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Labour voters lost faith in the state

New polling data suggests Labour needs to support public-sector cuts if it is to get through to the

What has got lost in the election post-mortem is the "listening" bit of "listening and learning". We are told that the Labour Party lost because it wasn't "on people's side". But analysis of new polling commissioned by Demos suggests that voters were turned off by Labour's main message on public services.

The poll shows that voters who deserted Labour at the last election felt that government spending had reached or even breached acceptable limits and no longer viewed the state as a force for good.

Demos commissioned YouGov to undertake a 45,000-respondent poll on social attitudes and perceptions of the main political parties in order to understand the election outcome. The poll allows Demos to compare the outlook of voters Labour lost since 2005 with that of those they retained at the last election. The full results will be published in September by the Open Left project.

Labour didn't have the funds to do private polling in the run-up to the last election on anything like the scale it had done in previous elections. So the party was limited to testing voter opinion in very small sample focus groups. This post-election poll shows that Labour's defence of services against spending cuts was falling on deaf ears.

When asked about the NHS, a third of voters who stayed with Labour thought the priority was to "avoid cuts", but among the voters who Labour lost, that proportion was just over one in ten (only 13 per cent). More than half (55 per cent) of voters that Labour lost thought that the priority should be to "seek greater efficiency and end top-down control" in the NHS, compared to just under a third (31 per cent) of voters that Labour retained.

More than one in three (35 per cent) of voters who left Labour at the last election felt "people should have more choices and control over local services", compared with just over one in four (28 per cent) who stuck by Labour. Almost one in five (19 per cent) of voters that Labour lost felt "central government interferes too much in local services" -- almost twice as many (12 per cent) as those who remained loyal Labour voters.

More than one in four (27 per cent) of voters that Labour lost said they saw government as "part of the problem not the solution", compared to just over one in ten (14 per cent) that Labour retained. More than half (54 per cent) of voters who stuck by Labour at the last election consider government to be "a force for good", improving their lives and the lives of their family, but among voters who left Labour this view fell to just one in three (33 per cent).

The poll also supplies evidence of a north/south divide, with more than a third (35 per cent) of voters in the north seeing government as "a force for good", compared to just over one in four (27 per cent) who see government as "part of the problem not the solution".

Labour has consistently argued that spending cuts should not go too far or too fast, but this poll shows that a significant number of voters recognise the need for cuts. That includes many people who recently voted Labour, many of whom felt that Labour was spending too much, too wastefully, with too little benefit for them and their families.

This poll will, with any luck, be a wake-up call for Labour's leadership candidates. The next leader needs to support public-sector cuts and embrace the "big society" agenda if he or she is to be heard by the public. Ultimately, Labour will not be re-elected on the determination of its opposition but on the credibility of its alternative.

In 1997, Labour needed to prove it had the economic credibility to be trusted to govern. At the next election, however, the next Labour leader needs to show voters that Labour can be trusted to reform the state, not just fight the cuts.

Richard Darlington is head of the Open Left project at Demos.