Is there a new Ed Miliband coalition?

New polling shows that Labour supporters are more liberal on issues such as immigration than in 2010.

Much of the autopsy on Labour’s 2010 general election performance has focused on the "traditional" supporter and their apparent drift from the identity and values of the party over the last decade or so – especially on immigration. The Gillian Duffy demographic has become the party’s preoccupation.

However, new polling data suggests that Labour has been successful in attracting a rather different voter in the last two years – the liberal centrist.  Should the party now aggressively seek to appeal to working-class conservative support as some advocate, the liberal centrist may be repelled. These liberal centrists are, like their culturally conservative opposites, "values" voters. A populist agenda on immigration, culture and Europe may not be the one-way street that is often supposed. What’s more, an Ed Miliband coalition that doesn’t rely on such populism is one potential route to a majority for Labour.

In 2008, Barack Obama was able to win the presidency by assembling a coalition of support tapping into new sources of political energy ignited by demographic and social change. Unable to reverse the Democrats’ deficit amongst white voters or even significantly improve his vote in that demographic, he relied on Hispanic, young, and professional voters. With the obvious exception of Hispanics, the question is whether such a new coalition could be an option for Labour? A new poll hints that it could be a possibility.

Respondents were asked in the YouGov poll commissioned by Extremis Project whether they were more or less likely to vote for parties pursuing a particular agenda based loosely around populist themes such as concern about political and financial elites, nationhood, immigration and culture. The shift amongst Labour supporters from 2010 was very striking. Conservative support showed no such shift.

In 2010, Labour voters were "more likely" to vote for a party that pledged to stop immigration into the UK by 36% to 31%. That figure has now reversed with 36% to 32% "less likely" to vote for such a party. The poll asked the same question of a party pledging to reduce the "numbers of Muslims/presence of Islam in society". Again, we see a reverse. Thirty four per cent to 25% of Labour voters were "more likely" to vote for a party with such a pledge in 2010. It is now 31%-29% in favour of "less likely."

By comparison, the Conservative figure on the same question is 50%-15% in favour of "more likely", which is almost identical to the figure for its 2010 support. The overall figure is 37% to 23%. The likely explanation would appear to be Labour’s success in wooing Liberal Democrat supporters and young voters since 2010. The poll shows a clear generational divide between younger and older voters.

A new Ed Miliband coalition would combine liberal centrists, young voters, those in the public sector as well as the more traditional working and lower middle-class support who are concerned about whether the Conservatives speak for them.

The values voter Miliband seems to be attracting is more, not less liberal on immigration, more, not less accepting of other cultures, and less prone to muscular articulations of national identity. Would he really want to reverse these gains in a populist race that he would find very difficult, if not impossible, to win?

Again, the echoes of Obama’s strategy are striking. The president has embraced gay rights, the green agenda and pitches at both young and professional, college educated support through improving access to higher education (Liberal Democrats take note) and an emphasis on investment in science. He pitches towards both the Hispanic and more liberal audiences with a commitment to immigration reform: better managed borders combined with pathways to earned citizenship.

A critical aspect of this strategy is the frame. So Obama’s pitch is not open borders instead of closed borders. It’s managed immigration versus inaction. It’s not renewable energy instead of oil and gas. The frame is rather pitched around energy security and economic growth. On gay rights, a choice has been made but the articulation is around committed relationships and a contribution to society.

The issues that Miliband faces in political terms are slightly different, but the strategy of pitting pragmatism against ideology and incompetence is instructive. While the default position on immigration is anxiety and scepticism, a majority of people are pragmatic when it comes to certain migrant groups – a failure of the Conservative immigration cap will help his cause. It is to this pragmatism that Miliband could appeal to.

The same goes for Europe, green issues, and potentially even welfare as long as there is an understanding of the deep concern with the welfare state as it is. Given that the Coalition is heading in a distinctively Thatcherite direction – blue collar populism has taken over from progressive conservatism – on these issues, that leaves the pragmatic centre open to Miliband should he wish to take it.

What’s the catch? Most critically, the economy is not going away and a perceived failure of the coalition to turn things around will not be enough for people to invest their faith in Labour. A credible approach to the economy and the deficit is critical. Just as important is the leadership question. If Miliband is not seen as a convincing and competent alternative to David Cameron he will equally struggle to maintain this new-found support. Obama passed both these tests.

Further research is needed to understand how this coalition works on a seat-by-seat basis – could it be too metropolitan? Moreover, this strategy certainly doesn’t mean that Labour should not concern itself with the very serious under-currents of cultural antagonism that exist in British society as poll after poll – including the Extremis Project/YouGov poll - has demonstrated. This is real and in, many ways, frightening.

More broadly, this strategy involves a very fine balancing act. An authentic emotional engagement with nationhood and a sense of national values is critical. See Michelle Obama’s speech where she emphasised that her husband "knows the American dream because he’s lived it". Equally, it involves clawing back assumptions both within the Labour Party and the wider media establishment that these cultural issues can only be dealt with in a discordant way.

