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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Banishing safe seats, and other proposals to bridge the democratic divide

How to improve key areas of democracy.

Labour’s election train is finally pulling into the station, with its new leader announced in just over a fortnight. However, a summer absorbed in the party’s internal democracy has obscured a deeper truth confronting the country: the general election confirmed that unequal political participation rates in the UK – by age, class, ethnicity and region– have become increasingly hardwired into how our democracy operates.

IPPR’s new report underscores the scale of the democratic divide.  For example, less than half of 18-24 year olds voted, compared to nearly four-fifths of the over-65s, while three-quarters of "AB" individuals cast a ballot, against just over half of "DE" registered voters. Critically, this marks a sharp rise in turnout inequality over time. In 1987, for example, turnout rates by class were almost identical but have steadily diverged since.

Similarly, age-based differences have got significantly worse over time. In 1964 turnout for 18-24 year olds was 76.4 per cent, almost matching the 76.7 per cent turnout rate of those aged 65 or over. By 2005 only 38.2 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted against 74.3 per cent of 65+ year olds, with only a very slight improvement this year.

Underlying growing disparities of electoral voice are striking divergences in perceptions of the fairness and effectiveness of our democracy. For example, IPPR/YouGov polling suggests a striking 63 per cent of "DE" individuals think that our democratic system serves their interests badly, while "AB" voters are evenly split.

Given these signs of democratic distress, there remains a strong case for establishing a wide-ranging constitutional convention to reset how our democracy operates. Yet Westminster shows no appetite for such constitutional reformation, and there would only be so much a civil society-led convention could achieve in terms of practical change.

In our report we therefore propose a series of achievable reforms that could update the civic, institutional and technological architecture of our democracy in the here and now, with the explicit goal of ensuring that all voices are better heard in the political process.

On electoral reform, while we reiterate our support for proportional representation for national elections, we know this simply isn’t going to happen this Parliament. We had a referendum on change in 2011 and it was heavily lost. The energies of electoral reformers should therefore focus on extending PR in local government, where it is more obviously in the self-interest of the major parties, as a means of extending their geographical reach.

In addition, the reduction in the number of MPs provides an opportunity to chip away at the number of safe seats. More than half of seats are "safe", a number that has grown over time, even allowing for the electoral earthquake in Scotland. Safe seats typically have lower levels of participation, lower turnout rates, and less electorally powerful voters. While safe seats will always be with us in a first-past-the-post system, too many can be damaging to democracy.

Given this, we have recommended that the various Boundary Commissions of the UK be given a new duty to consider the electoral competitiveness of seats – ie. to tilt against the creation of safe seats – when boundaries are redrawn. The priority would be to meet their current duties of ensuring the geographic coherence of a seat and roughly equal electorates.

However, where these duties can be met we suggest that the Commissions should consider revising boundaries to reduce the number of safe seats, as a step to increasing participation and the voting power of the average elector. Of course, this will clearly not "abolish" all safe seats – nor should it  but it could help re-empower millions of voters currently with little meaningful say over the outcome of elections and force political parties to up their game in safe seats.

At the same time, the transition to the individual electoral registration process risks excluding millions from the franchise, people who are disproportionately younger, poorer or from an ethnic minority. For example, there are clear inequalities by age and ethnicity in terms of who is registered to vote: in the 2010 general election, for which figures are most accurate, 90 per cent of people aged 55-64 were registered, compared to 55 per cent of those aged 18-24, while nearly 20 per cent of BME individuals were not registered to vote, compared to only 7 per cent of the "white British" population.

There are simple steps the government could take to ensure all who are eligible are able to vote: extending the registration deadline to December 2016, and making support available to local authorities to assist registration efforts, weighted towards authorities with higher levels of under-registration, could help reduce inequalities.  In the longer term, electoral registration officers should be given new duties, and the Electoral Commission more powers, to drive up registration rates, with a particular focus on presently under-registered demographics. 

Finally, we recommend introducing a Democracy Commission. At present, the Electoral Commission effectively regulates elections and party funding. Democracy, however, is far richer and broader than electoral processes. It is about formal representation, but also about participation and deliberation, in what Marc Stears has called "everyday democracy".

A statutorily independent Democracy Commission could give institutional ballast to the latter and help reinvigorate democratic life by providing research, resources and capacity-building to facilitate local, civil society-led initiatives that aim to increase broad-based levels of powerful democratic participation or deliberation in collective decision-making processes.

For example, a Democracy Commission could work with the GLA to introduce participatory budgeting in London, assist the Greater Manchester Combined Authority in instituting a public deliberative body with real teeth over how to integrate health and social care in the area, help the Scottish government conduct citizens’ juries on the future constitutional shape of the country, or support civil-society experiments to bring people closer to collective political decision-making processes in their locality.

We are living in a paradoxical political era, where growing political inequality is accompanied by ongoing social and technological change that has the capacity to collapse unnecessary political and economic hierarchies and build a more inclusive, participatory and responsive democracy. However, there is no guarantee that the age of the network will necessarily lead to democratic revival. The institutions and technologies of our political system, products of the 19th century, are struggling in the fluidity and fracture of the 21st century, inhibiting democratic renewal.

With our economy post-industrial, our ways of communicating increasingly digital and more networked, our identities and relationships ever more variegated and complex, it is therefore critical public policy seeks to update the democratic infrastructure of the UK, and, in so doing, help reverse entrenched political inequality.

Such an agenda is vital. If we simply accept the current institutional arrangements of our political system as the limits of our ambition, we must also content ourselves to live in a divided – and therefore inherently partial – democracy. Yet our democracy is not immutable but malleable, and capable of being reformed for the better; reform today can make democratic life more equal. After all, the story of British democracy’s evolution is one of yesterday’s impossible becoming today’s ordinary.

Mathew Lawrence is a research fellow at IPPR and the co-author of "The Democracy Commission: Reforming democracy to combat political inequality". He tweets at @dantonshead.