Ed Miliband speaks at the launch of Labour's local and European election campaign. Photograph: Getty Images.
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How and why Labour has lost support - and how it can win it back

The party's strategic focus should remain the same, but with much more ambition.

The polls of the last few days have obviously been a bit unnerving for Labour supporters. Time will tell whether this is a blip, a new steady-state or a continuing downward trend to something much worse. But for a moment let’s ignore what happens next and consider the state of the parties today. The two main parties may be neck-and-neck, but the composition of their support is very different.*

Who’s backing Labour? The mix of Labour’s voters hasn’t changed that much as its lead has declined, it’s just that each group is a bit smaller than it was. Twenty one percentage points of Labour’s support comes from loyal 2010 voters. Almost all the rest comes from Liberal Democrats (6 percentage points of support) and new voters. In addition Labour has picked up just one percentage point of support from former Tories: in this parliament "swing" between the two main parties has been very low, even when Labour was far ahead.

Why has Labour’s polling position declined? Labour’s retreat from the low-40s has been broad-based. There’s been a slight fall in support from 2010 Labour voters; and backing from new voters and Lib Dems is down, while still strong. Each of these groups accounts for one or two percentage points of the party’s decline. And Labour has also lost around one percentage point of support from 2010 Conservatives (previously Labour was the net beneficiary of switching between the main two parties: now switchers basically cancel each other out). One piece of context for these changes is Ukip: Labour has lost around two percentage points of voters from its 2010 supporters switching to Farage; but its support among new voters has softened for the same reason, as people toying with Labour opt for Ukip instead.

Why are the Tories and Ukip both doing well? The Tories have lost around 5 percentage points in the polls from their 2010 supporters switching to Ukip, but this has been reflected in the numbers for some time. The modest Tory gains may come from a different direction: former Liberal Democrats seem to be supporting the Conservatives in greater number than earlier in the parliament (they account for around three percentage points of the Tories support).

Could Labour lose more votes? Obviously it could, anything is possible in politics. But the party may have a bit of a cushion, because it has so few former Conservatives supporting it at the moment: other types of Labour supporter may be less persuaded by Tory attacks. For Labour’s poll to sink towards the result recorded by Gordon Brown, it will need to lose more 2010 supporters and a significant chunk of new voters and former Lib Dems. Since 2010, the nightmare haunting Labour has been the prospect of a strong Lib Dem revival (hence the crass party political broadcast). But with a year to go, that possibility is starting to look more remote.

Could the Tories win a majority? Even if Labour’s position deteriorates further, it’s still very hard to see how the Tories can win outright. The Conservatives probably need 40 per cent of the vote for a majority. To get that they need to keep the support they have today and also win back all their 2010 voters lost to Ukip. That looks like a tall order.

So, the polls may have changed, but Labour’s strategic focus should remain the same, but with much more ambition. Labour needs to assemble a broad coalition of many different sorts of voters, most of whom are united by their suspicion of the Conservatives. Former Lib Dems remain absolutely key while winning over ex-Tories is a less viable route to victory than in previous elections (after all, if people haven’t switched from Cameron to Miliband by now, they’re not going to in 2015).

All this explains why Labour is right to stake out radical positions that distinguish it from the coalition. But the fact that Labour’s decline has been broad-based, not sectional, reminds us that different sorts of voter often react in the same way to political weather. Micro-targeting of different segments of the electorate is probably a waste of time or even counter-productive. Potential Labour voters of every stripe want to see the same thing: a strong, credible government-in-waiting; with a sense of direction, purpose, compassion and competence; ready to govern well and deliver a decisive turn away from the coalition. Ed Miliband’s task is to convince the British people that he is both radical and ready for power.

* The numbers in this article are the author’s calculations, using three YouGov polls from the last fortnight, which each gave Labour Party a one point lead (5-6 May, 7-8 May, 11-12 May).

Andrew Harrop is general secretary of the Fabian Society.

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What Donald Trump could learn from Ronald Reagan

Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement.

“No one remembers who came in second.” That wisdom, frequently dispensed by the US presidential candidate Donald Trump, came back to haunt him this week. Trump’s loss in the Iowa Republican caucuses to the Texas senator Ted Cruz, barely beating Senator Marco Rubio of Florida for second place, was the first crack in a campaign that has defied all expectations.

It has been a campaign built on Trump’s celebrity. Over the past eight months, his broad name recognition, larger-than-life personality and media savvy have produced a theatrical candidacy that has transfixed even those he repels. The question now is whether that celebrity will be enough – whether a man so obsessed with being “Number One” can bounce back from defeat.

Iowa isn’t everything, after all. It didn’t back the eventual Republican nominee in 2008 or 2012. Nor, for that matter, in 1980, when another “celebrity” candidate was in the mix. That was the year Iowa picked George H W Bush over Ronald Reagan – the former actor whom seasoned journalists dismissed as much for his right-wing views as for his “B-movie” repertoire. But Reagan regrouped, romped to victory in the New Hampshire primary and rode a wave of popular support all the way to the White House.

Trump might hope to replicate that success and has made a point of pushing the Reagan analogy more generally. Yet it is a comparison that exposes Trump’s weaknesses and his strengths.

Both men were once Democrats who came later in life to the Republican Party, projecting toughness, certainty and unabashed patriotism. Trump has even adopted Reagan’s 1980 campaign promise to “make America great again”. Like Reagan, he has shown he can appeal to evangelicals despite question marks over his religious conviction and divorces. In his ability to deflect criticism, too, Trump has shown himself as adept as Reagan – if by defiance rather than by charm – and redefined what it means to be “Teflon” in the age of Twitter.

That defiance, however, points to a huge difference in tone between Reagan’s candidacy and Trump’s. Reagan’s vision was a positive, optimistic one, even as he castigated “big government” and the perceived decline of US power. Reagan’s America was meant to be “a city upon a hill” offering a shining example of liberty to the world – in rhetoric at least. Trump’s vision is of an America closed off from the world. His rhetoric invokes fear as often as it does freedom.

On a personal level, Reagan avoided the vituperative attacks that have been the hallmark of Trump’s campaign, even as he took on the then“establishment” of the Republican Party – a moderate, urban, east coast elite. In his first run for the nomination, in 1976, Reagan even challenged an incumbent Republican president, Gerald Ford, and came close to defeating him. But he mounted the challenge on policy grounds, advocating the so-called “Eleventh Commandment”: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” Trump, as the TV debates between the Republican presidential candidates made clear, does not subscribe to the same precept.

More importantly, Reagan in 1976 and 1980 was the leader of a resurgent conservative movement, with deep wells of political experience. He had been president of the Screen Actors Guild in the late 1940s, waging a campaign to root out communist infiltrators. He had gone on to work for General Electric in the 1950s as a TV pitchman and after-dinner speaker, honing a business message that resonated beyond the “rubber chicken circuit”.

In 1964 he grabbed headlines with a televised speech on behalf of the Republican presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater – a bright spot in Goldwater’s otherwise ignominious campaign. Two years later he was elected governor of California – serving for eight years as chief executive of the nation’s most populous state. He built a conservative record on welfare reform, law and order, and business regulation that he pushed on to the federal agenda when he ran for president.

All this is to say that Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. By contrast, Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement – which enhanced his “outsider” status, perhaps, but not his ground game. So far, he has run on opportunism, tapping in to popular frustration, channelled through a media megaphone.

In Iowa, this wasn’t enough. To win the nomination he will have to do much more to build his organisation. He will be hoping that in the primaries to come, voters do remember who came in second. 

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war