There are three bad ideas with a quiet traction over Labour party strategy.
Since the last election, they have made us complacent over our polling position and their persistent influence has led people in a position of power in the party to repeatedly argue Labour’s lead was more stable and solid than it really was.
Now, as that hopeful fiction is exposed, the same three ideas are leading people to draw the wrong conclusions about how to respond to Labour’s polling decline.
What are the three ideas?
They are: The core vote fallacy, the imaginary progressive consensus, and the forty per cent fantasy.
Each is dangerous for much the same reason.
If they were correct, then Labour would not need to appeal more broadly than it does – there would be enough voters who agree with us as we stand. If that were the case, Labour’s political challenge would largely be to inspire these supportive voters to the polls.
Unfortunately for their proponents, each idea is heavily flawed.
This means offering voters even more of what existing supporters are presumed to like about Labour is unlikely to win us elections.
THE CORE VOTE FALLACY
The Core Vote fallacy comes in various forms. It is sometimes expressed as the ‘Missing Millions’, where the gap between the number of labour voters in 1997 and 2005 is seen as a decline amongst core supporters. The error here should be blindingly obvious, given that taking Labour’s support in its first landslide victory for a generation as your ‘core vote’ seems an unusual baseline.
Look back a little longer, as the chart below does, and you see that even among social group DE, Labour’s ‘core vote’ is rather smaller than projected.
When it is argued that DE voters ‘sat out’ the 2010 election, what is less often mentioned is that the offer that got their highest support was decidedly not a ‘core vote’ strategy, and that even when the DE group was highly engaged – as it was in the Eighties, it did not follow that Labour won overwhelming shares of their votes.
To put it another way, many ‘core voters’ are in fact, attitudinally and electorally, swing voters.
Further, even if 2010 does represent a ‘Labour core vote’ (I don’t think it does, of which, more later) we are above that level now – all the data suggests that Labour has a higher share of C2, DE, Northern, Midlands, London and Welsh support than it did in 2010.
To conclude then, what is often described as the ‘core vote’ isn’t real, and even if it was, Labour is still above it, so trying to inspire it will gain us little.
The Core vote fallacy is dangerous, because its proponents generally make the following logical steps: If those who supported us in the past represent our core, they can be assumed to be motivated by the same issues as the (Labour supporting) author. Therefore, what is needed to inspire ‘core voters’ who are in danger of not supporting Labour are arguments that would appeal to the author. (Mark Ferguson makes this argument well here, with a list of policies that would please any GC, and which would come with a hefty price tag.)
The fallacy here is that the ‘core vote’ (if defined as anyone who says they will vote Labour) are motivated by the same political instincts as Labour activists. This is, not to put too fine a point on it, bollocks.
Rather, the voters who are in greatest danger of leaving Labour are, whatever their social grouping, those Labour voters who tell pollsters that they have doubts over whether Labour is the best party on key issues like the economy, taxation, unemployment, leadership and whether Labour is capable of delivering its promises.
This seems to be around a quarter to a third of current Labour supporters depending on the measure.
THE IMAGINARY PROGRESSIVE CONSENSUS
The imaginary progressive consensus is one of the most powerful stupid ideas in politics.
I remember meeting with a senior Labour figure during the AV referendum. Said figure wanted to argue that if only we had adopted the Alternative Vote in the 1980s, we would have been spared Margaret Thatcher’s victories.
After a general discussion of how much better that happy result would have been, I piped up and pointed out that the data suggests that AV would have led to even bigger victories for the Conservative party in the 1980s, largely because far from there being a progressive consensus, SDP voters thought the Labour party had gone completely doolally and preferred even Mrs Thatcher’s Tories to Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock’s Labour.
After a brief pause, the meeting continued as if I had not spoken.
Unfortunately, the same applies today. There is no such thing as the progressive consensus, if what we mean by that is a consensus to the left of British politics.
The counter argument to this is usually to argue that there are a wide range of policies that are ‘left’ which command significant public support. (more money for NHS, schools, rail nationalisation etc), You can see some examples below, demonstrating how left-wing the British people are.
Unfortunately, the same can be said for a wide range of policies ‘on the right’ (Tax Cuts, Cutting immigration, Welfare restrictions, tougher punishments for criminals, cheaper petrol). You can see some of those below too.
From this we can conclude, not that the British people are left-wing, but that if you ask them whether they would like something that will financially benefit them, or institute a tax, cap or charge that will hurt someone else, in general they will favour the idea. They are not so much left or right as reasonably self-interested. When you point out the costs and risks of various conflicting interests, things even up.
