Miliband makes tackling inequality his defining mission for government

In the form of a commitment to reduce inequalities "in income, opportunity and power", Miliband has articulated the radical agenda he would pursue after 2015.

One of the things that attracted so many in Labour to Ed Miliband's leadership campaign was his commitment to reduce inequality. Confronted by the widening gap between rich and poor, Tony Blair would glibly remark that he didn’t go into politics "to make sure that David Beckham earns less money". Gordon Brown was less intensely relaxed about the "filthy rich" but doubted whether it was possible to significantly reduce inequality in a country that he continued to view as conservative. 

Miliband, by contrast, recognised that progressive governments have both a moral and an economic duty to do so. And for him, as Kant put it, ought implied can. As he wrote in a piece for the New Statesman in August 2010, "We, politicians and the public, have to decide what kind of society we want to live in, and whether the difficult task of greater equality is worth the candle. It is - and it is at the very heart of why we need to move on from New Labour. During our years in power, we didn't do enough to stop the gap between rich and poor getting wider. If you really believe in a society where there is social mobility, where we look after each other, where we build social solidarity, then the gap matters."

But as Miliband has focused on developing his "retail offer" to voters, in the form of policies such as the energy price freeze and a mass housebuilding programme, there are some in Labour who feel this overarching message has been lost. While the theme of inequality has risen to prominence in such unlikely places as Davos, it has been surprisingly absent from Miliband's recent speeches. But in his Hugo Young lecture tonight he will act to correct this omission. 

When Miliband ran for the leadership in 2010, his commitment to reduce inequality was viewed as a radical challenge to the Westminster consensus. But as he will rightly note this evening, "nationally and internationally, this is changing". He will cite Barack Obama, New York mayor Bill de Blasio, the Pope, and Conservatives David Skelton and Jesse Norman as examples of political figures, from the left and the right, who have recognised the necessity of building a more equal society. "Tackling inequality is the new centre ground of politics," he will declare. Here's the key extract: 

Many people across every walk of life in Britain – politics, charity and business – now openly say they believe that inequality is deeply damaging. Internationally too, political and civic leaders are talking about inequality in a way that they haven’t for generations.

At the end of last month, President Obama put it right at the heart of his agenda for government. A few months before that the Democratic candidate for Mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio, was elected with precisely the same message. We now have a Pope who says the same.

And that’s because people the world over are beginning to recognise some fundamental facts again. That it offends people’s basic sense of fairness when the gaps between those at the top and everyone else just keep getting bigger regardless of contribution. That it holds our economies back when the wages of the majority are squeezed and it weakens our societies when the gaps between the rungs on the ladder of opportunity get wider and wider. And that our nations are less likely to succeed when they lack that vital sense of common life, as they always must when the very richest live in one world and everyone else a very different one. 

I believe that these insights are at the heart of a new wave of progressive politics. And will be for years to come. Indeed, not just left of centre politics. Intelligent Conservatives from David Skelton outside Westminster to Jesse Norman inside recognise the importance of inequality as well.

I believe that the public want to know we get it; we understand the depths of the cost of living crisis they face. And we can’t go on with countries where the gap between those at the top and everyone else just gets bigger and bigger. Tackling inequality is the new centre ground of politics.

When Miliband has spoken about inequality in the past he has usually been referring to income and opportunity. An important shift tonight will be to widen his focus to include inequalities of power. It is a recognition that some of the greatest disparities between groups cannot simply be plotted on a decile graph. Too often, in their contact with public services, individuals are denied the opportunity to shape their own lives. It is this Blue Labour insight that lies behind Miliband's promise of radical devolution (as I wrote this morning) and a revolution in transparency and accountability.

As he will say, citing Michael Young's Small Man, Big World and Saul Alinksy, the father of modern community organising, "I care about inequality of income and opportunity. But I care about something else as well. Inequalities of power. Everyone - not just those at the top - should have the chance to shape their own lives. I meet as many people frustrated by the unresponsive state as the untamed market: the housing case not dealt with, the special educational needs situation unresolved, the problems on the estate unaddressed. And the causes of the frustrations are often the same in the private and public sector: unaccountable power with the individual left powerless to act against it. So just as it is One Nation Labour’s cause to tackle unaccountable power in the private sector, so too in the public sector."

In the form of a commitment to tackle inequality, in all its forms, Miliband has come the closest yet to articulating what will be Labour's defining mission in government. When David Cameron delivered the same lecture in 2009, he too vowed to reduce poverty and inequality (albeit through conservative means), declaring: "What I have spoken about today combines optimism about the potential for social renewal with realism about the role of the state in fighting poverty and inequality. If we stick the course and change this country then we will have a national life expanded with meaning and mutual responsibility. We will feel it in the strength of our relationships - the civility and courtesy we show to each other."

But more recently, under the tutelage of Lynton Crosby, he has retreated to a narrow, sour agenda characterised by ever-more dogmatic policies on welfare and immigration. The themes of inequality and poverty now rarely, if ever, appear in his speeches. It is another reminder of why the next election will be defined by the kind of big choices that have for so long been absent from British politics. 

Ed Miliband delivers his speech at the Labour conference in Brighton last year. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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.