A downward trend long known and a choice for Labour’s dreamers.

Returning from a holiday after a small political earthquake is an intriguing experience.

People talk in hushed tones about the immense significance of the events you missed, while you struggle to notice any difference.

To summarise the astonishing events: A rebel Conservative MP has returned to the Commons as a rebel UKIP MP. The Government has performed badly in two by-elections. The opposition has lost a point or so in the polls, while the Conservatives continue to score in the low thirties. These are not earth shattering occurrences. Nor is the revelation that Ed Miliband’s poll ratings are less than stellar, while the government is unpopular.

Most astonishingly of all, it is confirmed there is a significant dissatisfaction with politics, for the simple reason politics is not delivering much in the way of rainbows and pots of gold.

As a result those who expect to have to deliver their promises shuffle embarrassedly and wonder if they can’t put a little steak in the gruel and trade hairshirts for rayon undercrackers, those promising to slap gruelslingers around the chops and garb all in silk raiments find an appreciative, if minority, audience.

Is any of this a surprise? It shouldn’t be. These are trends that have been going on for months. Some of us have been talking about Labour’s gradual, slow polling slippage for over a year, to general indifference. Same for various qualities of the top team.

If there has been any reaction, it’s been to say ‘ah, but Labour still leads‘ or ‘ah, but the 2010 Lib Dems‘ or ‘ah, but the Tories won’t improve their share of the vote’. It wasn’t complacency, exactly. But it was denial.

Heads up then. Things are probably going to get much more uncomfortable.

In the last thirty years, only one opposition has improved their poll ratings between the final conference season of the political cycle and the subsequent general election1.

In every other instance, the opposition has declined by between three and thirteen points.

I’d put my expectation on the low side of this, because when oppositions have declined by larger amounts, they have enjoyed larger starting poll shares than Labour does now – going from 49% to 35% in 1991-92 and from 52% to 44% in 19972. I don’t expect that sort of dip.

Absent a ‘Winter of Discontent’3, you’d expect Labour’s vote share to fall perhaps three to five points between now and the election, putting Labour somewhere between 29-33%. This is more or less in line with what Stephen Fishers’ election predictors suggest.

Look underneath the hood, and there are reasons enough to expect a seepage. Labour voter’s relatively low conviction we’d run the economy better, have a better leadership or deliver our promises all hint at a soft vote.

Now, maybe this won’t apply this time.

One reason it might not is that the biggest gainers in the last few months of the electoral cycle have often been a third party, whether alliance or Liberal Democrats. This time they’re in government.

Yes, Things might be different4.

But even if the race isn’t always to the swift, or the battle to the strong, Labour people need to steel themselves for such a pattern, because unless we outperform the historical trend, we’re heading to the low thirties with a bullet.

This is in large part due to an extended period of wishful thinking in which imaginary armies of non-voters, young voters and the disaffected were conjured from the vasty deep in order to provide 40% and a majority. It’s time to kill that pleasant fantasy off.

To achieve this victory, we assured ourselves that all we had to do this time was promise to do better at reducing inequalities, promising radical change, and outline how nasty the nasty Tories were.

Of course we’d said all this before, but this time, we’d really mean it, and by shedding the restrictions of our past failures to deliver our ambitions like a beautiful progressive butterfly, we’d inspire a whole new generation of voters to rally to the cause.

Unsurprisingly, a political strategy grounded in such pleasant daydreams has somewhat underperformed expectations.

Are we really surprised?

None of this means Labour is destined to remain in opposition. Two factors remain in Labour’s favour.

First, David Cameron has repeatedly fluffed the opportunity to remake the Conservative party as the moderate juggernaut it has the potential to be. Perhaps he doesn’t really want to. Perhaps he’s too afraid of the pleasant daydreams of the idiots in his own party and outside it to appeal to the rest of us.

Whatever the reason, he’s repeatedly failed to confront Tory imbecility, and that will cost him dearly.

In an alternate universe the Tory party did not reduce the top rate of tax, increased the minimum wage, and squeezed their friends a little tighter to give to the middle classes. In that world, the Tories are on 40 per cent and cruising. Thankfully, we don’t live in it.

Second, Labour has, at heart, a pretty intelligent policy programme.

Sure, it’s not the radical policy agenda we pretended we’d come up with until we did the sums and recoiled in horror.

It’s not transformative boldness. it won’t end inequality or rip up neo-liberalism. It’ll just do a bit more good for people who need it most, and put the little money we’ve got available in more of the right places, giving people a slightly better chance of a job, a decent home and a good education.

