There’s more than one way for Labour to “smell the coffee”

Michael Ashcroft's 2005 post-mortem of the Conservatives might offer more for Labour than his 2019 one of the party itself.

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Michael Ashcroft, the Conservative peer and donor, has released a Labour-focused sequel to Smell the Coffee, his 2005 pamphlet on why the Tories kept losing and what they should do to win again. It, and Labour’s Turn To Smell The Coffee, are worth reading and thinking about not as two documents in isolation, but together.

The argument of Smell the Coffee – and the one taken up vigorously by David Cameron – was that the Conservative Party needed to “recreate the election-winning coalition of professionals, women, and aspirational voters”, and that focusing excessively on immigration – the one issue on which Michael Howard’s Conservatives had a commanding lead over Tony Blair’s Labour – had cost the party support among minority communities and was only appealing to people who “in reality are never going to support the Conservatives”.

In 2019, the Conservatives, facing a Labour leader who was record-breakingly unpopular, whose coalition was irretrievably divided on the election’s central issue, trod water among working professionals, and continued to underperform among women voters. Yet Boris Johnson has a majority of 80 seats precisely because people who were, “in reality never going to support the Conservatives” did so. The Ashcroft-Cameron diagnosis about the way for the Conservatives to win, which I shared, turned out to be, at least, partially incorrect.

I am still doubtful that this electoral coalition can deliver enduring policy change, and it remains to be seen whether it is a coalition for governing effectively or one that like the Liberal Democrats’ pre-2010 coalition cannot hold together in office, but any call to “smell the coffee” in 2019 has to start with some acknowledgement of that fact. The Cameroon case was, at least partially, incorrect. You could win a majority while continuing to do very badly among women and young professionals.

But what both Johnson and Cameron’s paths to majority government had in common is they started with the same diagnosis: that a group of people who “ought” to have voted Conservative weren’t and needed to be won over if the party was to return to or remain in office. For Cameron, it was that people – generally social liberals, ethnic minorities and women – whose economic interests coincided with the existing Conservative coalition nevertheless felt at odds with the party’s platform on social issues.

For Johnson it was that people who aligned with the existing Conservative coalition on cultural issues – generally older voters without degrees – weren’t voting for the party because they were at odds with the party’s platform on economic issues. Theresa May had the same approach, and gained almost as many votes as Johnson did – but because Labour successfully hoovered up socially liberal voters, not only from the Conservatives but the Liberal Democrats and Greens as well, she lost her majority.

We can’t, at the present time, judge which of Cameron or Johnson’s approach is the more fruitful because Johnson’s government hasn’t done very much yet. Cameron’s great success was that he was able to build an electoral coalition that stuck with him as he drove through significant cuts to public spending, large tax cuts, and major changes to health, education and welfare policy. We know from Theresa May’s difficulties in the 2017 election that, thus far, any attempt to drive through significant policy change creates problems for the May-Johnson electoral coalition. The known unknown is whether those difficulties were largely the fault of May’s poor political strategising or if they are intrinsic to the coalition that May and Johnson have built.  

But Labour, like the Conservatives, faces a choice: do they need to recreate their old coalition or try to seize a new one? The underlying assumption of Labour’s Turn To Smell the Coffee, and indeed much of the party’s internal debate, is that there is something intrinsically worthy about a path to Downing Street that runs through seats like Redcar, Wrexham and Mansfield but something iffy about trying to take office by winning Reading West, Wycombe and Basingstoke.

But why should this be the case? The long-term lesson of the original Smell the Coffee is that parties are better off going with the grain of the overarching trends that favour them rather than attempting to throw them into reverse. An electoral strategy that seeks to win Reading West, Wycombe and Basingstoke – three seats where the Labour vote went up in 2017, while in Wycombe, the Labour vote went up even in 2019 – may well be more likely to succeed than one based on the idea that Labour’s next leader has the solution to a problem that has plagued left-wing parties across the world – just because the seats in question are ones that past Labour parties have held comfortably.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.