Did Labour lose because it was too left-wing?

A number of commentators have suggested that Labour lost the election because it was too left-wing — or, what is equivalent, enough commentators have suggested this as to make its denial necessary for some.

Usually, this is accompanied by an implicit invocation of median voter theorem (“elections are won from the centre”).

There’s just one problem with these arguments: in the early part of the year, Labour was perceived to be closer to the median voter than was the Conservative party.

Wave 3 of the British Election Study asks respondents to position themselves on a left-right scale which runs from 1 to 11.

On this scale, the (weighted) median voter is at 6, equidistant from either end of the spectrum. For what it’s worth, the (weighted) mean is very slightly to the right of this position, at 6.21.

When asked to position the parties, the (weighted) mean position for Labour is 4.18, or 1.82 points to the left of the median voter.

The (weighted) mean position for the Conservative party is 8.67, or 2.67 points to the right of the median voter.

This does not mean that Labour’s positioning was not a contributory factor in the party’s defeat. Perhaps if Labour had been closer still to the median voter, it would have won more votes. But spatial politics and the median voter theorem alone can’t explain the party’s defeat. Other factors – like having a leader who is rated as competent — matter, and probably matter more. After all, if closeness to the median voter was the exclusive determinant of parties’ vote shares, we’d be basking in the bright new dawn of a Liberal Democrat government (weighted mean left-right position: 5.77).

P.S. This conclusion (which is similar to the conclusion that Ed Fieldhouse arrives at, and which would have pre-empted me writing this blogpost had I seen it earlier) seems robust to different survey weights. It’s possible that there are different scaling issues to do with respondents in different party systems, but these would have to be very severe to affect the conclusion. It’s also possible that this finding will change when the campaign wave of the BES is available.

One thought on “Did Labour lose because it was too left-wing?

  1. There’s also the issue that voters are very bad at rating their own political position – people tend to identify as much more left wing than their policy preferences show them to be.

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