Labour’s inevitable strategy: A war against attrition

Douglas Alexander is getting a lot of advice about Labour’s General Election campaign. Some of this advice is of the ‘Chill, Bro, we’ve got this’ variety. Other advice amounts more to a “we’re doomed, doomed! DOOMED!” analysis.

Neither  helps Labour’s election co-ordinator very much, as they don’t give him a hint on how to maximise Labour’s result. Unless you subscribe to a Calvinist approach to elections then this is important (Pun very much intentional, and if you didn’t get it, I am clearly cleverer than you so don’t bother to dispute the rest of my argument).

How Douglas maximises the result is crucial for me, as I both recognise the downward historical trend most oppositions endure, but also believe that we’re firmly ‘The Events Zone‘, the polling range where events unique to this election will decide the actual result.

If you take a historical trend of how polls move in the year before an election, you’d expect a smallish Tory vote share lead come 2015, as Leo Baresi suggests. Some models have it higher, some lower, but the basic trend is clear.

However, there are good reasons to suspect that the general trend might be overstated in this particular election.

These include (but are not limited to) the fact that polling has improved since past elections, that 2010 LibDems will behave differently to past switchers, that UKIP might well soak up a tranche of ‘right’ voters, no party leader has strong ratings, that we’re operating on pretty outdated boundaries, that it’s possible to win an election while behind on leadership or the economy and that this is a coalition, so normal single party recoveries don’t apply.

Any of these could have a major impact on vote and seat totals. So will how good we are at politics.

In other words, who-ever loses the next election, the fault lies in themselves, not in their stars.

So what can Douglas do about this?

Well, I’d rule out a big strategy shift. The party won’t change leader, and it’s not clear what alternative strategy is available to Ed Miliband’s team.

Trying to persuade soft Tory voters that Labour has changed to meet their concerns might have been an option three years ago, but it’s hard to know what Labour could say to them now that would be credible1

The same applies to economic policy. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the recovery, whether it’s real or a bubble, whatever wages do, whether or not “it’ll never work” was not actually what we were saying, or whether the governments ‘success’ has simply been a delaying of the reckoning until after the election, the basic fact is that Labour decided three years ago that we did not electorally fear an economic recovery by 2015. No point in backing off that analysis now, it’d look fake.

In truth, Labour’s economic policy position is entirely sensible. Our weakness is not in our macro and fiscal policy, but our discomfort in spelling out what it would actually mean to deliver this ((The Tories are perfectly happy pretending that their fiscal targets and macro goals can be delivered by slashing welfare on ‘scroungers’. As we find it hard to say we too would be painful, we can’t talk about the greater agony the Tories would have to impose, and the risks this creates for the economy. Already we’re seeing the consequences of their approach – if in need of emergency growth, inflate the housing market)) .

Continental left leaders like Valls and  Renzi are showing a different path for the left, but I can’t see how the current Labour party could make a similar argument work without an election destroying row.

Just imagine the internal reaction if Ed Balls was to spell out further spending cuts in pensions, health and social care to fund a tax break for small business and low paid workers, while pushing for greater labour market flexibility!

If big strategy shifts  are pipe dreams, what can Labour do to win?

First, stop worrying about things we can’t control. Will UKIP voters ‘return’ to the Tories? Well, about a fifth of them rate the Tories as best on most issues, bar immigration and Europe, and it’s clear they don’t like Labour much.

If the Tories are smart, they’ll spend a lot of money on direct mail to those people, probably stressing immigration, Ed Miliband and Law and Order.

Labour can’t control that, so other than making the point about the Tories being elitist and out of touch, which chimes with pessimistic UKIP voters, there’s not much point  stressing about it.

Neither should Douglas worry about converting many new Labour voters.

Absent a major shift, that window has closed. How many oppositions have increased vote share in the last year of an election? Only the 1959 Labour opposition, and even then, only barely.

On the other hand, Douglas should worry a lot about Labour voters who might detach over the coming year. If Labour is going to win a majority we have to hold on to virtually every voter who backs us now.

I see two main groups of voters who might put that at risk.

The first are policy doubters: It’s pretty clear that around half of Labour voters don’t think the party is best on immigration and Europe, while  about a third don’t think it’s best on the economy and crime. Overwhelmingly, Labour voters do think Labour is best on public services.

Now, it’s important not to over-analyse this. These people are still saying they’d vote Labour even if they don’t think the party is best on a particular issue2

This suggests a watching brief: if immigration, law and order, and the economy begin to have more salience for Labour voters unenthusiastic about these Labour policy,  they could easily drift away. So what will keep them on board?

Next, there’s the significant group of Labour voters who appear unsure about the leader. However you ask, around a third of all Labour voters don’t express enthusiasm for Ed Miliband, while a very different picture emerges for David Cameron among Tory voters.

This isn’t just personal: the same likely applies for the party as a whole. 70% of Labour voters say the party is ready for government. (These people may also be policy doubters, of course, in which case I’d be really worried about their likelihood to vote.)

