Ed Miliband addresses an audience at 'The Backstage Centre' on May 27, 2014 in Purflee. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Without change, Labour is choosing to lose

 The party's present strategy of managing a declining poll lead must be altered.

Ed Miliband has a simple choice to make: the Labour leader can replay the 2010 general election and hope for a different result or he can change course and try for a majority.

The numbers suggest that Labour’s present strategy of managing a declining poll lead must be altered. Equally, there is a moral case for reaching out to the blue-collar voters whom the party was originally founded to represent. Without change, Labour will be choosing to lose.

Let’s start with the numbers. The electoral consequences of a significant loss of both existing and potential blue-collar support were laid bare in the 2014 council results. Labour lost the popular vote in nine constituencies where there is a Labour MP. Beyond the M25, the party has a problem. On top of this, in roughly half of Labour’s target 106 battleground constituencies, the marginal seats that will determine the election, nearly 50 per cent of the electorate is made up of working-class voters, whose support for Labour declined significantly between 2005 and 2014.

In Labour’s Next Majority: the 40% Strategy the Fabian Society set out last year what the pundits Peter Kellner and Lewis Baston described as a “plausible” if “ambitious” means for Labour to achieve a 40 per cent share of the vote and thus a majority. As things stand, a result in the low 30s seems more realistic in 2015.

Labour’s Next Majority estimated that the party could achieve the 29.5 per cent of voters who voted Labour in 2010, minus 2 per cent due to generational churn, as well as an extra 6.5 per cent of votes from Lib Dem converts, 5 per cent from new and previous non-voters, and 1 per cent from former Conservative voters. Attention was focused on the importance of Lib Dem defectors, and how potential Tory voters could be converted by door-to-door campaigning. The call for a focus on voters who sat out the last general election was met with scepticism in Labour circles.

Yet Ukip’s results in the 2014 local and European elections demonstrate the importance of blue-collar voters for Labour. These are the voters it has been haemorrhaging for over a decade; those who once sat at home on election day and are now coming out to vote Ukip.

Consider an alternative scenario for 2015: Labour loses 2 per cent of its 2010 voters to generational churn, and 2.5 per cent vote Ukip or don’t vote at all – leaving it with 25 per cent (coincidentally, this is what Michael Ashcroft’s Project Red Alert estimated as Labour’s core vote). Now add 5 per cent from 2010 Lib Dem voters (Political Betting’s Mike Smithson considers this figure probable) and 2.5 per cent from new or previous non-voters. Labour would achieve 32.5 per cent of the vote.

Now look at an only slightly optimistic Conservative Party scenario. The Tories start off with the 37 per cent of the electorate that voted for the party in 2010. They lose 2 per cent due to generational churn and 3 per cent who either don’t vote or vote Ukip, and gain 2 per cent from new or previous non-voters and 1 per cent from Lib Dem defectors. This leaves the Conservatives with 35 per cent of the vote. The result: Labour loses 32 to 35.

As experts at the UK’s Polling Observatory have noted, “While Labour’s support has been in decline for the past six to nine months (having plateaued for a period before that) underlying Conservative support has remained incredibly stable around the 31 per cent level”. So it’s clear that Labour needs to reverse its trajectory, particularly as improvements in the economy will boost Tory polls in 2015.

The erosion of the party’s blue-collar support also throws up big questions about what Labour is and what it stands for. Simply put, what is the point of a social-democratic party that loses its working-class soul?

Some in the party say that demographic trends make the UK’s future look a lot like London’s, which is good news for Labour. They point to the coalition of progressive, middle-class, younger and ethnic-minority voters that turned the capital red even as so much of the country stayed Tory blue or even turned Ukip purple. But the problem is that most marginal seats are not found in Labour’s urban strongholds but rather in the more culturally conservative and economically anxious areas of the Midlands, the east of England or the coast. After all, of all the seats that Labour lost in 2010, just 7 were in London while 26 were in the Midlands. As the veteran campaigner Luke Akehurst notes, “it’s a great coalition (middle class, young and minority) if you want to win in Hackney . . . but it is an insufficient coalition to deliver a general election victory.”

