Labour is dreaming if it believes Britain wants socialism

Phillip Inman
Older voters want policies that protect their standard of living. Photograph: nicolamargaret/Getty Images

At this stage of the Brexit talks there seem to be few barriers to the Tory party dominating the outcome. It’s not the string of opinion polls showing Theresa May either ahead, neck and neck or only marginally behind Labour, all of which are stunningly positive survey results for a government in such disarray.

Nor is it the way Boris Johnson and Anna Soubry slug it out with passion and alternative visions of Brexit, while Labour MPs merely lament the referendum result, stymied by a leadership that has so far preferred to play tactical games rather than put forward its preferred post-Brexit relationships.

It is that the Tory party, which last year secured the largest share of the vote in a general election since 1983, has retained its ability to attract older voters. Anxious about their wealth and standard of living above all else, this is the group that voted for May in vast numbers, despite her lacklustre performance and a manifesto that appeared to question some of their privileges.

Almost as bad for Labour as the demand from older voters to protect their wealth and savings with low taxes and minimal public spending, is the sense that this group has come to distrust the very public institutions that Labour believes should provide the bedrock of its Brit-makeover.

Sadly, many over-50s have lost faith in the public sector’s ability to provide services effectively or build the next generation of infrastructure. This lack of trust goes hand in hand with, and is almost as damaging as, their support for austerity.

Go along to any public consultation and the over-50s are there in force, swamping the numbers of younger people. Their aim is to protect and conserve, which means fighting proposals for new housing projects, solar farms and cycle lanes.

You might be reading this article and be over the age of 50 and think that all the people you know want to embrace change, believe public spending is a force for good and that the collapse of government outsourcing firm Carillion and the east coast rail franchise debacle are unquestionable reasons to support public sector ownership.

Some polls give succour to those who want the state to run things again. Pushing in the opposite direction is YouGov’s analysis of the last election. It shows that the Tories won a significant majority of votes over Labour and did it with the solid support of those who have two score and 10 years under their belt.

Backing for the Tories was even more pronounced among the over-70s. They voted by seven to three in favour of the Tories over Labour on a turnout of 84%, compared to 61% of those aged 30 to 39.

Making matters worse, while YouGov’s post-election survey of 52,000 people found that 49% of voters with a degree or higher qualification voted Labour compared with 32% of those without, those who are actively engaged in the debate via a newspaper tended to vote Tory.

This high level of engagement among Tory-voting older people should make Labour leaders pause, as they seek to promote a version of the future where public institutions have grabbed back the decision-making and delivery of services and the infrastructure-building handed to the private sector in the last 30 years. Labour has an economic programme that just doesn’t fly with a British voting public that has never embraced socialism and doesn’t look like starting now.

A good example is the proposal by shadow housing minister John Healey for the public sector to buy land for homes, cutting out the property development industry from major housing schemes. It is a version of the Dutch way of building new affordable homes that involves buying sites close to their value without planning consent.

The homes are built by private companies, but to specifications set by the public body. It stops the haggling over land prices that inevitably means the developer overpaying for the land and then blackmailing the local authority into accepting more luxury homes than is warranted.

Wisely, Healey has in mind a new body called the English Sovereign Land Trust to fund the scheme and support the embattled local planning authority. The drawback is that the plan confronts the British love of property, its status as the over-50s’ best-loved investment and its potential to turn a small deposit into a lottery win.

That makes it difficult to sell. But confronting the most egregious corporate behaviour with a sensible and targeted policy gives it the best chance of winning favour.

Unfortunately, the Labour party’s leadership expects the Tories to fall apart over Brexit and win an election with a radical agenda of widespread nationalisation and public investment, when the appetite for it simply isn’t there among those who vote.