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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How Tony Blair's disingenuous line on Iraq eroded our faith in politicians

Not the Chilcot Report by Peter Oborne reveals how Blair exagerrated evidence from the intelligence services to parliament – and the public.

In this incisive book, Peter Oborne calls the invasion of Iraq “the defining calamity of the post-Cold War era” and I am inclined to agree. Not long after the March 2003 attack, I interviewed Adnan Pachachi, a former foreign minister and UN ambassador for Iraq. He told me that he had visited President George W Bush in Washington a few weeks before the invasion and begged him not to go ahead with it. The overthrow of Saddam Hussein would, Pachachi warned, lead inevitably to civil war between Iraq’s two main religious groupings, the Sunnis and the Shias. Bush was shocked. According to Pachachi, he had no idea that any such division among Muslims existed.

Granted, Bush was an ignoramus – but you would have thought that someone might have explained this crucial fact to him. Pachachi turned out to be right. Iraq has fallen into a disastrous religious civil war as a direct result of the invasion and Isis, a more extreme force even than al-Qaeda, has come to the fore. Nearly 5,000 coalition soldiers died; many hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians, perhaps a million, have lost their lives; and the man who led the whole terrible business didn’t know that the danger even existed.

Pachachi, like many politicians across the Middle East, found this puzzling. The US had never understood the Middle East, he said, but the British did; so why hadn’t Tony Blair warned the Americans what was going to happen? We know the answer to that: although Blair was far cleverer than Bush and had better advisers, his approach was always a subservient one. Like the entire British establishment, he believed that Britain’s influence in the world depended on sticking close to the US and he was prepared to be led around on a leash because he knew that this was the only relationship Bush’s people understood or wanted from him.

To “stand shoulder to shoulder” with Bush – at least, to stand closer behind him, head bowed, than any other national leader – Blair had to persuade the British people that Saddam posed a threat to them. Oborne, in fine forensic form, demolishes (his word) the notion that Blair was simply repeating what the intelligence services had told him about Saddam’s weapons and capability; he shows that Blair exaggerated and misrepresented the intelligence he was given.

Lord Butler, the former cabinet secretary who had investigated the government’s pre-invasion use of intelligence, said the same thing in a speech in the House of Lords in 2007. He described Blair’s approach as “disingenuous”: mandarin-speak for dishonest. Oborne quotes Butler at length:

 

The United Kingdom intelligence community told him [Blair] on 23 August 2002 that, “We . . . know little about Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons work since late 1988.” The prime minister did not tell us that. Indeed, he told parliament only just over a month later that the picture painted by our intelligence services was “extensive, detailed and authoritative”.

 

Oborne’s central point is that this dishonesty has done serious damage to the fundamental trust that the British people used to have in their rulers. There are all sorts of reasons why people have lost faith in politicians but it was the charismatic Blair – along with his head of communications, Alastair Campbell – who let us down the most.

Campbell is a former journalist who, even when he was the political editor of the Daily Mirror, seemed far more concerned with pushing a party line than with trying to report things truthfully. In May 2003, the BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan accused him of “sexing up” the dossier on Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction. Campbell was irate. In July, Dr David Kelly, the Ministry of Defence weapons expert who had briefed Gilligan, committed suicide. If, indeed, it was suicide – once you start losing faith in the ­official version of things, there is no end to it. And that is Oborne’s point.

Kelly’s death was followed by the scandalous Hutton inquiry, which managed to deflect attention from the questionable nature of the dossier to the way in which Gilligan had reported on it. However, although Kelly wasn’t a sufficiently senior source for Gilligan to base his report on, there is no doubt that Gilligan was essentially right: the intelligence dossier had been grossly hyped up. Campbell’s frenzied efforts to protect himself and Blair did huge damage to the BBC, the judiciary, the intelligence and security agencies and public trust in government.

Oborne’s excellent book is clear-headed and furious in its condemnation of Blair. But what about the Chilcot report, when it appears on 6 July? The ludicrous delay in publishing it has given people the expectation that it, too, will be a whitewash. Yet we are starting to get leaks that it won’t be – that it will be just as savage as Oborne would like. That is the only way we can start to drain the poison that has built up in our national life since Blair took the calamitous decision to follow the US into invading a country that its president knew zip about.

John Simpson (@JohnSimpsonNews) is the world affairs editor of the BBC

Not the Chilcot Report by Peter Oborne is published by Head of Zeus (208pp, £10)

John Simpson is World Affairs Editor of BBC News, having worked for the corporation since the beginning of his career in 1970. He has reported from more than 120 countries, including 30 war zones, and interviewed many world leaders.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad