The next step in building a Labour majority

The party must set out a handful of big, signature proposals that exemplify how and why it would govern.

It’s become well known that Labour’s solid lead in the opinion polls is down mainly to the backing of left-leaning former Liberal Democrats. This year, Ed Miliband has proved he can unite socially liberal, egalitarian voters and that there could be enough of them to carry him to Downing Street.

No doubt if Nick Clegg is ejected before 2015, some former Lib Dems will switch back. But it would take a huge reversal for the Conservatives to end up with a majority. In 2010, after all, they could not win despite a seven per cent lead over Labour. Commentators have been slow to catch up with the electoral maths, but in the year ahead the media will have to learn to write of Miliband as a conceivable, even probable, Prime Minister. The Labour Party, however, must not settle for the script the pundits are busy writing, under which it limps into office as a minority party dependent on others to govern.

Instead, in the twelve months ahead, Miliband must turn his attention to potentially sympathetic voters he’s failed to win so far, and there are plenty of them out there. Fabian research found that a quarter of British adults did not vote Labour in 2010 but are prepared to consider the party next time. Encouragingly, their views on the economy and public services are much closer to those of Labour than Conservative supporters. But only one-in-three of this group currently back Labour, despite Miliband’s lead in the polls.

Winning a convincing working majority will depend on attracting more of them over, especially two types of ‘Labour-ambivalent’: people who didn’t vote in 2010 and floating voters who liked Cameron, the man, not his party. These potential supporters are the least ideological of voters so the answer is not a turn to the right, a move which would simply alienate the support Miliband has already amassed. Instead Labour must do two things, re-learn the language of the doorstep and prove it has a plan for Britain.

Too few people will vote Labour if the party presents itself simply an empty vessel for their discontents with a shambolic government. Ambivalent voters will only be won round in sufficient number by a positive alternative and purposeful leadership. This requires Labour to offer substantive promises not just interesting ideas.

So the party needs to move on from talking ‘themes’, as interesting as ‘pre-distribution’, ‘the squeezed middle’ and ‘responsible capitalism’ may be to those of us who attend Westminster seminars. Instead, in the year ahead, Labour must set out a handful of big, signature proposals that exemplify how and why it would govern, what marks it out from the coalition and how people’s lives would change. The candidates for Labour’s plan include free childcare, a National Care Service, a living wage, a job guarantee scheme for the young or a huge housebuilding programme (each with credible funding plans attached).

Miliband’s model must be 1945 or 1979 when the winning party entered the election with a clear policy programme which captured the public zeitgeist but also heralded a rupture with the past. Making big promises may feel risky, but it also shows substance and decisiveness. These are the qualities which need to register with the millions of Labour-ambivalents. Miliband must remember that unless Labour defines itself early, it will offer a blank canvass for the Conservatives to define it in the worst possible light.

Alongside that, Labour needs to reassess how it looks and feels to the ‘ambivalents’. Today its spokespeople still sound like middle-ranking ministers, the parliamentary party a tribe of professional politicians. New Fabian research shows this is all a huge turn-off, especially to people who declined to vote in 2010.

To reconnect, Labour must reimagine itself as an insurgent force speaking for the people, not a political caste speaking at them. Shifting the tone of Labour politics will not happen overnight, which is why it needs to start now. MPs need to learn to listen more, practice the art of normal conversation, and prove they can make change happen in their own constituencies.

Miliband and those around him understand that the practice of Labour politics must change. Now to make it happen he must order his MPs to get out of Westminster, organise locally, listen better and speak ‘human’.

Andrew Harrop will be challenging Labour policy chiefs Jon Cruddas, Lord Adonis and Angela Eagle at the Fabian Society's “The Shape of Things to Come” fringe event this evening.

Ed Miliband waits to speak at the annual Labour Party conference in Manchester. Photograph: Getty Images.

Andrew Harrop is general secretary of the Fabian Society.

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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.