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  1. Politics
14 May 2014

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.

By Andrew Harrop

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.

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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).

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