that it must win voters it lost to UKIP in the North and Conservatives in bellwether seats like Nuneaton, Lincoln, Southampton and Stroud. Radicalism and centrism are not mutually exclusive. George Osborne’s budget showed that claiming the centre-ground does not mean abandoning core tenets. So stop the tribal hatred. When they stopped hating Tony Blair the Conservatives learned from him and won.
The 76 are a tribe who are pretending none of this matters because the votes are already there. Tribes have always been an important part of how individuals define themselves. The verb 'to be' is ever-present in our lives. Just not always in democratic politics. The danger for them is that they are part of a tribe that does not exist.
About the author
Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).
A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.
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