Faced with the anxieties of blue-collar voters, Labour must remember the lesson of opposition: renewal is the only way to stay relevant. Labour must shift from safety-first election campaigning and over-cautious, small ball politics and recapture the public’s imagination. As John Denham, MP for Southampton Itchen, has observed, we need to recognise the pressures immigration has put on some working-class communities (particularly in the presence of poor minimum wage enforcement and irresponsible employment agencies). A radical manifesto, a clearer stance on tough issues such as immigration and welfare, and an embrace of movement politics are therefore key to victory.

The choice before Labour is Minority Miliband or Majority Miliband. The implications are dramatic, both in the short-term (a difference between victory and defeat in 2015) and in the long-term, as the party faces the prospect of the collapse of Labour’s core blue collar vote. 

Minority Miliband is based on the politics of Brownite dividing lines, retail offers to put money in voters’ pockets and a narrow focus on Labour-friendly issues such as the NHS and “fairness”. It is an approach that seeks to rerun the 2010 general election and use the 2014 local and European campaigns as a model for a narrow appeal to existing Labour voters and some former Lib Dems. It hopes to squeak over the finishing line and sneak Ed Miliband into No. 10 through the back door of an electoral system that could translate the loss of the popular vote into a win for a minority government. This is a logical consequence of abandoning blue-collar Britons and becoming a party of the urban middle class alone.

The alternative is Majority Miliband. This approach would marry short-term retail offers such as the energy price freeze with longer term changes to the economy itself. It would earn voter trust by speaking honestly about how small Labour’s changes will be in the short-term but how big they can be in the long-term. And it would tap the power of shared sacrifice to rebuild British society and the economy over a generation.

Over the next year, the Majority Miliband position would fully embrace Arnie Graf’s community organising methods. As the Fabians’ Labour’s Next Majority programme has laid out, movement politics should be at the heart of the Labour party, challenging candidates, staff and activists alike to expand the party, root it in communities, listen to blue-collar concerns and change accordingly.

MPs such as Gloria De Piero and John Spellar successfully connect with their voters because they understand blue-collar concerns and translate them into action on the ground. They focus not just on increasing their volunteer ranks, but on bringing local parties into the cultural and economic life of their communities through activities such as the St George’s Day celebrations,  non-voter listening campaigns and local apprenticeship schemes.

A campaign that directs its policies, messages and organisational direction towards blue-collar votes has a chance of seeing Ed Miliband into Downing Street with a majority. The choice is Ed’s.

Marcus Roberts is the deputy general secretary of the Fabian Society and served as Field Director of Ed Miliband's leadership campaign

This is an extended version of a piece in this week's New Statesman

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Now listen to George Eaton, Lucy Fisher and Caroline Crampton discussing this article on the New Statesman podcast:

Marcus Roberts is an executive project director at YouGov. 

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David Davis interview: The next Conservative leader will be someone nobody expects

The man David Cameron beat on why we should bet on a surprise candidate and what the PM needs to do after the referendum. 

“I’m tired,” says David Davis when I greet him. The former Conservative leadership candidate is running on three hours’ sleep after a Question Time appearance the night before. He is cheered, however, by the coverage of his exchange with Ed Miliband. “Which country would it be be like?” the former Labour leader asked of a post-EU UK. “The country we’re going to be like is Great Britain,” the pro-Brexit Davis retorted

The 67-year-old Haltemprice and Howden MP is at Hull University to debate constituency neighbour Alan Johnson, the head of the Labour In campaign. “As far as you can tell, it’s near to a dead heat,” Davis said of the referendum. “I think the run of events will favour Brexit but if I had to bet your salary, I wouldn’t bet mine, I’d place it on a very narrow victory for Brexit.”

Most economists differ only on how much harm a Leave vote would do. Does Davis believe withdrawal is justified even if it reduces growth? “Well, I think that’s a hypothetical question based on something that’s not going to happen ... One of the arguments for Brexit is that it will actually improve our longer-run economic position. In the short-run, I think Stuart Rose, the head of Remain, had a point when he said there would be very small challenges. In a few years probably nothing.