If we quit pretending that doing a little well is insignificant, and start realising it’s a huge deal and the most we’ve any right to expect a government can achieve, we might even convince people it’s worth changing government to get it.

In other words, we should stop worrying about the people who are impressed by promises of silk and steaks, and start worrying about those who don’t believe we can even deliver less gristle and more cotton.

For the rest, it is for the birds. We’re not going to transform capitalism. We’re not going to enact the most radical transfer of power in history, whatever that means. So please, let’s stop pretending. It might make us forget the important boring stuff we’ll really struggle to do.

But there’s one more thing.

To my dear friends in the soft left. This is your battle. You’ve been running things for four years now.

If you don’t like a moderate, gradualist, fiscally cautious programme, fine. No-one says you have to.

I’m not a centrist because I think we win that way, I’m a centrist because I think it’s the right thing to do with the resources we have and the limits we face. Winning is just a pleasant consequence of sounding convincing and realistic.

Just because I believe in the agenda I outline doesn’t mean you must. If you think it’s a sell out, or timid, or too much of a concession, you’ve every right to fight on the ground of your choosing.

That I think your approach is more idle dream than reality doesn’t make me right. If you think there’s a better way to win, go for it. It’s how you took control of the party, saying it was possible to be more ambitious, to dream bigger dreams. The party wanted to hear that.

No-one is stopping you pursue those dreams. So maybe you need to do what you promised back then. Bluntly, the only reason you haven’t done so is you privately suspect it just won’t work. Just like it didn’t under Gordon, just like it didn’t under Neil.

I agree. It won’t.

But you might need to learn that the hard way.

So if you’ve got a plan you prefer, go for it. Maybe I’m wrong and it works. You could get in with our current vote share. It is possible just about, and you’ll get a chance to implement your plans (subject to the agreement of Ian Lavery MP).

If it works, to the victor the spoils. You’ll run the party for a generation and get the chance to create the progressive social democratic model you crave.

If not, the route I suggest is waiting, but you’ll have to really believe in it.

No-one will be convinced by a reluctant, half-hearted, cavilling centrist. Just look at Cameron. You can’t drag yourself reluctantly to gradualism, because the constant temptation to go a just little further will undermine your message every time. Your darting eyes will betray you. You have to mean it.

So, the choice is yours. Just own it, whatever happens. This one is on you.

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  1. That was the 2005 Tories, who endured a brief dip immediately after Labour’s 2004 conference and then returned to where they were that summer []
  2. Clearly, this may be to do with improved polling methodologies, as much as actual shifts []
  3. Though intriguingly, the 1979 Conservatives did not gain ground between Conference season and the Election. Rather, Labour lost significant support []
  4. Maybe UKIP voters will return to the Tories. Maybe they won’t. Maybe the Greens will surge. Certainly, I’d expect a lot of 2010 Lib Dems will stay with Labour, though that’s already included in our current score. There’s a decent chance their return reduces the pre-election desertion rate though []

17 Responses to “A downward trend long known and a choice for Labour’s dreamers.”

  1. Paul

    More of the same ie. Tory lite is not going to help…Labour does need to challenge the orthodoxy candidly because otherwise charletans like UKIP will pick up some of their core votes and other life long supporters like me will defect to the greens who at least offer a bit of hope…

    Reply
    • pregethwr

      The issue isn’t how many Labour voters are tempted by ukip or the greens; the issue is why so few Tory voters are tempted by Labour.

      (this incidentally is also the Tories’ real problem too, why can’t they attract Labour votes?)

      Reply
  2. Tom Miller

    Am I the only one here who thinks people aren’t really motivated by weighing their gristle?

    Reply
  3. SpinnngHugo

    I just can’t see Labour doing much worse than current polling

    So, last four polls averaged

    Labour 34%

    Conservative 31%

    UKIP 16%

    Lib Dem 9%

    Green 4%

    Enough for a majority. What could change?

    Lib Dem recovery? Never, ever going to happen. 10% is their ceiling. Their vote collapsed, predominantly went to Labour in 2010, and stayed there. Labour can put a balloon on a stick forward as leader (and practically has) and still win. A swing away from Ukip to the Tories? I’d expect that to be more than compensated for by Greens returning to realism.

    Historical swings to and from the big two parties in the run up to previous elections are no guide today. That is because they now both poll so badly. Labour now has a floor of 34-35%, the Tories a floor of 31-32%. I doubt either will now do much better than that, but it is hard to imagine them doing worse.

    In seat terms, it doesn’t matter. All those votes leached away to Ukip, the Greens and even the nationalists don’t have consequences in terms of seats. Ukip may get 3 or 4. The Greens one. Even the SNP will be doing well to get one more seat, so far behind Labour are they in the seats contested. The electoral system gives Labour the win.

