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.