Labour must not return to factional warfare

One of Labour's great achievements under Ed Miliband has been to encourage an open and transparent debate about our future while avoiding the kind of destructive infighting which characterised the party's behaviour the last time we lost office in 1979.

I'm really proud of the many great things the government in which Michael Meacher served for six years under Tony Blair did to rebuild our public services, fight poverty and make Britain a fairer, more equal country.

That is why I find it so disappointing that Michael has chosen to align himself with the small hard left minority of the party that seem intent on attacking Progress and reigniting the kind of divisive, factional warfare which, as Michael well knows, was so damaging to Labour in the early 1980s.

We really cannot return to the days where conversations within the Labour party become more important than our conversations with the electorate. I cannot, however, allow the criticisms of Progress to go unanswered. In his piece, Michael refers to "detailed recent investigations" into the organisation. I am afraid he is being rather coy here. The document to which Michael links was, in fact, an anonymous dossier posted to constituency party secretaries and councillors at their home addresses over recent weeks.

It is a great shame that time and money which could have been used attacking the Tories and helping Labour to develop an election-winning agenda was instead deployed producing and mailing a document which contains multiple inaccuracies and gross misrepresentations.

But equally disappointing is the fact that the author of that document chose to hide behind a cloak of anonymity and that Michael decided to repeat charges which Progress had already comprehensively answered.

One of the most refreshing things about Ed's leadership of the party has been his total intolerance of the kind of anonymous briefings which proved so damaging to Labour during our last years in government. We must not allow such tactics to resume.

Another hallmark of Ed's leadership which I hoped Michael would have joined the rest of the party in welcoming is the encouragement of pluralism and free and open debate within Labour's ranks. There are many points of view within the party with which I profoundly disagree. However, I have always believed that, as a party, we are strengthened by all those who are genuinely committed to the election of a future Labour government having their say. That's why I welcome Compass's place within the party and why we have held joint events with them and co-operated where we have common goals.

In my experience, playing the ball and not the man is always preferable in politics. I would, therefore, encourage Progress's critics to join us in a comradely debate about ideas, rather than trying to delegitimise those with whom they disagree. It is a shame, therefore, that there is not one mention in Michael's piece of The Purple Book, described by the Guardian as "the first concerted attempt to set out a new agenda for Labour", which Progress published last year.

I notice, too, that Michael appears determined to suggest that Progress is somehow antipathetic to the leadership of the party. This is a somewhat strange charge to make of an organisation of which Ed was, until the general election, a vice chair and which will welcome him as the keynote speaker at its annual conference for the second year running this May. More broadly, I'm really pleased that already this year we have had members of the shadow cabinet like Rachel Reeves, Douglas Alexander, Chuka Umunna, Liam Byrne, Jon Trickett, Ivan Lewis, Sadiq Khan, Stewart Wood, Liz Kendall and Peter Hain, speaking at the events Progress has been organising to debate the new centre-ground that Ed described at conference last September.

I am grateful that, despite the strenuous efforts of some to paint Progress as a "party within a party", Michael recognises the utter ridiculousness of comparisons with Militant. I hope, too, that on reflection he will see that it is Progress's opponents, with their intolerance of views with which they disagree, continual questioning of people's motives and apparent desire to collapse Labour's big tent, who are the real heirs to Militant.

As for Progress, we will not be distracted from our task, which is to work flat out to secure a Labour victory under Ed Miliband's leadership at the next general election. We will contribute ideas to Labour's policy debates - some will no doubt be accepted, while others will not. However, Progress is not simply a magazine. It is also a campaigning organisation. So we will continue to organise campaign sessions for Labour up and down the country. Labour is stronger for being a broad church, both organisationally and ideologically. Let's keep it that way.

Robert Philpot is director of Progress

Cameron in Nuneaton. Photo: Getty
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Why fewer of us want a long-term relationship ... with a political party

In 2015, 38 per cent of voters backed a different party to the one they supported in 2010. So what does the rise of swing voters mean for British politics?

For decades political parties have competed furiously for one of the great prizes of British politics: the affections of the swing voter. It wasn’t that long ago that there were relatively few political swingers: until the 1990s, fewer than a quarter of voters would switch parties from one election to the next.