In that context the imaginary progressive consensus is dangerous because it allows its proponents to believe that the only reason they do not command broad support is because the electorate have somehow ended up in the wrong boxes, or that we have failed to make our argument well enough.
For the former, there is usually a good reason they’re in a different box, and for the latter, neglecting the costs and risks of a policy will often worry the voters you think you will inspire.
Of course, this doesn’t in any way imply there isn’t the possibility of a progressive majority in British politics. It is just that such an alliance would be broad, rather than narrow.
Leftish thinkers intrigued by the idea of a progressive consensus to the left of current political debate should perhaps ask themselves what a ‘Conservative Consensus’ would look like: would it stress Europe, immigration, being tough on crime and low taxes, all issues on which Conservative policies poll well, or would it present itself as compassionate, using the proceeds of economic growth to care for the weakest and most vulnerable as well as possible, given the need?
A similar process should apply to attempts to create a progressive consensus. Such a consensus is possible, but looks, sounds and behaves very differently to a wish-list of left-wing policies.
THE 40% FANTASY
The forty per cent fantasy is the most recent bad idea to damage the British left.
It was proposed by a friend of mine, Marcus Roberts, and briefly surmises the following argument: Take those voters who voted Labour in 2010, add a quarter of 2010 Liberal Democrats. Summon a million or so non-voters, and you have around forty per cent of the likely electorate, enough to win the next election.
It may seem a little unfair to attack an approach authored in the optimistic times of two years ago, when Labour was on over 40% in the polls and retaining that level of support did not seem as unlikely as it now appears. However, this approach needs to be killed off, because the argument being made in its defence today is not that it is a bad strategy, but that the current Labour leadership have executed it poorly.
No. It is a bad strategy.
Why is it a mistake? For the simple reason that in treating the electorate as blocks based on previous electoral behaviour, it ignored the texture of those blocks, and hence the possibility that they might decay.
To take the most extreme example, the approach took 2010 Lib dems, found research that indicated that most of them were firmly soft left, and assumed that all would be so inclined.
The issue here was not that many of 2010 Lib Dems who defected to Labour weren’t as described, but that little attention was paid to those who didn’t fit that approach – those who were primarily protest voters, or who worried about economic efficacy, those who were unimpressed by the Coalition, but not fully convinced by Labour.
The same applied to Labour 2010 voters. These were assumed to be committed Labour voters – after all, they had voted for Gordon Brown. Therefore the concerns of those who wondered if all such voters could be considered ‘core’ were dismissed.
As the strategy concluded “Combined with Labour’s core support, Lib Dem converts look set to take Labour to the mid-30s and likely largest party status“. Hmm.
With six months to go, Labour currently has roughly the same conversion rate of 2010 supporters as the UKIP decimated Conservative party, around three-quarters of those who voted Labour in 2010 and say they’ll vote in 2015. What’s more, Labour’s share of 2010 Lib-Dems has gradually fallen from the high thirties (of those voting) to around the 30% mark.
Again, this approach made the mistake of seeing voters past behaviours, and where they suited us, taking them for granted, while the doubts and vulnerabilities of our coalition were discounted to irrelevance.
INSTEAD, FOCUS ON OUR DOUBTERS
Appealing to the ‘Core vote’ with ‘core vote’ policies won’t work. There’s no progressive consensus. The 40% strategy is a mistaken fantasy.
The pleasant fantasies of the soft left electoral coalitions are dead. It’s time to read the last rites, and move on.
It was clear, even two years ago, that there were a significant number of Labour voters who harboured doubts about Labour’s economic efficacy, tax, employment, welfare, immigration, leadership.
And it is here Labour needs to look to win the next election.
If we look at those who say now that they will vote Labour, 63% say Labour is the best party on the Economy in General, and 49% say we are the best party on asylum on immigration ((The numbers are significantly better on traditionally Labour issues like Health, Education, Housing and welfare). It is among those voters, and the 40% of Labour voters who don’t know who would make the best Prime Minister (The equivalent number is 3% for Conservative voters) that Labour’s election prospects rest.
If they stay with us, we will likely win.
We need to focus instead on those voters generally favourable to Labour, but who are doubtful of our economic proposals, attitudes to key issues, and our leader’s ability to deliver on our promises.
Address those doubts and Labour can win. Decide to stick with believing that the way to reassure the doubtful is to promise more and more unlikely things, and we’ll only increase their doubts, and increase their likelihood of deciding, the closer we get to election day, that it might be best to stay home.