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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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era