To have a hope of outright victory in 2015, Labour has to significantly improve its position in the southern and Midlands marginals, articulating a new economic narrative about the politics of production and supply-side modernisation.
This has been the case since Labour’s dismal 2010 election result: Labour governments were elected in 1945, 1964-6 and 1997 by amassing a broad coalition of support across regions and social classes. But there is an even greater urgency today: in the aftermath of the Scottish referendum and the growing threat posed by the UK Independence Party, Labour cannot rely on increasing its share of parliamentary seats in its “northern and Celtic heartlands”.
Last week’s by-election in Rochester and Strood was always likely to be tough for Labour, squeezed between the Conservative party and Ukip. Yet this was a seat Labour held from 1997 to 2010: when previously in government, the party invariably wins here. Labour neglects the English marginal seats at its peril.
Labour and the marginals
Recent polls in the marginals commissioned by Michael Ashcroft are not all bad news for Ed Miliband. The party has maintained a lead on aggregate voting intention, while fundamentally more voters fear a “Conservative-led” government to a “Labour-led” government.
In the 11 swing constituencies Ashcroft surveyed in the past month, Labour is on course to win 10, although the general election is undoubtedly on a knife edge: in a seat such as Halesowen and Rowley Regis, the party has a lead of 1 per cent on constituency voting intention. In Nuneaton and Hove and Portslade, the leads are 3 per cent. If the election were held today, Labour would lose Gloucester by 1 per cent. The party has little room for manoeuvre: Labour urgently needs to lock in its existing support while enlarging its electoral base.
What is striking about Ashcroft’s polls is the extent of growing economic optimism in the marginal constituencies. When asked how they believed the British economy would fare in the year ahead in terms of wages, prices, jobs, taxes, and interest rates, 60 per cent of voters think the economy will do “well” for the country (63 per cent for their own family), while 36 per cent fear it will perform “badly” (34 per cent for their own family). Not surprisingly, Conservative voters are relatively optimistic, whereas Labour voters are more economically insecure. Labour is generally doing better in the marginal seats where economic pessimism is most pronounced.
However, given the trend towards an improved outlook following a protracted and painful recession, appealing to a pessimistic narrative about the economy that is unremittingly depressing and downbeat will produce limited gains for Labour. Yes, many voters have suffered as a consequence of the recession, although real wages have been severely compressed since the early 2000s. A recent Resolution Foundation report found that the number of workers earning less than the living wage has increased from 3.4m to 4.9m over the last decade.
Low-wage Britain is characterised by a culture of permanently insecure and low-paid work, combined with a higher risk of unemployment. Those who come to rely on working-age benefits are at greater risk of a life of permanent economic marginalisation and poverty, which, a recent book by Professor John Hills, Good Times, Bad Times: The Welfare Myth of Them and Us, demonstrates, are more likely than ever to be transmitted between generations. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has revealed that those on low incomes have been disproportionately hit by rising prices. There is also significant volatility and instability in the international economy with the potential to damage UK growth, having suffered the most protracted downturn since the great depression of the Thirties.
But voters do not necessarily view their situation wholly through the prism of austerity and Labour’s story of a “cost-of-living crisis”; moreover, they are sceptical about government’s capacity to arrest the decline in wages and living standards. The focus on the cost-of-living agenda has enabled Labour to expose the paucity of the coalition’s so-called recovery, as GDP growth and real living standards have become disconnected. But as circumstances change, Labour needs to adapt and refine its message for a new context. The party cannot construct an electoral majority appealing only to those hardest hit since the crisis.
Patrick Diamond is vice-chair of Policy Network, lecturer in public policy at Queen Mary, University of London and a former adviser to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. You can find his paper on Labour and the marginals here.