    Now, it may be disappointing for Labour to win on such a low percentage but that is what happens.

    Miliband is personally useless, but he does have the characteristic Napoleon looked for in his generals.

    Imagine what the world would look like if in 2010 the Tories had won a small majority. The Lib Dems do not then suffer the squeeze all small parties have in coalition, they have not betrayed their voters, and Clegg has echoed Miliband in his opposition to austerity. If the Lib Dems had not collapsed where would any Labour vote recovery have come from?

    Reply
    • hopisen

      What could change:

      My fundamental attitude is that it’s much easier for a government to gain support in the run up to an election than an opposition for the simple reason that it’s harder to picture what will convince voters who currently don’t vote for the leading opposition to change their minds positively than it is to see how some of those who say they will today might decide they will not, after all. While a government has been through all the shite of government but gets to make it’s case for the future more clearly. Absent a ‘Winter of Discontent’ type scenario, this seems a fairly consistent trend.

      Also, I’m less convinced that the big 2 doing badly is all that new: eg lots of times in the 80s when the Alliance share was far bigger than the combined UKIP/LD vote today. (eg look at polls around Spring 1982 and 1986), when alliance were effectively tied for lead.

      So, what could change this time?

      Tories:
      Gain of some proportion of UKIP voters. Poss worth up to c 3 pts?
      Convince some wavering 2010 Lab voters to abstain or vote Tory?
      Increase share of 2010 LDs from c 10% to c15% – prob worth c1pt

      LDs: Basically get more of 2010 LDs back in seats that count, and get tactical votes. More likely to get enough Lab votes to stop Tories than Tories to stop Lab, I suspect.

      Lab:
      Lose Current Lab voters who have significant doubts about: Economy, leadership, deliverability, deficit. (whether to Tories, apathy or AN other) About a third of Lab voters seem to have doubts on each of these issues, Though as yet it’s not stopping them voting Labour. If I were a Tory I’d be very interesting in understanding what’s holding these ‘doubtful Labour’ voters to the cause.
      Lose a small proportion of 2010 LDs. I’m pretty convinced that there’s a wedge of 2010 LDs who will stick with Labour com3e what may, but some will not – not all of the converts were ‘red’, some were just ‘NOTA’. They could go anywhere.

      So, I can easily see Tories on mid thirties, Labour on low Thirties. That’s not to say it will happen, just that it’s not hard to see how it could.

      Reply
      • SpinningHugo

        I still don’t see it.

        I think you are suffering from a kind of blindness brought on by the quality of the current leadership. This disease affects two classes of persons more seriously than others: journalists around Westminster and those with experience of the New Labour years.

        So, it is indeed hard to imagine that a machine this useless could possibly win. Nobody who has seen the current leader up close can believe that he could be PM. How could a team this shambolic, when compared to Labour in the recent past, win?

        For journalists, there is an additional incentive to disbelieve the evidence: it is in their interests that the race is close. Because they keep on writing about how Labour could lose, this has an impact on sane people who are not journalists.

        It just doesn’t matter. So, even if we add up all the things you cite that could go wrong, we still only get to a small Tory lead, which leaves Labour as largest party and in government. That succession of snake eye rolls is not going to happen.

        I could list off all the structural factors that guarantee Labour victory, but you know what they are already.

        For those (like me) who voted for a different leader, it may be annoying that Charlie Whelan’s folly seems to succeed, despite arguments at the time that it was not sensible, but there we are.

        However.

        Winning is not the problem.

        Reply
        • hopisen

          I think that’s a little unfair – I say in the post that there’s no reason to assume Labour can’t win given the relative position and status of the parties. I just also think the trend for oppositions, of all colours, is down in the last six months, and Labour need to understand that – if we want to do better than c30-33% we need to outperform the trend.

          Could we do that? It’s entirely possible, each election is different. Not does 30-33% in and of itself mean Labour can’t be largest party or have a small majority, if the Tories don’t improve.

          However, it’s also possible that the Tories do recover somewhat. It’s easier to see where they _might_ find more support – which is why I’m more pessimistic than you about ‘the certainty’ of Labour governing.

          Where I do agree with you is that the governing challenge for labour is far greater than the electoral one.

          Reply
    • Deasun67

      “Even the SNP will be doing well to get one more seat, so far behind Labour are they in the seats contested. The electoral system gives Labour the win.”