“The most immediate thing would likely be wage increases at the bottom end, which is very important. The people in my view who suffer from the immigration issue are those at the bottom of society, the working poor, which is why I bridle when people ‘oh, it’s a racist issue’. It’s not, it’s about people’s lives.”

More than a decade has passed since David Cameron defeated Davis by 68-32 in the 2005 Conservative leadership contest. The referendum has pitted the two men against each other once more. I asked Davis whether he agreed with the prime minister’s former strategist, Steve Hilton, that Cameron would be a Brexiter were he not in No.10.

“I think it might be true, I think it might be. When you are in that position you’re surrounded by lot of people: there’s the political establishment, the Whitehall establishment, the business establishment, most of who, in economic parlance, have a ‘sunk cost’ in the current set-up. If changes they stand to lose things rather than gain things, or that’s how they see it.

“Take big business. Big business typically gets markets on the continent, maybe distribution networks, supply networks. They’re going to think they’re all at risk and they’re not going to see the big opportunities that exist in terms of new markets in Brazil, new markets in China and so on, they’re naturally very small-C Conservative. Whitehall the same but for different reasons. If you’re a fast-track civil servant probably part of your career will be through the Commission or maybe the end of your career. Certainly in the Foreign Office. When I ran the European Union department in the Foreign Office, everybody wanted a job on the continent somewhere. They were all slanted that way. If all your advice comes from people like that, that’s what happens.”

Davis told me that he did not believe a vote to Leave would force Cameron’s resignation. “If it’s Brexit and he is sensible and appoints somebody who is clearly not in his little group but who is well-equipped to run the Brexit negotiations and has basically got a free hand, there’s an argument to say stability at home is an important part of making it work.”

He added: “I think in some senses the narrow Remain is more difficult for him than the narrow Brexit. You may get resentment. It’s hard to make a call about people’s emotional judgements under those circumstances.”

As a former leadership frontrunner, Davis avoids easy predictions about the coming contest. Indeed, he believes the victor will be a candidate few expect. “If it’s in a couple of years that’s quite a long time. The half life of people’s memories in this business ... The truth of the matter is, we almost certainly don’t know who the next Tory leader is. The old story I tell is nobody saw Thatcher coming a year in advance, nobody saw Major coming a year in advance, nobody saw Hague coming a year in advance, nobody saw Cameron coming a year in advance.

“Why should we know two years in advance who it’s going to be? The odds are that it’ll be a Brexiter but it’s not impossible the other way.”

Does Davis, like many of his colleagues, believe that Boris Johnson is having a bad war? “The polls say no, the polls say his standing has gone up. That being said, he’s had few scrapes but then Boris always has scrapes. One of the natures of Boris is that he’s a little bit teflon.”

He added: “One thing about Boris is that he attracts the cameras and he attracts the crowds ... What he says when the crowd gets there almost doesn’t matter.”

Of Johnson’s comparison of the EU to Hitler, he said: “Well, if you read it it’s not quite as stern as the headline. It’s always a hazardous thing to do in politics. I think the point he was trying to make is that there’s a long-running set of serial attempts to try and unify Europe not always by what you might term civilised methods. It would be perfectly possible for a German audience to turn that argument on its head and say isn’t it better whether we do it this way.”

Davis rejected the view that George Osborne’s leadership hopes were over (“it’s never all over”) but added: “Under modern turbulent conditions, with pressure for austerity and so on, the simple truth is being a chancellor is quite a chancy business ... The kindest thing for Dave to do to George would be to move him on and give him a bit of time away from the dangerous front.”

He suggested that it was wrong to assume the leadership contest would be viewed through the prism of the EU. “In two years’ time this may all be wholly irrelevant - and probably will be. We’ll be on to some other big subject. It’’ll be terrorism or foreign wars or a world financial crash, which I think is on the cards.”

