The real story of this year’s Labour conference wasn’t its divisions over Brexit, but its efforts to build its electoral coalition in places and among demographics where it has been weak under Jeremy Corbyn.
The big pre-trailed policy announcement from the leader’s speech – a green energy drive that would provide 400,000 new skilled jobs – was a bid to woo deindustrialised English towns that overwhelmingly voted for Brexit, and where Labour majorities have been significantly reduced or lost entirely. (Sources close to Corbyn have described conference as “its most direct pitch yet to people in post-industrial towns and communities.”)
Dominant in cities, among young voters and graduates, Labour must go where Corbyn failed last time if it is to win the next election. Not only will that mean winning towns like Mansfield, but it will also mean winning the older voters that voted so decisively for the Conservatives in 2017, as Corbyn acknowledged today.
“Labour is offering a long overdue change that will transform people’s lives and meet the needs of a 21st century Britain for all. We are talking about rebuilding Britain this week But I also want to make an appeal to the older generation who built modern Britain. It was you who rebuilt our country after the war, kick-started our economy, built our NHS and created our social security system.
“It was your generation that built the council housing, won our rights at work and made our country a better place for all. It was your work and taxes that paid for a better retirement for those who went before you.
“So we owe it you, the older generation, to rebuild Britain so you too have peace of mind and dignity. And we will fulfil that obligation with the triple lock on pensions protected along with the winter fuel allowance, a free bus pass and a national health and care service that can look after you and your families with respect. That is solidarity between the generations.”
Age, rather than socioeconomic class, is now the most reliable indicator of voting behaviour. At last year’s general election, the Conservatives won every age group over 50 with an increasing lead and the overall age divide was the largest since polling records began. They won those in their fifties by 10 points (47 per cent versus Labour’s 37 per cent); those in their sixties by 31 points (58 per cent to 27 per cent); and those over seventy by 50 points.
Over the course of the campaign, however, Labour increased the age at which a voter was more likely to vote for the Conservatives from 34 to 47. To win next time, they must increase it further. Under first-past-the-post, consolidating its hold on cosmopolitan Britain will mean nothing.
That side of its electoral coalition does not need to be any bigger. “Diane Abbott could lose 10,000 votes to the Lib Dems in Hackney and she would still be fine,” a source close to Corbyn admitted recently. Instead, he must win – or at least make decent progress – in the places and among the people whose aversion was strongest to him last year. The message is economic populism and a strong state. But will they accept the messenger?