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Stephan Shakespeare

Stephan Shakespeare: As the Left's ideas decline across Europe, Labour doesn't know what to say

SSStephan Shakespeare is a founder and global CEO of YouGov. FolloStephan on Twitter.

It's extraordinary that at this stage of the electoral cycle, and after years of a pretty miserable economy with further cuts coming, the opposition party should be less than 10 per cent ahead. Were it not for the continued strength of UKIP, we'd be confident of seeing Cameron remain in Downing Street.

Perhaps it's not so surprising when one considers Ed Miliband's recent interview for The Guardian. In a new effort to relaunch his offensive, he invoked Labour policy on sardines in 1945: “This is a government that banned the import of sardines because they were worried about the balance of payments. It shows a government can be remembered in difficult times for doing great things.”

The point is entirely reasonable and interesting, but the audience for it is tiny. Who outside academia could engage with this?

The fact is that politicians no longer know what to say to us. Their most momentous pronouncements are: "We'll do the same as the other lot". That's what Ed Balls told us when he announced Labour would stick to the reduced Conservative spending plans, and what Osborne said before him when he promised the Conservatives would mirror Labour's.

Saying something new is dangerous, saying the same thing as before - even invoking the micro-policies of 1945 on imported small fish - feels safe. Saying the old things means nobody really notices you, and that is better these days than being seen to get things wrong.

Meanwhile, the public moves on. YouGov recently conducted a survey in four European countries, presented today in The Times (£). We asked voters if they agreed that their main centre-left party "used to care about people like me"; in Germany 52 per cent agreed, in Britain 51 per cent, in Sweden 49 per cent, and in France 36 per cent.

But in all four countries, the proportions for the same parties caring NOW are considerably lower: Sweden’s Socialists are down 13 per cent; Britain’s Labour Party is down 19 per cent; France's is down 16 per cent, in Germany, the proportion who regard the Social Democrats as caring for people like them has collapsed by more than half, down to 24%. As Peter Kellner notes: “left-of-centre parties are suffering a decline in faith in politics as a whole. The equivalent figures for right-of-centre parties are also down. But in each of the four countries they are down by far less. German’s Christian Democrats are now more widely thought to care than the Social Democrats”.

Belief in the power of the state to provide a better future is weakening across Europe. It leaves Labour confused about what their offer might be, and falling into a kind of silence; and gives the Conservatives more options to emerge from their own purdah, and speak of bolder reform.


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