Labour can’t win with an anti-core vote strategy

Written by: David Clark on 20 September, 2012
Filed under Democracy

Who would have thought this time last year that two of the three main party leaders would be facing serious challenges to their leadership and that neither of them would be Ed Miliband? It is a measure of how the political weather has changed since the last party conference season that Miliband goes into this one as the only leader with good reason to feel secure in his job. While Labour has decided that it picked the right leader after all, David Cameron and Nick Clegg face restlessness and leadership plots within their ranks.

By sticking to his guns in the face of widespread scepticism, Miliband has succeeded in turning Labour into a credible opposition. The question now is whether he can turn it into a credible government in waiting and build the sort of broad electoral coalition needed to win a general election. Forget the policy review. This is where the main strategic battleground over the party’s future is to be found.

The one thing on which everyone agrees is that a core vote strategy won’t do. Labour found out what its core vote was in 2010 and has no wish to repeat the exercise. The objective must be to secure the base while reaching far enough beyond it to gain a working majority. Looking at the composition of the five million votes Labour lost between 1997 and 2010 (four million of them by 2005) is therefore a useful way of identifying the sorts of voters Labour need to win back (or, in the case of younger voters, win for the first time).

Looking at where Labour’s losses were matched by gains elsewhere is obviously imperfect. It doesn’t account for things like vote churning and generational replacement, but it’s the best rule of thumb we have. This breaks down into three groups of roughly equal size – those who switched to the Liberal Democrats, those who went to parties of the right (two thirds to the Tories and a third to the BNP) and those who stopped voting altogether. (The rise in UKIP’s vote 1997-2010 was almost identical to the 1997 vote for the Referendum Party, so there was no real net gain for its brand of politics.)

Looked at in these terms, it is clear that Labour has so far managed to bring back the bulk of Lib Dem defectors, partly because of hostility to the Coalition, but also because Miliband has changed Labour’s position on issues like Iraq, equality and civil liberties. The intentions of those who stopped voting between 1997 and 2010 are harder to gauge, so the success of efforts to re-engage them and raise turnout may not be not be known until after the next general election. As for Tory defectors, the picture is more complex and mixed.

On a crude reading of the headline numbers, Labour’s vote share since 2010 has gone up by a strikingly similar margin to the decline in vote share for the Liberal Democrats, while the rise in support for UKIP looks very similar to the decline in support for the Tories. The tempting conclusion to draw is that Labour is making all of its gains among disillusioned Liberal Democrat voters while disgruntled Tory voters are opting for UKIP.

The temptation is hardest to resist among those who want us to believe that Miliband is failing to win back votes from the Tories and build a broad enough electoral coalition because he has moved Labour too far from the fabled centre-ground. As we get closer to the next election and the polls start to narrow, the Tories will squeeze the UKIP vote and Labour risks being pipped at the post. The answer is to re-run New Labour’s 1997 game plan with a single-minded focus on right-leaning voters and policies that are pro-market, pro-“aspiration” and pro-small government.

This should properly be called the “anti-core vote” strategy. It starts by assuming that left-leaning voters can be taken for granted because they have “nowhere else to go”. It goes on to assume that these voters can therefore be abused for positional effect by being told to “modernise or die” and swallow policies they detest. The more upset the base, the easier it will be to persuade Tory-inclined voters that Labour can be trusted with power. Add a few clever soundbites and recipe is complete. Bake on a medium heat for half an hour and, hey presto, a majority Labour government!

There are three problems with this approach. First of all, it isn’t true that Miliband is failing to win votes from the Tories. Looking at YouGov’s last ten polls, an average 6.8% of those who voted Tory at the last election intend to vote Labour next time compared to 9.9% for UKIP. Labour can and should aim to do better, but that’s not nothing. It represents solid progress only two years on from the second worst drubbing in the party’s history.

Second, left-leaning voters have plenty of places to go apart from Labour. That may no longer include the Liberal Democrats, but it certainly includes the Greens, Respect, the SNP and Plaid Cymru. Ominously, it also includes the option of going nowhere at all and staying on the sofa instead of turning out for a party that holds them in contempt. Those who doubt this fail to appreciate the impact of the economic crisis on the mood of progressive Britain. Having been proved spectacularly right in their gut instinct about what is wrong with the country at a time when the Labour leadership was spectacularly wrong, these voters are not about to be taken for granted again. Believe me, I’m one of them.

Third, the world has moved on and what worked with floating and right-leaning voters in 1997 won’t work today. Take that much abused and overused buzzword “aspiration”. While some Labour people are still burbling on about conservatories and foreign holidays, Mondeo Man and Worcester Woman spend their time fretting about the prospect of home repossession, not flicking through Kuoni brochures. Survival is the new aspiration and Labour’s messages therefore have to be about restoring living standards and economic security.

The old idea that prosperity will be assured if government simply gets out of the way of business won’t wash any more. Even right-leaning, middle income voters are now inclined to see the laissez-faire economy New Labour helped to build as a racket that worked against them. It’s no longer just lefties who feel disgusted with the behaviour of bankers and endless tax giveaways for the wealthy.

Putting together a winning electoral coalition demands a broader approach than that envisaged by the advocates of either the core vote or anti-core vote strategies. It requires Labour to take each component of that coalition seriously, not just the one that suits the preferred ideological narrative of one faction or another. This presents challenges to some cherished orthodoxies of both left and right.

In meeting the desire for greater economic security, there is broad appeal in Miliband’s call for a responsible capitalism and fairer sharing of the national wealth. But for potential Tory switchers in particular, economic security also means credibility on deficit reduction. For many working class voters who stopped voting or switched to the right, economic security is linked to a fear of immigration. Even those who may be thought of as traditional Labour supporters won’t necessarily be brought back by traditional Labour arguments and priorities.

Likewise, many of the voters Labour needs to persuade give a high priority to wealth creation, not just distribution, and want to be sure that Labour’s plans to make the market economy work differently will also make it work better. Yet market-based solutions alone will have little appeal to the large number of former Labour voters who have tuned out of politics completely. It is no coincidence that voter turnout collapsed after Labour embraced the idea that government was the problem and markets the solution. So why bother voting? It now needs to convince disengaged working class voters in particular that politics matters and that government can make a difference to their lives.

Labour has made progress towards many of the right conclusions about how to win, but there is still too much nostalgia for the anti-core vote approach of old. It seeps through in the insistence that Labour must capture a centre-ground that in reality no longer exists. Ed Miliband has been astute enough to realise that it won’t work anymore. Only a broad vote alternative will give Labour enough support to form a government after the next election. The party as a whole needs to come to the same conclusion.