Electoral Ambitions: Why not hegemony?

General: Conan! What is best in life?
Conan: To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women.

Hopi: Um, Well, you probably want to make sure you don’t have too many enemies first, eh? Much easier for the crushing.

One question I often ask myself in the seemingly endless debates about Labour’s electoral strategy is why the scale of our ambition appears so small.

This might seem a bit odd, given that we are emerging from a huge defeat, as David Clark point out today. It might appear to give insufficient credit to the achievement of getting where we are today.  It may even appear entirely wrong-headed, given the scale of Labour’s declared range of Target seats.

Yet it strikes me that Labour’s electoral debate seems to revolve around the question ‘Could Labour construct a winning alliance on the basis of retaining our 2010 vote, adding to it disaffected LibDems, and motivating a few hundred thousand non-voters to the polls through good organisation and campaigning?‘.

The essential issue seems to be whether this will be enough to get Labour to the range of 38-40 per cent in the polls, and thus to a victory in the next election.

Certainly this is possible. One only has to look at the polls today to see that.

People like me might respond that polls two years out are a bad guide to election results, that there’s a latent Tory vote which is currently fragmented and unmotivated, that our issue ratings indicate softness on deficits, welfare, immigration, crime, Europe and leadership, that there is still a significant proportion of the electorate who blame us for the current economic mess (and a growing group that blame both us and the Tories).

These are all valid points, but they all hint at a future Tory revival that might or might not happen.

After all, today, with all those ratings and warnings factored in, Labour holds a substantial polling lead. On top of that, for the Tories to edge towards a majority, they need to hold and gain seats that currently look difficult for them, as I wrote in Progress this week.

In other words, I may think the Tories are only pining for the fjords, but it’s at least possible that these English Blues are a bit more out for the count than that, that they can’t make any of the inroads they need to make to get to 40% of the electorate themselves.

I may not believe it’s the next election will play out in this way, and I would rather prepare for a possible Tory recovery, but it would be ludicrous to say that Labour can’t win with its current electoral alliance.

The question of whether it would be wise to rely on this alliance, however, is a very different one.

There are two points to this. The first is electoral.

Let’s set out a scenario in which Labour achieves 40% in the polls, more or less where we are now, boosted by substantial defections from the LibDems and “low interest voters”, while the Tories decline only slightly from their 2010 result at 36%, and the LibDems plunge to the mid teens. This is more or less the “As you were, but a realigned, motivated left’ scenario set out by various strategists.

So, Labour 40, Tories 36, LD 16.

When I examine this, it usually produces a tiny Labour majority, usually in the single figures1

Now, when you get this sort of close result, all sorts of factors come into play to decide the election: incumbency, differential turnout, tactical voting, regional swings and so on.

We don’t have to look far to see how this can happen – If the Tories had done a little better in the marginals last time, had Labour voters in the South not tactically voted for Nick Clegg to stop the Tories, if Labour had done a little worse in London, David Cameron might not have had to form a coalition at all.

A Tory strategist might look at this and reach two entirely different conclusions.

The first might be that they needed to improve their organisation against the LDs, find some way of doing better in London, replicate their success in key Midlands Marginals elsewhere, and aim to pick up two or three seats in Scotland. This would represent an essentially tactical response, trying to squeeze out a win at the margins.

The other conclusion might be that they would have been far better off aiming for a much broader electoral alliance – that they needed Labour voters in the South not to see a Tory election as a threat to be prevented, that they needed to reach a broader range of the electorate, that they had been awfully outperformed among growing demographic groups2. This would have involved an essentially political response, one essentially completeing Tory modernisation, or finding some other way of attracting a major slice of the electorate.

Labour faces much the same electoral question today. Should we aim to construct an electoral alliance, which, with a favourable wind and weak opposition might well be enough to reach victory, even if narrowly – or perhaps relying on coalition -, or should it seek to do something much broader? If we were to aim for the broader majority, what would we need to change, what would we need to do differently?

((Personally, I favour an attempt to make the Labour party a hegemonic political party. This is for several reasons. first, I think that such a party would need to be much more open to differing political traditions – if anyone thinks coalitions encourage an openness of political spirit and inclusiveness to other Traditions of thought, I invite them to look at today’s Tory party. Second, I think that to stop the idea of a Hegemonic Labour party being absolutely bloody terrifying to other people we’d need to change and grow as a movement, and that would be good for us as a party. Third, I think most big political change requires two, even three terms of government, and only big, broad alliances are resilient enough to deliver that – barring a huge split among your opponents.))

This leads to the second issue about a ‘narrow win’ electoral strategy. If we ended up in government with a small majority, or reliant on other parties support, what would it actually be like to govern?

There is a strain in Labour thinking which might actually welcome such a scenario.

It is based on the idea, not entirely unrelated from that of New Labour but rather differently motivated, that Labour is better when it works with others – more democratic, greener, more interested in liberty and constitutional reform, less dully workerist, more – in some sense of the word – ‘progressive’.3

So there are those that imagine a Labour government prodded by two or three Green MPs, some social liberals, perhaps Plaid Cymru and see not weakness, but hope. To which I say: John McDonnell and David Laws.

