In the immediate aftermath of Labour’s disastrous general election performance, former colleagues have been right to complain about the Party’s failure to appeal to the political middle ground. They have understandably criticised Labour’s apparent determination to ignore the views of the business community. They have acknowledged that general elections in Britain cannot be won without support from across the board.
Those former colleagues have tended to put the solution in terms of a choice – that a new Labour Leader should choose to go back to the future in repositioning the party’s policies to appeal to the aspirational members of the working class as well as to those middle class voters concerned about wealth creation but also having a social conscience. Tony Blair’s appeal ran right across the traditional classes which is why the party he lead won three General Elections.
So far so obvious – but does the next Labour Leader really have the luxury of choice? Labour not only failed in its appeal to the aspirational; it also faced a formidable threat to its traditional working class vote – one that has not in fact suddenly materialised with the rapid growth of UKIP. Over very many years there has been a persistent decline in the turnout of what historically would have been described as traditional working class voters.
No-one has ever seriously suggested that I might be a Marxist – but there has been a fundamental change in the economic circumstances of the traditional working class that has produced a corresponding adjustment in their political decisions. References to the working class vote are now almost meaningless. The working class either includes nearly everyone – as David Cameron is seeking to demonstrate – or it describes what are today a rapidly reducing number of those engaged in manual labour.
The aspirational working class voter – those with skills and qualifications working in modern manufacturing – have attitudes and values little different from the traditional middle classes. They often live on the same suburban housing estates, travel to the same holiday destinations and have the same university ambitions for their children. Remember Neil Kinnock’s memorable speech at the Labour Party Conference after Labour’s defeat in 1987, where he supposedly quoted Ron Todd, then Leader of the Transport Union:
What do you say to a docker who… owns his house, a new car, a microwave and a video, as well as a small place near Marbella?”
“You don’t say… Let me take you out of your misery brother”.
The story of the skilled working class is one of success as their abilities are often in short supply meaning that they can usually get work and often at higher wages in globally competitive businesses.
That success was shared by many manual workers until towards the end of the twentieth century. Miners if they worked five shifts could be earning £40,000. They bought their own homes and went on holidays abroad. They were the aristocrats of the Labour movement; organised and disciplined, members of trade unions and mostly voting Labour.
But the collapse and virtual disappearance in Britain of the mining, shipbuilding and steel industries has massively reduced the demand for unskilled work. The unskilled sons of those who earned good money from manual labour have found it increasingly difficult to find anything other than short term minimum wage work. If they are lucky they work in warehouses or compete for traditionally female jobs in supermarkets. They are no longer in trade unions, they struggle to make ends meet and through the 1990s and into the 21st Century many of them stopped voting. To borrow another Marxist term, they were alienated – exactly the kind of voter on a council estate who would tell canvassers that “you’re all the same – you’re all as bad as each other”.
When I first stood for Parliament in Ashfield in 1992 in what was then still a traditional working class Labour constituency dominated by collieries and the textile trade, the General Election turnout was just over 80% and the Labour majority was almost 13,000. In the Labour landslide of 1997 the majority was over 22,000, although the turnout fell back to 70%. By 2010 with every colliery closed and the textile trade all but disappeared, the turnout had fallen to 57.3% and the Labour majority was just over 10,000. Not all of those not voting were traditional Labour supporters but clearly the great majority of them were.
Nevertheless Labour was still winning elections in its traditional areas and despite the abstention of many of its working class voters they were not taking their votes elsewhere. The low turnout explained why far fewer Labour votes were required to elect a Labour MP than MPs from other parties. – and indeed in 2015, Labour in its heartlands often increased its share of the vote as some former Liberal Democrat voters moved across or back. That is perhaps at least part of the explanation of what for some in 2015 was a ”core vote strategy”, assuming that Ukip would split the right, allowing Labour to win a parliamentary majority on a relatively small share of the popular vote.
Instead in 2015, Ukip appears to have done as much damage to Labour as to the Conservatives. Given the economic changes this cannot be seen as surprising. As manual jobs disappeared, Labour had little to offer those that struggled to find regular well paid work. For a man whose father and grandfather had had well paid jobs underground or in a steel works or shipyard, low paid temporary warehouse jobs, if they could get them were not a substitute for what was previously perceived as real work. Moreover in addition to the already difficult task of finding any job, an influx of highly skilled and motivated East Europeans was the final straw. Low wages in Britain are still significantly higher than high wages in Poland.
The big change in 2015 was therefore that Ukip, previously seen as a fringe or protest party, was setting out exactly what the socially conservative unskilled working class wanted to hear. No more immigration, leave the EU, cut back on benefits for foreigners. Everyone who has ever knocked on doors for Labour has heard those views from Labour supporters at every election. But because in the past those voters had nowhere else to go politically those inconvenient opinions were essentially ignored. Now those voters have a voice: a political party precisely reflecting their views. And in Ashfield their vote increased by 19.55% to over 10,000, just short of the Tory vote which has always been at around that figure.
The Ashfield result was also significant in other respects. The Labour majority was over 8000, significantly better than in 2010 when Labour was run close by a hard working Liberal Democrat – but well short of what would be expected in what is a traditional Labour area. The combined Conservative and Ukip vote was greater than Labour’s total. But most significantly the turnout was above 60%; suggesting that some at least of those voters who abstained in the past turned out to vote Ukip.
And that is why the next Labour Leader has no choice about appealing to the middle ground. It is difficult to see how Labour could adjust its principles to appeal to some of the most conservative, nationalist views around. It is also difficult to see what economic policies can fundamentally change the economic position of the unskilled. In the modern economy the unskilled are virtually unemployable. Labour has no choice other than to go on highlighting the importance of education and training. That is the only way out of the problem – but in truth the percentage leaving school without any qualifications at all has remained stubbornly unaffected by successive initiatives from all governments.
The real nightmare for the next Labour Leader is that the Tories continue to push their centre ground appeal to the skilled working class and that increasingly for the unskilled Ukip becomes the party of choice. If Tory voters in safe Labour seats recognise that and start to vote tactically, Labour would be in even bigger trouble than it is in today.
Geoff Hoon was the Labour MP for Ashfield from 1992 to 2010.