Almost a year ago, my good friend Marcus Roberts wrote a pamphlet called ‘Labour’s next majority’.
In it, Marcus set out how Labour could win an election with 40% of the vote, without appealing to a large swathe of 2010 Tory voters. His analysis – that a coalition of existing Labour voters, former LibDems, former non-voters and young voters could get Labour to the victory line was rightly greeted by extremely favourable reviews, as a provocative and thoughtful piece of work that suggested a different path to victory for the British centre left. One review dubbed it ‘Labour’s Emerging majority’
Somewhat cruelly, the publication of the report occurred at almost the precise moment the Labour party fell beneath 40% in the polls for the first time for four years. Yet the political argument that lay behind Marcus’s paper was as significant as the psephological one.
Because ‘Labour’s next majority’ importance was that it represented an electoral guide to a political idea. By setting out a path to power that did not rely on converting Tory voters, Labour strategists had freed themselves from the need to change minds about the Labour party. Instead, the voters were there, already fundamentally sympathetic to the Labour party position. The challenge was to motivate them, to get them to the polls.
Underneath this thinking lay an older, more battle-scarred concept – the progressive consensus, which held that a fracturing on the left was truly responsible for the Thatcherite ascendency of the Eighties. Many in the Labour party, witnessing the collapse of the LibDems, post coalition, saw an exciting chance to, finally make that progressive consensus real.
So it’s no coincidence that the policies Labour has announced over the last year, and which we focus on today, are ‘motivational’ policies, rather than ‘conversion’ policies. If you already feel fundamentally sympathetic to the Labour party, but are not sure what it will do for you, then policies like an energy freeze, action the cost of living, more home building, NHS protection are designed to encourage you to the polls. They are, if you like, a ‘strong retail offer’.
If however, you are sceptical to the party for other reasons, for example because you believe that we would risk the economy, or increase taxes, or not close the deficit, or simply because you think the party itself is ineffective compared to the others, these same policies will be unlikely to change your mind, even if you like them. Indeed, how could they?
Labour’s approach has been an attempt to motivate, rather than convert voters, in large part because of an analysis that held that such conversion was not needed. The Coalition, the progressive consensus reborn, already existed. What was needes was to drag it to the polls.
Unfortunately, the recent European and Local election suggest there is a problem with the theory in practice.
Despite all the attempts to motivate the vote, the community organising, the grassroots mobilisation, the policy agenda, and so on, the army of eager Labour voters the strategy relied on simply did not arrive at the voting booths in any great numbers. In the polls, Labour has not scored 40% or more for almost three months now.
Now it’s very tempting for me to say I told you so. Because I did. A few times.
Indeed, I remember discussing alternative numbers with Marcus that are not unlike the 32% he projects in his latest article. The problem with the 40% strategy was threefold.
First, it relied on outstanding turnout from traditionally low turnout groups, which was always going to be a demanding target.
Consider this: If Labour’s margin of victory in the 40% strategy relies on non and young voters, what does it suggest that when given the chance to kick the government and signal their desire for change, Labour could not reach 35% of the vote? Does this make you feel confident there is likely to be a swell of motivated new voters next year?
Second, by focussing only constructing an electoral coalition needed to win, building block by building block, it neglected the possibility these ‘blocks’ would seep and fracture.
Labour was, and is, going to secure a large number of 2010 LibDems at the next election. But the difference between getting a third of them and a fifth of them is enormous. In assuming that all these voters were ‘in the bag’ and simply needed to be motivated, Labour may have neglected to observe that some of these voters had significant doubt about us, that could be exploited.
Finally, of course, by focussing on a relatively narrow political coalition, you leave yourself very vulnerable to the unexpected loss of a proportion of that support, and indeed Labour found that an opponent was both converting voters. UKIP may not have made the progress it desired, but it certainly converted some former Labour supporters, in large part by focusing on two issues, immigration and Europe.
As a result, post the elections, a re-assessment has been taking place. Both Marcus Roberts in ‘Without change, Labour is choosing to lose’ and Jeremy Cliffe with ‘The new Working Class‘ have written up their revised takes. They are both thoughtful articles, with interesting and insightful glimpses of the new demography of Britain.
However, they both represent another attempt to motivate a coalition electoral bloc by electoral bloc, rather than to change minds and perceptions voters by voter. Let me put it bluntly. Electorally, we should stop thinking of ‘the working class vote’. (Whether new, old or in between).
Instead, consider individual members of the working class, with different interests, views, barriers and motivations, many of which are similar to those of other voters. From 1979 until 1997, the Conservative party regularly scored 30% of voters in Social group DE. Those voters were not repelled by Thatcherism, and Labour’s then powerfully pro Working class message did not appeal to them.
Further, amongst voters in social group C2, the Tories scored 40% in every election from 1979 to 1992. The idea that the working class is uniform, or shifts in ways that can be easily separated from the electorate as a whole is for the birds.
Show me a party that has significantly increased their appeal to DE voters, and I’ll show you a party that has increased their appeal to ABC1 voters.
The problem for Labour is fundamentally not that we have insufficient electoral blocs to construct a majority from, and we need to add more to, but rather that there are too many people in all electoral blocs who see the party as ineffective, unlikely to make positive changes, incompetent, or irresponsible.
These perceptions are not true, naturally, but to try to construct a victory without changing minds on these topics, at best reliant on a perception of greater incompetence, irresponsibility and ineffectiveness elsewhere, and at worst doomed to failure.
If Labour’s bright strategists want to win next year, they should stop worrying about how to build coalitions block by block, and start thinking about changing minds voter by voter.