The reality of a Labour government with a narrow majority would be one at ransom to the Labour equivalents of Dan Hannan and Mark Reckless.

Equally, a Labour led coalition would be torn constantly between our left and the Liberal Democrat “right”. If we had to enter a coalition or confidence or supply relationship with the Lib Dems, do we really think they would demand of us only that which our progressive hearts yearn for anyway? There would be some bitter medicine to swallow too. Much of it might involve dumping things we would like to do.

Now, perhaps I’m wrong – if the Tories don’t recover between now and 2015, the polls show 40% would deliver a strong victory. That’s certainly possible.

I’m just not sure we should rely on that. So my question to Labour strategists comes down to this:

The government is failing. The challenges ahead are huge and long-term.

Why not aim for hegemony?  What would that look like?

  1. This assumes both a small anti-tory Tactical vote from Labour voters, and a pro-coalition TV from Tory and LD voters- but you can fiddle with the model how you like: For example, you might feel my number for the smaller parties is too low – my point is that a result like this looks usually pretty close. The big change to a significant Labour majority come when the Tory share of vote declines significantly. If Labour has 40%, we get a majority of 2 if the Tories are on 37%, a majority of 32 if they’re on 34% and 56 if they’re on 32%. Though this does depend on increasing the LD/Minor party vote, obviously. But the point is, reducing Tory votes really help getting a big majority. there’s a further point too. I don’t think it’s a coincidence, or just time effect that New Labour depressed the Tory vote. New Labour might not have appeared threatening to the interests of Tory voters, so they didn’t mind not voting. This is part of my response to David Clarks argument about the behaviour of the Tory vote under New Labour []
  2. Yes, Ethnic Minorities, but much more importantly, they were far weaker among ABs than they were in 1992, while doing OK among C2s and DEs, compared to their historical performances []
  3. Note: I actually agree with much of this, by the way. I just think that the best way to make it happen is to make the Labour party different first so the remaining Liberals want to join with us, not rely on others to make us virtuous after the fact- but then my Labour liberalism is more Christopher Addison and Andrew Adonis than Charles Kennedy and Caroline Lucas! []

4 Responses to “Electoral Ambitions: Why not hegemony?”

  1. Charis

    Another point in favour of hegemony would be the impact of this ambition on the electorate you’re trying to attract. Not achieving it, but just aiming for it.

    I think that I may fall into that category – I voted LibDem at the last election, and I’m increasingly unconvinced by the government, and open to persuasion in some regards.

    By aiming, at least semi-explicitly, for ‘just enough’ to win, or working out convoluted combinations that enable a win, the impression given is that this is the best that can be expected. That it would be impressive to get there – which overall comes across as not having faith that the strength of the party/policies etc is enough to win everybody over.

    By aiming for something bigger, the impression is created that you deserve something bigger – altogether more positive!

    (Yes, I know that the majority of potential voters probably aren’t engaged enough to read political blogs, articles etc on electoral strategies. But I do think that the impression of these strategies can be felt in the campaign delivered, even if the calculations and breakdowns aren’t overt).

  2. tory

    Would people vote for that vision? A Labour party selling a cooperative spirit and a willingness to compromise might indeed be electable but do you really think people will back an overarching Labour reform programme again, so soon?

    You won’t be able to do anything you want without tax rises (goodbye votes) and/or spending cuts (hello hypocrisy). Labour is polling well because of dissatisfaction, not the presentation of a credible alternative. Until you can elucidate how exactly you would deliver things like the living wage and inflation-indexed benefits the party remains unelectable.

  3. therealguyfaux

    The so-called “Milton Berle strategy,” i.e., “just enough to win,” (Google it) may be what Labour need from the perspective of keeping themselves hungry should they get into Government– it does no good to be like Billy Conn in his first bout with Joe Louis– thinking he had the fight won on points, and his legs slowing down, late in a fight for which he put on weight, he let up on the somnabulist Louis by merely trading blows rather than sticking and moving. Once Louis caught a second wind, Conn was sunk, as he hadn’t the power to KO-punch Louis, but Louis did have it to beat Conn. Conn later admitted it was his cockiness that made him think Louis was ready to fall, having nothing left in reserve, and that he, Conn, could afford to do just barely “enough to win,” i.e. coast in, being so far ahead on the scorecard. It all depends on where you think you stand, and how much you’re willing to expend, that determines what you think “enough to win” is. That said, Tom Watson’s “Corby is not a sure win for us” may be good for keeping the campaigners in fighting mode, and that’s how Labour should approach things, but it was certainly more drama than anything else, and “It’s ours to lose if we let it get away” may have been a true though less overwrought way of putting it. For the Parliament as a whole, a just-enough strategy will be enough to maintain the campaign on a steady course; to mix sports metaphors, Jensen Button and Lewis Hamilton prove the old F1 adage, “To finish first, first you must finish,” and a campaign that loses steam does no Party any good.


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