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