Yet that once relatively rare breed is becoming increasingly common, which means party campaigners are going to have to come up with new tactical thinking. The British Election Study survey panels, conducted episodically over the last fifty years, are unique in that they are able to track the same voters from one election to the next, unlike more conventional opinion polls that only look at a snapshot of voters at a given time. Using these studies, you can identify the percentage of voters who switch their vote from one party to another between each pair of elections since 1966 when such data was first collected.

In 1966 only around 13 per cent of voters had changed their minds since the previous election in 1964. Since then, the proportion of swingers has been steadily increasing, and by 2015, 38 per cent of voters backed a different party to the one they supported in 2010.

The increase in swing voters is pretty consistent. The only exceptions are between February and October 1974, when (understandably) fewer voters changed their minds in eight months than switched in the preceding four years, and between 1997 and 2001, when the electoral dominance of New Labour under Tony Blair held back the tide for a time. These two exceptions aside, the increase has been constant election-on-election.

A lot of vote shifting can go on even between elections where the overall result remains stable. In 2001, for example, more people switched votes than in any election before 1997, with a surprising level of turmoil beneath the surface stability. While these largely cancelled out on that occasion, it set the stage for more dramatic changes in the parties’ votes later on.

So British voters now seem more likely than ever to jump from party to party. But who exactly are these swingers? Are they disillusioned former party loyalists? Or have British voters simply stopped getting into a serious relationship with the parties in the first place? We can get some insight into this using data from the yearly British Social Attitudes Survey, looking at the number of respondents who say that they do not identify with any of the political parties (party identifiers tend to switch much less often) when they are asked ‘Generally speaking, do you think of yourself as a supporter of any one political party?’ and then ‘Do you think of yourself as a little closer to one political party than to the others?’ if they say no to the first question. The graph below combines data from 1984 to 2013. Each line represents people who were born in a different year. Higher lines mean that there are more people who do not identify with a political party. So, for instance, voters born in 1955 started with very low levels of non-identification (22 per cent), which have gradually risen to 44 per cent in the latest survey. Most of the lines on the graph go up over time, which shows that almost all generations are falling out of love with the parties.

However, an acquired taste in swinging among the older generations is dwarfed by the promiscuous younger generations – shown by the dashed lines – most of whom never form an attachment to a party at all. Each generation in the data has been less committed to the parties than the previous generation was at the same age, with around 60 per cent of the youngest generation – those born since 1985 – expressing no attachment to any political party.

Since most of this change has been a generational shift, it may be a long road back for the parties. Loyalty to parties is often handed down in families, with children inheriting their parents’ commitment to a party. Now that this process has broken down, and younger generations have lost their attachment to parties, they may in turn pass on this political detachment to their children.

The majority of younger voters have simply never grown up with the idea of getting into a long-term relationship with a political party, so they may never settle down. Many Labour MPs were outraged when it turned out that lots of the new members who joined up to vote for Jeremy Corbyn had voted for the Green Party just a few months before, but this may simply reflect the political approach of a generation who see parties as needing to earn their vote each time rather than commanding lasting, even unconditional loyalty.

If Britain’s newfound taste for swinging isn’t going to disappear any time soon, what does it mean for party competition? In the past most people had settled partisan views, which seldom changed. General elections could be won by attracting the relatively small group of voters who hadn’t made up their minds and could very easily vote for either of the two main parties, so political parties based their strategies around mobilising their core voters and targeting the few waverers. While they worried about traditional loyalists not turning up to the polls, the parties could be assured of their supporters’ votes as long as they got them to the voting booth.

Nowadays, swing voters are no longer a small section of the electorate who are being pulled back and forth by the parties, but a substantial chunk of all voters. This helps to explain why politicians have been so surprised by the sudden rise of new parties competing for groups previously thought to be reliable supporters. The new parties that have entered British politics have also allowed voters to express their views on issues that don’t fall neatly into traditional left– right politics such as immigration (UKIP) or Scottish independence (the SNP). This in turn has posed a dilemma for the traditional parties, who are pulled in multiple directions trying to stop their voters being tempted away.

This may just be the start. If the number of swing voters stays this high, the parties will have to get used to defending themselves on multiple fronts.

This is an extract from More Sex, Lies and the Ballot Box, edited by Philip Cowley and Robert Ford.