Labour will never win a general election if we only appeal to our core vote. The electoral figures don’t add up – and the political rationale doesn’t work either. This is why this leadership election is such a crossroads. Our new leader needs to reclaim the centre ground and win a majority in 2015.
Way back in 1983, we saw how socioeconomic changes had eroded our core vote. Labour’s most radical election manifesto made sectional offers to lots of interest groups, but the big picture was not one that the British public recognised, much less liked. Neil Kinnock and Roy Hattersley, the left-right ‘dream team’ who began the long march to electability, had to start by getting the party to face the reality of change.
Some of us had to face it again, uncomfortably, this May. Yes, the Labour government had done more than most people will ever recognise. In Northampton we’ve had every secondary school completely rebuilt, a slew of surestart centres, tax credits for pensioners and families, and a new university. There was lots of feel-good on the doorstep, and our core offer – fighting public sector cuts, investment in jobs, defending the NHS – chimed with our traditional supporters. But there weren’t enough of them. And there were problems with our big picture.
It’s notable how many seats we lost in new towns: Basildon; Corby; Crawley; Harlow; Milton Keynes; Northampton; Redditch; and Stevenage. These are towns that attracted people, often core Labour voters from traditional Labour areas, with the offer of a job, a home, and the chance for their family to get on in life. Our commitment to them was put in doubt by a perception that we were more interested in people as clients of the state than as independent citizens. And our dividing lines were exclusive. It was a core vote campaign.
The Labour leadership candidates who have failed to champion change are lagging in support. Yes, they have all to an extent distanced themselves from the mistakes of Labour in government. But ‘not me guv’ is the easy bit. Andy Burnham has made his pitch most clearly for traditional Labour support in traditional Labour areas. Attacks on metropolitan elites define the territory. Diane Abbott has been consistent in her approach as the candidate of the left.
Ed Balls has been the most radical. His intervention on the economy has challenged the current orthodoxies of deficit reduction. However, opinion polls show that, at least until the autumn spending statement, the public prefer the coalition strategy of a five-year deficit reduction to our 10-year strategy. And he has not been able to shake off his closeness to Gordon Brown.
Ed Miliband’s campaign sets New Labour as his reference point for change. The three key touchstones he sets are the Iraq war, tuition fees and ID cards, the big battles that divided New Labour. But they’re yesterday’s battles, not the battles of 2015.
Ed Miliband says, ‘We cannot fight the Tories by clinging to old ideas that produced low-wage, low-skill jobs.’ This is a faux battle, as it was Labour, call it new or old, which brought in the minimum wage, tax credits, the 50 per cent target for school leavers into university and new apprenticeships.
Our reference point for change has to be where the voters are, and where they will be in 2015 – and that is why David Miliband is the one who can win over the voters I lost in Northampton. David Miliband identifies the ideological battle as being with the Conservative-Liberal Democrat government, and the goal being to make a universal appeal that can win people over from all parts of the political spectrum. He has already started reappropriating the language of the centre.
Middle England shouldn’t be lost to us. People share our values – work, family, community, national pride. And people here did well out of Labour in government. But the electorate doesn’t do gratitude. We need a Labour leader who can win in the new politics.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.