Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Don’t look back in anger

Anyone thinking of casting a protest vote should look at what happens when a government’s supporters try to give it a ‘bloody nose’, warns Mark Day

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Labour’s middle-class supporters are in a rebellious mood. Private polling by the party shows that up to three million voters, most of them middle-class professionals, have turned against Labour in the last term. In 2001, this enlightened demographic were, on the whole, prepared to give a relatively untested government the benefit of the doubt. In 2005, this no longer seems to be the case. Peter Hain, at a meeting at Labour’s spring conference, summed up the prevailing mood: ‘We seem to have reached a situation where the progressive middle classes are really pissed off with us.’

The conventional wisdom of these middle-class malcontents is that, after two successive large majorities, New Labour needs to be taken down a peg or two. John Harris, author of So Now Who Do We Vote For? is typical of this view. A self-styled Old Labour supporter, he sees the government’s record as ‘a very modern dystopia of franchising, two-tier public services… and privilege masquerading as choice.’ At the next election, he advises his readers, ‘it may well be necessary to administer a cruel kindness and temporarily desert the party so as to knock it back to life.’ What New Labour needs, in other words, is the electoral equivalent of a bloody nose.

Leaving aside Harris’ overall assessment of the government’s record, how coherent is his advice to disaffected Labour voters? The ‘bloody nose’ approach, championed by Harris, is underpinned by two related assumptions. First, that a Labour victory – or at least Tory defeat – at the next election is inevitable. There is room, therefore, for a protest vote. Second, that a reduced Labour majority – or even a Lib/Lab coalition – in a third term, would give greater leverage to New Labour’s parliamentary dissidents on the left, allowing them to reign in its more heretical tendencies.

Anyone with half an eye on recent political history would know these are very dangerous assumptions to make.

Let’s start with the first: that Labour is cruising to victory at the next election. The latest polling evidence hardly gives cause for such optimism. A Guardian/ICM poll in February puts Labour on 37 per cent, just three points ahead of the Tories and down four points from its nine point lead at the beginning of the year.

This decline in Labour’s ratings suggests that Howard’s core vote strategy of focusing on crime, immigration and tax may be beginning to pay off with the electorate. If these results hold, significant Tory gains at the next election look increasingly likely. Reluctant Labour supporters would be wrong to write off the possibility of a Tory comeback at such an early stage in the campaign.

Indeed, the current electoral climate may be even more uncertain for Labour than the polling suggests. As Roger Mortimore of Mori highlighted in the January edition of Progress, the main mechanism by which Labour has been able to convert a relatively modest percentage point lead in the polls into a large parliamentary majority in the last two elections has been its success in winning marginal seats.

To a large extent, this success has been underpinned by tactical voting, whereby third party supporters in marginal constituencies have voted Labour to keep the Tories out.

The importance of tactical voting to Labour can be demonstrated by comparing John Major’s electoral fortunes to Tony Blair’s. In the 1992 election, Major won 41 per cent of the vote. However, due to tactical voting by Labour and Liberal Democrat supporters in marginal seats, his majority was only 21. In 2001, Blair actually won a smaller share of the vote than Major – 40.7 per cent – but, because tactical voting against the Tories in the marginals continued, Labour’s majority was 167.

What if, after eight years of Labour incumbency, the anti-Tory vote collapses? This would inevitably benefit the Tories in the marginal seats and, on its own, could lead to a significant reduction in Labour’s overall majority. This, combined with the effects of a low-turnout election and a regalvanised Conservative base, could potentially spell disaster for Labour at the ballot box. In this scenario, the Labour vote falls, Lib Dem and other anti-Labour votes pile up, and the Tories come through the middle to claim victory.

If the Conservatives were to win the next election, the left’s shadenfreude would be small consolation in the face of swingeing Tory cuts to public services in the next parliament. Harris and his supporters need to ask themselves: is a protest vote really worth the possibility of a Michael Howard premiership?

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that this analysis is no more than electoral scaremongering. What if Harris’ protest vote has the desired effect, and a chastened Labour party is returned for a third term, but with a much-reduced majority? Would this result in a party that was more recognisably ‘Labour’, which Harris and his followers would be happy to support?

Few of the Labour figures Harris interviews for his book seem to think so, even those who are sympathetic to his political views. Only one unnamed Labour ex-minister Harris speaks to believes voting against the government at the next election could conceivably result in a better Labour party in a third term. Even New Labour scourge Roy Hattersley doubts Harris’ political judgement. ‘I don’t think political parties ever improve with failure’, he warns.

You don’t have to look far back into Labour’s history to find the reason for Hattersley’s concern. The Labour government of 1974 to 1979 was crippled by the lack of an overall majority in the House of Commons. During this period, one third of Labour MPs proved willing to vote against the government 20 or more times, as rival factions in the party vied for influence.

The rest of the sorry saga barely needs repeating: five years of a hamstrung Labour government ended in acrimony, with a comfortable election victory for the Conservatives, and an undignified lurch to the left by Labour, followed by 18 years in the political wilderness. No wonder those with slightly longer political memories than Harris are reluctant to recommend a deliberate strategy to reduce Labour’s majority at the next election.

The prospects for a Lib/Lab coalition government in a third term look even more uncertain, especially given Charles Kennedy’s refusal to countenance a potential deal. Those on the left who are tempted to vote Liberal Democrat as a more palatable alternative to New Labour, however, should consider Nick Cohen’s recent comments in the New Statesman: ‘The Liberal Democrats, although admirable in many respects, constitute a middle-class party, one that has opposed increases in the minimum wage and want to scrap the New Deal. Middle-class readers who vote Lib Dem for good reasons are also voting against the interests of their poorer neighbours.’ Socialism, in other words, is not what Liberal Democrat governments do.

The real tragedy of books like So Now Who Do We Vote For? is that the ‘progressive middle classes’ no longer seem to view New Labour as their natural home. In reality, New Labour has been far more radical than the left is prepared to admit. Harris’ portrait of a ‘modern dystoptia’ under Labour ignores the massive increases in public investment that have accompanied the government’s relatively modest use of the private sector in the delivery of public services. Tory voters have certainly noticed the increased demands this government has made on their wallets, even if Harris hasn’t.

New Labour, however, has hardly gone out of its way to counter such negative perceptions of its record. Its reticence has been deliberate. Until now, the government’s ability to out-manoeuvre the Tories on the right has been seen as one of its strongest electoral assets.

Whether Harris and his supporters will turn this asset into a liability for Labour at the next election remains to be seen.

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Mark Day

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