Labour needs to win most where it lost the worst

Labour's task is large - but not impossible. The party can still thrive if it pulls together. 

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Labour’s 2015 election result was in no uncertain terms a disaster. The party may have gained votes and won more seats than they lost to the Tories, but that’s where the good news ends. What the election result tells us is that Labour continued its long downward trend in terms of MPs, losing 26 seats. It was almost wiped out in Scotland.  And, it critically lost ground in key marginals which it needed to win to have any chance of forming a government.

If this isn’t bad enough David Cameron now has a majority and can also push through boundary changes. If that happens, Labour in 2020 will need over 100 seats (compared with 68 in 2015) to form a majority on a swing not seen since 1997. Faced with such an inhospitable electoral landscape it is perhaps not surprising that Labour is suffering a collective meltdown.

These cold and stark facts, and this week’s internecine warfare, perhaps give traction to the idea that the leadership horse has been put ahead of the election post-mortem cart. Whatever the pros and cons of the timing of the leadership election Labour will need to pick itself off the canvas, confront why and where it lost and seriously start thinking about how it might win again.

In a new report by the Smith Institute analysing why Labour lost, there are three critical areas where the party has to do better.

First, social class. Labour’s traditional working class base has continued to turn its back on the Labour party. Over the longer term Labour lost votes at a much faster rate amongst C2DE voters. Worryingly in one poll the Tories actually gained more support from C2s than Labour did. Whether the Labour party was too left wing or not left wing enough compared with 2010 seems to have passed the electorate by. There is deep unease about immigration, not just evident in polls and focus groups but also in working class support for the Conservatives and UKIP. Added to this are blue collar concerns over the NHS and the cost of living. Labour needs to have an offer which resonates with what was once its traditional base but does not jeopardise support from wealthier and middle income voters.

Second, get a grip on the ‘grey vote’. If Labour’s failure to gain enough of the support of the working class is a worry, then how older people voted should truly terrify people interested in seeing Labour back in power. In 2010 Labour lost support from all age groups. In 2015 this trend was reversed in all age groups except those over 65. Labour continued to haemorrhage support amongst older voters, gaining fewer than one in four votes. And for every one vote Labour gained from those aged over 65 the Tories gained two. The Tories strained every sinew to protect those aged over 65 from austerity and have triple locked their state pensions. Meanwhile older people were least likely to see Labour as competent. How Labour reconnects with older people who will form a bigger cohort of voters in 2020 and who were more likely to see the economy, deficit, immigration and patriotism as important will be key if Labour is to start to make inroads into the Tory majority.

Third, Labour has a blind spot on political geography. Votes clearly matter but it’s seats that count. And, in terms of seats Labour performed worst where it needed to win most - in the key marginals Labour needed to win there was actually a swing to the Tories. Examining where Labour lost and where it has a realistic chance of winning in 2020 suggests that it is not an easy case of targeting voters in the North or South or Scotland, England or Wales. It needs to win seats in most parts of the country. What stands out from an analysis of the seats that Labour needs to gain is that many of them are in suburbia, small towns, new towns and seaside towns. Focusing efforts and policy thinking on struggling seaside towns (which in certain respects have much in common with former industrial towns), for example, could help Labour to win again. But it also has the much bigger challenge of winning over those who don’t live in the big cities. It is worth bearing in mind that of the places Labour needs to win, 92 of them are currently held by the Conservatives. And in 78 of these 92, the combined Green and Lib Dem vote is smaller than Ukip’s.

Focusing on policy for these three inter-connected groups is of course a small component of a much bigger strategy that Labour needs to adopt to convince large parts of the electorate to vote for them.  Just under one in five of the electorate considered voting Labour but in the end voted for another party. Hanging round Labour’s neck like dead albatross is the financial crash. Poll after poll has shown that Labour was not seen as competent and credible on the economy and public finances. The two are often conflated, but it is in many respects a fool’s errand to attempt to persuade the public that they are wrong about whether Labour spent too much (on the wrong people and wrong things) or even that this is what caused the financial crash. Labour has to move on from that debate. It has instead to carve out an alternative agenda, new popular policies and ultimately a compelling narrative that Labour is competent and can be trusted.

Failure to acknowledge these weaknesses on the economy, welfare and immigration as well as the need to reach out to older people, blue collar voters and those in small towns and suburbs will surely condemn Labour to another defeat. This does not equate, as some would suggest, to triangulating the Tories. It can mean setting out a different, progressive and popular agenda. This is of course is easy to say and hard to do. It will require tough choices and tunnel-like vision on priorities. However, with five years until the next general election, the immediate task for Labour is to pull together and show that the party can be a united, credible and competent opposition.