Leader: Labour needs to become more of a fighting force in its own right

It's easy to look at the current political situation and see Conservatives on the march, Labour yielding under pressure - but is that really the case?

A wind tends to run through the media’s coverage of politics. A collective view is formed that everything is going right for one party and wrong for its opponents. News is reported selectively to fit that thesis. Currently the wind is at David Cameron’s back. Why? Traces of economic recovery are visible, the Tories have taken a break from infighting and headline-grabbing incompetence, Labour’s lead in the opinion polls has narrowed.
 
Meanwhile, Ed Miliband spent the weeks before parliament’s summer recess tied up in a debate about his relationship with the trade unions which is necessary, but introspective.
 
By contrast, the Conservatives are advertising themselves as being ready for battle. That is certainly the spin successfully put on their recruitment of Jim Messina, Barack Obama’s former election strategist. The signing of a big hitter from the US Democratic Party was depicted as a coup for Mr Cameron. It also served as a reminder that Mr Miliband has yet to appoint a replacement for Tom Watson, his campaign co-ordinator who resigned in June amid the controversy over allegations of candidate selection-fixing.
 
Mr Cameron, meanwhile, has been employing the services of the Australian Lynton Crosby, his campaign consultant, who is credited in part with restoring discipline and fighting spirit to the Conservative benches.
 
So, it is easy to build an account of Conservatives on the march and Labour yielding under pressure. Yet how reliable is that analysis? The crucial piece of evidence on which the story hangs is the shift in opinion polls. Although there is plenty of variety between the different surveys, a trend has emerged that shows Labour drifting away from the doubledigit advantage it once boasted. The question is whether that indicates irresistible Conservative momentum and an inevitable Miliband decline.
 
A longer view suggests not necessarily. The periods in which Labour has pushed ahead have coincided with a patch of egregiously inept government – the “omnishambles” Budget of 2012, which led to panic in the Conservative ranks and a Ukip surge in by-elections and council ballots. The underlying picture has barely shifted in three years. Labour’s core vote is bolstered by disgruntled former Liberal Democrats, giving Mr Miliband a slight advantage over the Conservatives, who appear able to call reliably on the support of roughly a third of the electorate, but rarely more.
 
British politics has been stuck in the same rut since the 2010 general election: there are not enough people who trust Labour to run the economy and too many people with a visceral dislike of the Conservatives for either side to win a majority. Ukip and the Liberal Democrats cloud the picture but the blue-red contest is fairly stable and immune to the wild swings of the media weathervane.
 
It is convenient to pretend that the frenzied cycle expressed by rolling television news, and accelerated by Twitter, feeds directly into parties’ popularity. This is the political equivalent of the dubious hypothesis that financial markets, in which millions of trades are made every second, give prices for assets that accurately reflect those assets’ value. In reality, there is much meaningless noise, making it harder to discern a clear signal of what is happening. Most of the country has no interest in the daily obsessions of the Westminster village. London SW1 is surely the most atypical postcode in the country; as such, it is not a safe vantage point from which to read the national mood.
 
The good news for Mr Miliband is that reports of a summer of Labour discontent need not portend disaster. The bad news is that his party’s support seems more closely pegged to fluctuations in Tory discipline than to any campaign strategy that he has devised. A sustained Conservative civil war before polling day in 2015 is possible but not guaranteed. Before then, Labour needs to become more of a fighting force in its own right.
The good news for Mr Miliband is that reports of a summer of Labour discontent need not portend disaster. Photograph: Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 12 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What if JFK had lived?

Photo: Getty Images
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Can non-voters win the next election for Labour?

Any Labour leader who pins their hopes on getting non-voters to the polling station will be defeated in 2020. 

Question: how can non-voters win the 2020 election for Jeremy Corbyn?

Short answer: they can’t.

This isn’t an anti-Corbyn point, by the way: they also can’t win a general election for Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham or Liz Kendall. There is no route to a parliamentary majority for any of Labour's leadership candidates which doesn’t involve addressing the concerns of Conservative voters.  Why not?

Well, there’s the obvious point that you can’t only raise your own turnout. Take, say, Barack Obama’s successful presidential bid in 2008: yes, he increased turnout among young graduates and ethnic minorities, contributing to his victories in traditionally Republican-leaning states like North Carolina and Florida. But he also increased turnout among Republican voters, losing by a bigger margin in Tenessee, Arkansas, Louisana, Oklahoma and West Virginia than John Kerry did in 2004.

The problem for British politicians attempting to emulate the Obama strategy is that Britain is less diverse than the United States.  British constituencies are, for the most part, what sociologists call “socially crunchy” – so if you increase turnout among, say, ethnic minorities and young graduates, but turn off, say landlords and middle-managers, there are very few seats where you will feel the benefits but not the punishment. (In fact, most of the seats where this is the case Labour already hold.)

Then there’s the bigger problem. Non-voters aren’t actually all that different from voters. After the election, the Trades Union Congress commissioned Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research to find out what had gone on. Here’s why non-voters and voters didn’t opt for Ed Miliband’s Labour party here:

As you can see, there is not a vast gulf between the two groups. (“Other” by the way, includes responses like “They weren’t leftwing enough”, "They sold the gold", "Iraq" and so forth.) Even if you assume the 35 per cent of “Don’t Knows” actually mean “I was waiting for a real Labour party”,  and that a more radical Labour party  would attract all of them, look at the worries that people who went on to back Labour despite them in 2015 had:

It’s hard to see how a more “traditional” Labour approach on public spending, welfare, and so on wouldn’t also lose voters from Labour’s existing 2015 bloc. But what about, say, the Greens and the SNP?

It is just possible that the 20 per cent "Other" in the SNP is all "Labour weren't leftwing enough" but it seems likely that at least some of it is "I want to leave the United Kingdom". But even if we take all of that 20 per cent, we're still talking Labour gais in Scotland of fewer than ten seats. Now let’s look at people in social grade DE, semi-skilled and unskilled manual workers, what you might categorise as Labour’s “traditional” core:

Look familiar? Now, here’s what Ukip voters and Tory voters made of Labour in 2015:

That’s not to say that the next Labour leader shouldn’t aim to increase turnout. It’s just to say that there is no evidence at all that policy prescriptions that turn off Conservative voters will have a more natural home among people who didn’t vote – quite the reverse.  Whatever happens, if the next Labour leader wants to win the next election, they are going to have to win over people who thought "they would make it too easy for people to live on benefits", and that "they would spend too much and can't be trusted with the economy". The next Labour leader – whoever they are – is going to have to try to win over people who voted Tory in 2015. This is one of the few times in politics where there really is no alternative.

 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.