A couple of years ago, 29 plus 6 was a popular sum among those interested in Labour’s likely election performance.
It represented what some regarded as a ‘floor’ in Labour support, made up of the 29% of the electorate who voted Labour in 2010, with the 6 representing the roughly a quarter of 2010 Liberal Democrat voters who shifted to Labour after the Coalition was formed.
These seemed, according to most research, to be even more certain to vote Labour than former Labour voters.
Think of this electoral coalition as being, effectively, me and Sunny Hundal. The argument went that this coalition, while it would benefit from a little augmentation from Tory converts, the young, or previously disillusioned non-voters, represented a relatively solid base, from which Labour could reliably build.
Today, with Labour hovering in the low thirties with most pollsters, we don’t hear that argument much any more.
So what went wrong?
The first thing to point out is that the argument was not a stupid one. It remains right. 2010 Labour voters overwhelmingly still vote Labour. A significant proportion of 2010 LibDems will vote Labour at the next election.
It’s just that the ‘overwhelmingly’ and ‘significant’ are a bit smaller than they were.
The problem is that Labour people thought of these groups as robust lego blocks, when in fact they were more like a row of teeth, subject to gradual, almost imperceptible decay.
To demonstrate this, I’ve been tracking Labour’s polling internals with YouGov. Let’s compare the first half of December 2012, close to Labour’s peak support, with the same period last year and the current polling.1
What do we see?
Most obviously, a decline in Labour share. Over the last two years Labour share of the vote has fallen 9.1 points. Interestingly, Labour’s lead has only fallen 9.7 points, indicating almost no Tory revival.
What’s happened to 2010 Labour voters?
Basically, Labour are holding on to a few less of them.
Slightly more former Labour voters now say they won’t vote at all, but this may be margin of error stuff.
Of those that will vote, Labour’s retention rate has fallen from 91.8% to 78.6%.
Who has benefitted?
The Tory share of Labour voters has increased a little, but the big jump has been in support for others.
14.9% of 2010 Labour voters now say they’ll vote for someone other than the big three. About half of these say they’ll vote UKIP, the rest backing the SNP or Greens.
What about the ‘Red Liberals’?
There has also been a small, but tangible, decline in Labour’s support among 2010 LibDems. In 2012, Labour averaged 37.7% of 2010 LibDems who said they’d vote. Now that number is 31.9%. That’s still a big wedge, by anyone’s standard, but it is a decline.
Perhaps surprisingly, There is no difference in Labour’s decline by gender or age (all about 9 points down).
However, over the last two years Labour’s rate of decline has been much higher among C2DE voters than among ABC1 voters.
Resist the temptation to conclude that this represents a loss of the Labour ‘core vote’, however.
YouGov’s final poll in 2010 had Labour on 31% among C2DEs. That number is around 36% today. This suggests that the C2DE voters who joined and left Labour in the interim were perhaps not ‘core’ supporters!
Indeed, since the General Election Labour’s ABC1 and C2DE support has increased by approximately the same proportion. Labour’s C2DE boost in 2012 now appears a little ‘Easy Come, Easy Go.”
By region, there’s good news and bad news. Labour has barely lost any support in London since 2012. PPCs in the metropolis can afford a smile. London is now nearly Labour’s most ‘core’ region (Food for thought for the more anti-metropolitan elite Labour thinkers, there).
However, Scotland is a different story, now being the only area of the UK where Labour is currently performing worse than in the 2010 election. This is an unusual time in Scottish politics, and there is little certainty that current polling will predict next May accurately. That said, given Labour’s outstanding performance in Scotland in 2010 (42% of the vote and no seat losses) it is likely Labour will need to focus resources on defending seats in Scotland as well as attempting to gain them elsewhere.
To describe how Labour’s vote is performing, throw out any mental imagery of blocks of voters, whether ‘2010 Lib Dems’ or ‘Working Class Core voters’. That’s not how politics is working now.
What is happening instead is a gradual decay of the Labour vote in several directions. The row of teeth that makes up Labour’s coalition is each a little less lustrously enameled. The teeth haven’t fallen out, but there are gaps and subtle cavities. Sunny and I are still there, but we are more lonely than we were.
As a result, the 29 plus 6 formula that made Labour strategists smile has become a 27 plus 5 sum that should make them frown.
This is perhaps why Labour is finding a response to decline so difficult to set out. It is not a straightforward task. To secure one group more firmly (say to retain C2DE labour voters) endangers the least convinced of another group (perhaps ABC1 LibDem converts). To attempt to do better in the Midlands might put London noses out of joint.
In other words, Labour strategists have a thankless task, as the data does not point to a single, easy solution.
The advice is simply appeal to more people, of all sorts. (Oh, and do better in Scotland).
That is, perhaps not a problem an election planner can solve. It is a strategy and direction issue, not a tactics and execution one.
The Labour campaign team do have one crucial advantage to console themselves with though.
Their Tory rivals have an even less attractive set of numbers to digest.
- Health warning: The current period, being conference and by-election related may well be distorted. Still, as we edge closer to the election, there will be few politically fallow periods to compare [↩]