      Have you seen the recent membership figures for the SNP? Have you seen polls for SNP support at the GE? Do bar in mind that Labour have been seen to sell their soul for their Tory chums in Better Together. From a Scottish perspective, they are both right-wing, anti-immigrant, something which goes down like a bucket of sick. Labour could not deliver Glasgow, North Lanarkshire, West Dunbartonshire and other ‘heartland’ areas in the referendum. Even the intervention of Gordon Brown could not prevent this meltdown. Given Labour’s anaemic membership (less than.7,000 compared with the SNP’s near 90,000), internal divisions and a leadership best described as expendable, ‘Scottish’ Labour, could be in for a humiliation.

      The electoral system is, as you correctly point-out, about as democratic North Korea’s but that cuts both ways, indeed if only FPTP members are considered, then the last Holyrood election would have returned 53 SNP members and 15 for Labour.

      The SNP have, historically, underperformed at GEs. This may continue however, if current prediction have any worth, suggesting that the SNP will only gain one seat seem rather detached from contemporary Scottish political opinion.

      We’ll see!

      Reply
  4. Alasdair

    Nicely written, as always.

    Like everyone else, I don’t know if Ed’s team are actually going to achieve victory next year (although I’d like to believe it). But I’ll say this: if they do, they’ll surely face the lowest expectations of any incoming government in recent memory. Insofar as it means less capacity to disappoint people, that can only be a good thing. :)

    Reply
  5. Dan Sutton

    Do you think the effect of the Scottish Referendum will have any bearing on the prospects for the Labour Party?

    In particular I am wondering at the ability of the SNP and their 80,000 members to unseat Labour MP’s.

    Reply
    • hopisen

      I think it will have some impact, but it’s hard to unpick what it will be in the immediate backwash of the referendum.

      Also, it’s worth remembering that Labour’s Scottish performance in 2010 was actually very good – increase in share of vote, and no loss of seats. (Partly Brown, partly ‘stop the Tories’). So it’s hard to know if that would unwind anyway, especially given the collapse of the LDs.

      Reply
      • Dan Sutton

        Aye – there are currently not that many seats where the SNP are that close to Labour.

        The SNP seem more likely to pick up a couple of Lib Dem seats.

        Depends a little I think on whether the SNP are able to make the election in Scotland about Home Rule or if the Labour Party is able to make it about the avoiding a Tory Government. The Labour Party have two difficulties with that. 1) because of devolution a Tory government in the UK has less impact on Scotland and 2) the Labour Party in Scotland seems to have lost its way organisationally somewhat.

        Reply
    • Alan Griffiths

      As yet, there do not seem to be any post-neverendum polls in Scotland about voting intentions for he UK general election 7 May 2015.

      Reply
      • Dan Sutton

        I don’t recall seeing any Scottish polls but the data from the (very small) Scottish sub-samples of the some of the national polls does not look encouraging for Labour.

        Reply
  6. Newmania

    The problem with your supposed conversion to fiscal prudence is that it took place only after you consistently opposed “so called “austerity ” and armed with the BBC`s Duncan`s hocus pocus took the view , I f I recall rightly , that increased spending was the solution to a debt crisis.
    People like myself who mildly suggested that common sense was surely against you were “economically illiterate ” that most illiterate formation and , of “curating ” events of the previous six months.
    So I do not believe you or indeed anyone in the wider left is within a country mile of trustworthy with the economy . The great British public clearly agrees with me.

    That said I appreciate your efforts to “be ” the solution as well as suggest it and I don`t imagine that Balls and co are incapable of counting were they in government either so it matters little other than to assuage my sense of grievance .
    The problem for Labour is not a general commitment to tight spending but the political will when it comes to each specific battle . You cannot get away from the weakness of Ed and who his backers are because everyone knows that Public Sector Pay cannot be out of the equation with everyone else taking up the fundement .

    The economy is not the only issue though and your business as usual tone is already ridiculous.The political class have not yet understood that as Europe stands for immigration so immigration stands for a wider disagreement about what sort of country we live in.
    On these issues you are not moderate, you are on the wild edge of pro mass immigration and what amounts to the aggressive settlement of foreign people in England .In fact I worry that people like you , having admitted you are wrong about so much simply could not bear to admit you have been wrong about this. It is the last crusade so to speak,

    Five more years of the country leeching away is a price I would pay to avoid the catastrophe of leaving the EU but if Labour don`t wake up there will be a reckoning . You are attacking England for god`s sake, is that wise , is it ?

    One more thing , I have entirely come round to the idea of a PR English Parliament provided it has equivalent powers . Messy as you say and not the nothing you proposed but I think the Union`s salvation .lies in such a formula .

    Reply

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