To be fair though, one of the reasons Cameron does well among Tory voters is that those who don’t rate him have already buggered off.

Cameron and Miliband’s ratings among their party’s 2010 supporters are closer than among current supporters.3 It’s just that the unhappy Tories aren’t actually Tories any more.

The risk is that Labour voters will do the same as these unimpressed Tories. So Labour either convinces them the leadership is strong, or convinces them something else matters more.

Current Labour supporters think Labour is clearly on their side, but a significant number doubt both our policy effectiveness and leadership credentials. If they start to believe we won’t do much good, but do represent a risk, their support could go. I imagine that is precisely the argument the Tories will make, to both wavering Labour and unhappy right-wing voters. “You might not like us much, but you’ve got to stop this lot“.

This drives my belief that Ed Miliband’s Labour party must convince people it can make practical changes to improve their lives, and wouldn’t risk an emerging recovery with macro irresponsibility.

This is why I get exercised about Labour’s love affair with big, transformative ambitious boldness.  I fear sceptical, doubtful Labour supporters will see in such boldness only an exponential chance of big, transformative fu…  screw ups, thus increasing their scepticism and doubt.

Finally, Douglas has one more problem.

A long battle against attrition, a street by street fight to hold onto Labour’s current supporters by telling them what’s in it for them might seem like a pretty dull approach, compared to a bold advance forward. It is. So people will start asking for more vision, more brio.

Yet any bold advance would expose Labour’s weaknesses: try to convince Tory voters that Labour has changed, and you risk a split in Labour’s unity without convincing the sceptical. Alternatively, communicating the radicalism of change might well make our existing supporters nervous, while uniting those against us.

So Bold advance gets ruled out, and grim attrition becomes inevitable.

This isn’t the strategy I’d choose. I’d prefer a Renzi or a Valls, like it or lump it approach. I’m a death or glory kind of guy.

But then I’m not Labour leader. I don’t have to keep both Jon Trickett and Jim Murphy happy, or balance Peter Mandelson and Len McCluskey.

So I don’t think Labour has a choice, really. This is how it’s going to be.

A gritty, hard defensive war against attrition.

  1. the core Milibandite electoral approach has been set out by Marcus Roberts and others: this basically involves taking the 2010 Labour vote, adding a large slice of 2010 LibDems, motivating non-voters and running an outstanding get out the vote operation. It’s argued that get to 40% that way, and the Tories can’t win, whatever they do.

    As a model it seems plausible, but as I’ve said to Marcus, the trouble with using big blocks to build yourself an electoral tide-break is that they’re made of individual grains of voters. A series of waves can dislodge a few voters from the edge of each block, and suddenly your impregnable electoral fortress looks like the mouth of a sugar addicted smoker, all gaps and stumps.

    Whatever I may think though, it seems this, more or less, is going to be the strategy []

  2. This is one reason I tend to be less concerned by immigration than most Labour poll watchers. It’s not that I don’t think we have a problem there, it’s that I believe it’s a problem with low salience. Only 34% of 2010 Labour voters think the party is best on immigration, while 47% of 2010 Tories say the Conservatives are. Yet far more of those who are unhappy have quit the Tories than Labour. I reckon it’s just not as important to Labour voters. []
  3. Miliband is behind by c30 points among current supporters, but he’s only c15-20 points behind among 2010 supporters []

4 Responses to “Labour’s inevitable strategy: A war against attrition”

  1. SpinningHugo

    Sheesh, this is cheery.

    What about the policy review? We have been waiting four sodding years. There must be a few nuggets in there surely, other than the half arsed localism we have seen so far.

    Give me a nice LVT, or a net wealth tax (asking for both is too much) coupled with a promise to cut income tax.

    What about a big promise on inequality: popular with the base, and the right thing to do as well.?

    Labour can’t go into the election naked. ‘Living standards are shit’ is not an election strategy. It is a whinge, not a plan about what to do.

    The problem now is that the economic cycle is running against Balls’ Keynesian approach. Slower and shallower was a plan. but it is no use now when the upturn is underway as the time for austerity has actually arrived. Major investment spending was a plan when we were flatlining, not now.

    But there has to be something to campaign on, and that means a headline promise or two that is bold. Some of the five pledges on the card have to be significant ones.

    • hopisen

      I’m not expecting many nuggets. One reason for this is when there was an urgent post-budget need to announce some popular policy or other, what we got instead was a bouncer briefing about tuition fees cuts/graduate tax, which then nearly caused a flap itself when the costings were made clear. oh, and some stuff around rail franchises reverting to public sector, (which to be fair would be popular, and I don’t know enough about the finances to know if it would mean a deficit hit.)

      It was the policies that weren’t briefed that spoke loudest.

  2. Quietzaple

    Avoiding Scaring horses and relying on Events! Dear Boy, Events may not appeal to some … But it may prove a productive stand of Labour inaction.


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