Why did the voters reject Labour?

In voters’ eyes, Labour’s problem over the last five years was too little change, not too much.

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As the polls closed on election day, I put a survey into the field for the TUC to understand the national mood. Today we launch an interactive data portal here, so anyone can dig in and use the findings to advance the debate about Labour’s future.

The poll can be interpreted in many ways, no leader could or should follow it all, but it does show where the big positional challenges lie and offers potential ways forward.

The poll suggests that the Tories reaped the benefit of five years narrowly focused on restoring the economy. It allowed them to withstand being 17 points behind Labour on the NHS. With most people thinking the economy is improving, and inflation near zero, fifty-seven per cent of voters think the Tories ‘competent’.

The problem is just 31 per cent think the same about Labour. Amazingly, this number is higher than the proportion who think Labour has a good track record in government; just 27 per cent think Labour can look back with pride.

The single most powerful doubt about Labour was that ‘they would spend too much and can’t be trusted with the economy’. This concern is not rooted in the fiscal position used in the campaign; in fact by a 5 point margin voters thought Labour should cut spending more slowly than they planned rather than faster. Instead, as David Cameron’s trumpeting of Liam Byrne’s letter showed, it is Labour’s inability to demonstrate clear change from the past that grounds concern. The leadership candidates are right to come to a reckoning with that history on spending – it either needs to be fought for or conceded.

On immigration, the picture is similar. Voters are just as likely to see immigration as important to their vote as they are to think government spending is. By a margin of around 40 points, voters think Labour should be tougher on immigration rather than more positive about its benefits. Ed Miliband began his leadership campaign in 2010 highlighting the need for a new approach to immigration, but voters never truly heard the message.  In voters’ eyes, Labour’s problem over the last five years was too little change, not too much.

The next Labour leader needs to untether the party brand from its recent past. They also need to have a strong story for the future.

As New Labour learned, people are more willing to give you a mandate for change if they trust you to get the fundamentals right. There shouldn’t be a competition between vision and realism, but a recognition that they have to go hand in hand. If it does turn into a choice, by a margin of 77 to 15 voters want parties to offer ‘concrete plans for sensible changes’ not ‘big visions for radical change’.

The poll does not suggest that owning the future requires giving non-doms a free pass. By 11 points, voters are more likely to support Labour raising tax on the rich than criticise Labour for risking driving investors abroad. Voters are 20 points more likely to think Labour is too soft on big business and the banks, than too tough.  Just 1 in 10 say they were put off from voting Labour because they are ‘hostile to aspiration’. Anti-business rhetoric undermines the case, but a nuanced argument about concentrations of power remains important; particularly as the biggest doubt about the Tories is who they stand for. This is not an exclusively left wing idea; right wing proponents have ranged from Theodore Roosevelt in the nineteenth century to Steve Hilton this week.

To understand how Labour can own growth, we set up a battle of ideas in the poll; contrasting centre-left narratives with a right wing focus on deficit reduction, tax cuts and scrapping red tape.  We found that arguments rooted in education and investment, and arguments rooted in middle-out economics won out. It is somewhat unlikely that any leadership candidate will propose ‘predistribution’ but by 67 to 25, voters think getting people into work and raising wages is a better way to reduce inequality than simply taxing the top and sharing it out.

Perhaps the biggest social change facing Labour is the rise of identity politics. Scottish nationalism transformed the electoral map in Scotland. In England, Labour struggled most in seats where Ukip did well. Just one in five voters want a more internationalist, less flag-waving party; compared to 51 per cent who want more patriotism. Those who see devolution as an answer to this will have to find a way through the fact that fear of post-code lotteries trumps the desire for more localism by 36 points among voters.

Finally, the party needs to think carefully about how to rebuild bridges with parts of the electorate that it has lost touch with. This poll shows Labour leading with voters under 55 but 23 points behind the Tories with the older group. A two point deficit among women is a problem, but a 10 point deficit among men makes victory nigh on impossible.

No leader could or should follow every weft of public opinion. They should at times to challenge the public as well as the party. Above all else, voters need a clear, simple overarching message that helps them understand what gets a politician out of bed in the morning. They need a project they can buy into. Used right, this kind of polling can help a leader land that project and bring back a Labour government.

James Morris is a partner at Greenberg Quinlan Rosner and was pollster to Ed Miliband. He tweets at @jamesdmorris.

James Morris is a partner at Greenberg Quinlan Rosner and worked as a pollster for Ed Miliband during his time as Labour leader.