One of those spoken of as a dark horse candidate is Dominic Raab, the pro-Brexit justice minister and Davis’s former chief of staff. “You know what, if I want to kill somebody’s chances the thing I would do is talk them up right now, so forgive me if I pass on that question,” Davis diplomatically replied. “The reason people come out at the last minute in these battles is that if you come out early you acquire enemies and rivals. Talking someone up today is not a friendly thing to do.” But Davis went on to note: “They’re a few out there: you’ve got Priti [Patel], you’ve got Andrea [Leadsom]”.

Since resigning as shadow home secretary in 2008 in order to fight a by-election over the issue of 42-day detention, Davis has earned renown as one of parliament’s most redoubtable defenders of civil liberties. He was also, as he proudly reminded me, one of just two Tory MPs to originally vote against tax credit cuts (a record of rebellion that also includes tuition fees, capital gains tax, child benefit cuts, House of Lords reform, boundary changes and Syria).

Davis warned that that any attempt to withdraw the UK from the European Convention on Human Rights would be defeated by himself and “a dozen” other Conservatives (a group known as the “Runnymede Tories” after the meadow where Magna Carta was sealed).

“They’ve promised to consult on it [a British Bill of Rights], rather than bring it back. The reason they did that is because it’s incredibly difficult. They’ve got a conundrum: if they make it non-compliant with the ECHR, it won’t last and some of us will vote against it.

“If they make it compliant with the ECHR it is in essence a rebranding exercise, it’s not really a change. I’d go along with that ... But the idea of a significant change is very difficult to pull off. Dominic Raab, who is working on this, is a very clever man. I would say that, wouldn’t I? But I think even his brain will be tested by finding the eye of the needle to go through.”

Davis is hopeful of winning a case before the European Court of Justice challenging the legality of the bulk retention of communications data. “It’s a court case, court cases have a random element to them. But I think we’ve got a very strong case. It was quite funny theatre when the ECJ met in Luxembourg, an individual vs. 15 governments, very symbolic. But I didn’t think any of the governments made good arguments. I’m lucky I had a very good QC. Our argument was pretty simple: if you have bulk data collected universally you’ve absolutely got to have an incredibly independent and tough authority confirming this. I would be surprised if the ECJ doesn’t find in my favour and that will have big implications for the IP [Investigatory Powers] bill.”

Davis launched the legal challenge in collaboration with Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson. He has also campaigned alongside Jeremy Corbyn, last year travelling to Washington D.C. with him to campaign successfully for the release of Shaker Aamer, the final Briton to be held in Guantanamo Bay.

“I like Jeremy,” Davis told me, “but the long and the short of it is that not having been on the frontbench at all shows. I’m not even sure that Jeremy wanted to win the thing. He’s never been at the Despatch Box. He’s up against a PM who’s pretty good at it and who’s been there for quite a long time. He’s playing out of his division at the moment. Now, he may get better. But he’s also got an incredibly schismatic party behind him, nearly all of his own MPs didn’t vote for him. We had a situation a bit like that with Iain Duncan Smith. Because we’re a party given to regicide he didn’t survive it. Because the Labour Party’s not so given to regicide and because he’d be re-elected under the system he can survive it.”

At the close of our conversation, I returned to the subject of the EU, asking Davis what Cameron needed to do to pacify his opponents in the event of a narrow Remain vote.

“He probably needs to open the government up a bit, bring in more people. He can’t take a vengeful attitude, it’s got to be a heal and mend process and that may involve bringing in some of the Brexiters into the system and perhaps recognising that, if it’s a very narrow outcome, half of the population are worried about our status. If I was his policy adviser I’d say it’s time to go back and have another go at reform.”

Davis believes that the UK should demand a “permanent opt-out” from EU laws “both because occasionally we’ll use it but also because it will make the [European] Commission more sensitive to the interests of individual member states. That’s the fundamental constitutional issue that I would go for.”

He ended with some rare praise for the man who denied him the crown.

“The thing about David Cameron, one of the great virtues of his premiership, is that he faces up to problems and deals with them. Sometimes he gets teased for doing too many U-turns - but that does at least indicate that he’s listening.”

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.