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.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.