Could the future be yellow?

2005 election - It is not only the former Labour MP Brian Sedgemore who is defecting to the Lib Dems

For almost its entire history, the New Statesman has been a Labour-supporting paper. At many times - not least in recent years - it has been sharply critical, but its political home has never been in doubt. Even our controversial recent guide on "how to give Blair a bloody nose" urged a Labour vote in the vast majority of Labour-held constituencies, counselled against deserting the party where there was the remotest chance of letting in a Tory, and stopped short (though most commentators chose not to notice this) of actually recommending anti-Blair tactical voting.

One cannot infer readers' voting habits from a paper's political commitment. Even while the Sun was winning it for the Tories, Labour still did well among its readers, many of whom were apparently unaware of the Sun's views. But the NS, for the most part, offers fewer distractions from its political coverage, and it is safe to assume that, in past elections, most of its British readers would have voted Labour, and without much hesitation.

The results of the readers' poll we carried out between 19 April and 25 April are therefore astonishing and deeply disturbing for the Labour leadership. We e-mailed all readers for whom we have an e-mail address, asking how they voted in 2001 and how they intend to vote in this general election. We got 1,004 responses. The distressing news for Tony Blair is that, while 507 voted Labour in 2001, only 285 will do so next Thursday, a drop of 44 per cent. Last time, just over half of all the readers in our survey say, they voted Labour; this time, only 28 per cent intend to do so, while 34 per cent say they will vote Lib Dem (see table overleaf).

Put another way, Labour got 60 per cent support among those who voted last time (and can remember how they voted) but, this time (excluding those who don't know or won't vote), it gets only 31 per cent. The Lib Dems, a distant second on 21 per cent of the voters last time, have soared to 38 per cent this time. The swing to the Lib Dems is 23 per cent. The Greens, meanwhile, have more than doubled their support to a healthy 15 per cent of those stating a voting intention.

The survey is clearly not representative of Labour voters, and perhaps not even of NS readers. Given that it was conducted by e-mail, it is likely to be biased in favour of younger readers, as is also suggested by the high proportion of non-voters in 2001. Labour loyalists, including candidates and agents for both parliamentary and council elections, may well argue that they were too busy campaigning to reply. But the depth of dissatisfaction and anger with - even contempt for - the present Labour leadership is striking. In their comments (see this page and next), respondents cited the Iraq war ("unforgivable") and Blair himself ("hands dripping with blood") as their main grievances. Several said they would vote Labour if Gordon Brown were leader. Even among those staying loyal, the mood was truculent: "a damn sight better than any of the alternatives available" was about as good as it got.

We also asked a number of our contributors how they will vote (see pages 26-31). Here, too, we found intense disillusionment, with Labour staying, at best, level with the Lib Dems and many contributors still undecided. By contrast, surveys before the two previous elections found overwhelming Labour support, though less in 2001 than in 1997. The small amount of support for the Liberal Democrats was then mainly tactical. Some of it still is; but most of it, among both readers and contributors, is now anti-Labour protest. In neither survey was it possible to detect even a small movement towards the Conservatives. That, perhaps, is the only comfort these polls can offer to the Prime Minister.

Voting Liberal Democrat: why our readers are switching from Labour

'Iraq, Iraq and Iraq . . . Going to war is not like putting a penny on income tax - people die, and did so by the thousands. This is unforgivable, and the way in which the public was glibly patronised about the reasons for war is an outrage. Thus Liberals will get my (protest) vote.'

'More of a swipe at Labour than a sign of complete agreement with the Lib Dems. I am annoyed by all that bollocks about "choice" in health and education, and sick of the sight of the public-school Godbotherer at the helm.'

'I cannot vote for a party whose leader is a liar and whose hands are dripping with the blood of the innocent people of Afghanistan.'

'Labour is blackmailing the electorate with threats of a Tory takeover. I happen to think my vote too precious to waste it on a party that can only sell itself on "not being as bad as the other guys". The Lib Dems offer a real alternative.'

'Blair's a liar and Iraq is a stain that even Mrs Macbeth would find hard to remove. The prospect of Howard as PM is too scary and this election could see the Tories fall apart if they do badly enough. Ours is a seat where the Lib Dems are the main opposition to the Tories.'

'I am totally disenchanted with Blair - he's just an actor! If we did not have to suffer Blair a further full term, and if Gordon Brown was clearly going to be PM, I would vote Labour again.'

Sarah Griffith, 58, tourist attraction manager, Somerset
I consider myself to be a Labour supporter, but there is absolutely no way I will vote Labour until they get rid of Blair. Iraq and his autocratic style of government have done huge disservice to the liberal democracy that I thought I lived in.

Dennis Chaldecott, 75, retired university professor, Budleigh Salterton, Devon
I approve of a number of the Lib Dem policies. They seem to be unreservedly designed to promote the greatest good for the greatest number.

Robert Keen, 21, student, Colchester
I'm voting Lib Dem instead of Labour because asylum is important to me. I believe in controlled economic immigration, but there is no moral justification for controlling the number of refugees who desperately need help in this country.

'I will vote Liberal Democrat in the hope of getting proportional representation.'

'The Labour Party, despite many constructive policies that have significantly helped poorer sectors of society, can no longer be trusted. Were Gordon Brown leader of the party, I would vote Labour.'

'The Lib Dems seem a lot fairer than what the other parties have to offer. I'd stomach a Labour government with a reduced majority and Gordon Brown as leader.'

'I've lost faith in the Labour government over Tony Blair taking us to war against Iraq. We should only have gone with the backing of the UN. I also don't support top-up fees for students. Why should they be saddled with debt as they start their careers? The rich should pay for this through a 50 per cent rate of tax. I am old Labour and I now find that the Liberal Democrats' policies are the most redistributional.'

'Personally I don't find any of the parties attractive this time, but the Lib Dems seem the least objectionable, despite the fact I don't believe their policies are wholly coherent.'

Sticking with Labour despite everything. . .

'As much as I resent it, I have been convinced that a protest vote against Labour would only strengthen the Conservative Party. I am still very angry about the war in Iraq and have serious doubts about the merits of public/private partnerships.'

'Least worst electable choice. Not happy.'

'Because I think that, despite some bad decisions, Blair has actually done a lot of good for the country and improved the lives of a lot of average working people (especially in terms of family life).'

'Labour's achievements have been underrated, and there is a chance, with a Brown succession, of significant progress.'

'I believe Labour is offering women a better deal and is attempting to tackle child poverty.'

'While the present Labour Party isn't perfect, it's a damn sight better than the alternatives.'

. . .and the rest are angry and confused

'I want to make sure the Tories don't get in, so feel I should vote Labour. The Lib Dems are closer to my beliefs, so I feel I should vote for them, but I don't want to, when it might mean the Tories have a chance. I dislike Tony Blair, but do like Gordon Brown. It's very confusing.'

'The usual dilemma: Labour ain't my Labour any longer; Conservatives ain't an option; Lib Dems haven't convinced me; Greens are too unrealistic. I feel completely disenfranchised.'

'The Green Party is the new party of the left.'

'I won't vote for Labour while that lying git is leader.'

'In order to oust my useless Labour MP, I shall vote Conservative (despite disagreeing with many of their national policies).'

'Disillusioned by mainstream politics - a parcel o' rogues!'

'Not voting - too discontented.'

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 02 May 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Could the future be yellow?