With these caveats in mind, embracing and motivating this new coalition nonetheless seems like a more natural fit for Miliband than something more traditional and conservative. Avoiding over-adjustment in addressing Labour’s electoral weaknesses in 2010 is smart politics too. Labour now needs to look forward. Crafting a workable centre-left pragmatism is sound politics. Constructing a solid policy agenda is very different set of questions. For Labour, though, an Ed Miliband coalition of voters could be available to it – and it is one that could have the potential to see it into office.

Extremis Project  is a new platform for news, analysis, data and research on extremism across the globe co-founded by Dr Matthew Goodwin  and Anthony Painter. Anthony Painter writes in a personal capacity.

Ed Miliband has attracted a more liberal breed of Labour supporters. Photograph: Getty Images.

Anthony Painter is a political writer, commentator and researcher. His new book Left Without A Future? is published by Arcadia Books in November.

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Martin McGuinness's long game: why a united Ireland is now increasingly likely

McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

In late 2011 Martin McGuinness stood as Sinn Fein’s candidate in Ireland’s presidential election, raising all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

Raised in a tiny terraced house in the Bogside, Derry, he would have ended up living in a 92-room presidential mansion in Dublin had he won. A former IRA commander, he would have become supreme commander of Ireland’s defence forces. Once banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, he would have received the credentials of the next British ambassador to Dublin. Were he invited to pay a state visit to London, a man who had spent much of his youth shooting or bombing British soldiers would have found himself inspecting a guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.

McGuinness would certainly have shaken the hands of the English team before the Ireland-England rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin every other year. “I’d have no problem with that,” he told me, grinning, as he campaigned in the border county of Cavan one day that autumn. Though a staunch republican, he enjoyed the “Protestant” sports of rugby and cricket, just as he supported Manchester United and enjoyed BBC nature programmes and Last of the Summer Wine. He wrote poetry and loved fly-fishing, too. Unlike Gerry Adams, the coldest of cold fish, McGuinness was hard to dislike – provided you overlooked his brutal past.

In the event, McGuinness, weighed down by IRA baggage, came a distant third in that election but his story was astonishing enough in any case. He was the 15-year-old butcher’s assistant who rose to become the IRA chief of staff, responsible for numerous atrocities including Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Warrenpoint slaughter of 18 British soldiers in 1979.

Then, in 1981, an IRA prisoner named Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election while starving himself to death in the Maze Prison. McGuinness and Adams saw the mileage in pursuing a united Ireland via the ballot box as well as the bullet. Their long and tortuous conversion to democratic politics led to the Good Friday accord of 1998, with McGuinness using his stature and “street cred” to keep the provisional’s hard men on board. He became Northern Ireland’s improbable new education minister, and later served as its deputy first minister for a decade.

His journey from paramilitary pariah to peacemaker was punctuated by any number of astounding tableaux – visits to Downing Street and Chequers; the forging of a relationship with Ian Paisley, his erstwhile arch-enemy, so strong that they were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”; his denunciation of dissident republican militants as “traitors to the island of Ireland”; talks at the White House with Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama; and, most remarkable of all, two meetings with the Queen as well as a state banquet at Windsor Castle at which he joined in the toast to the British head of state.

Following his death on 21 March, McGuinness received tributes from London that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Tony Blair said peace would not have happened “without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future”. Theresa May praised his “essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace”.

What few noted was that McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation – albeit by peaceful methods – than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

The Brexit vote last June has changed political dynamics in Northern Ireland. The province voted by 56 per cent to 44 in favour of remaining in the European Union, and may suffer badly when Britain leaves. It fears the return of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and could lose £330m in EU subsidies.

Dismay at the Brexit vote helped to boost Sinn Fein’s performance in this month’s Stormont Assembly elections. The party came within 1,200 votes of overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party, which not only campaigned for Leave but used a legal loophole to funnel £425,000 in undeclared funds to the broader UK campaign. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, the combined unionist parties no longer have an overall majority. “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” Gerry Adams declared.

Other factors are also working in Sinn Fein’s favour. The party is refusing to enter a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont unless the DUP agrees to terms more favourable to the Irish nationalists. Sinn Fein will win if the DUP agrees to this, but it will also win if there is no deal – and London further inflames nationalist sentiment by imposing direct rule.

McGuinness’s recent replacement as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland by Michelle O’Neill, a personable, socially progressive 40-year-old unsullied by the Troubles, marks another significant step in the party’s move towards respectability. As Patrick Maguire recently wrote in the New Statesman, “the age of the IRA old boys at the top is over”.

More broadly, Scottish independence would make the notion of Northern Ireland leaving the UK seem less radical. The Irish republic’s economic recovery and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have rendered the idea of Irish unity a little less anathema to moderate unionists. And all the time, the province’s Protestant majority is shrinking: just 48 per cent of the population identified itself as Protestant in the 2011 census and 45 per cent Catholic.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum if a majority appears to favour Irish unity. Sinn Fein is beginning to agitate for exactly that. When Adams and McGuinness turned from violence to constitutional politics back in the 1980s they opted for the long game. Unfortunately for McGuinness, it proved too long for him to see Irish nationalism victorious, but it is no longer inconceivable that his four grown-up children might. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution