Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Uphill struggle?

Labour has made some headway since its defeat last year, but progress is slow and the challenge ahead is tough and complex. Could another hung parliament be on the cards, ask Deborah Mattinson and David Ashton
Defeat in 2010 came as little surprise to those of us working in opinion research. Thirteen years in power had left Labour looking tired, out-of-touch with the concerns of ordinary voters, and, as focus groups put it, ‘a party that had run out of steam.’

Enough voters had decided it was ‘time for a change’ but suspicion persisted that, despite its ‘refreshing’ new leader’s best efforts, the Conservative party still stood for the rich, rather than ordinary people. Beneath the surface, they worried, nothing had changed. And we all know what happened next. So, how great is the risk of another hung parliament?

First, let’s recap on who Labour lost in 2010. The party’s share of the vote decreased by more than six percentage points from 2005 (from 35.2 per cent to 29 per cent). Its 258 seats (down from 349) were almost all concentrated in Labour heartlands: northern England, Scotland, Wales and deprived inner-city seats in London.

At first glance, the party had retreated to its ‘core vote’, but closer inspection tells a different story and here Labour was vulnerable too. The fall in Labour’s vote in constituencies where more than a quarter of the economically active population were manual workers was at 7.9 per cent, three per cent higher than in constituencies with less than 18 per cent employed as manual workers. Here  the fall in Labour’s share of the vote was just 4.9 points.

White working-class voters had grown frustrated by immigration and its impact on their employment prospects. Labour’s performance in areas affected worst by unemployment was more than two per cent worse than its average decrease in the share of the vote. A Populus poll in 2008  found that 60 per cent of those in the lowest socioeconomic groups felt that nobody spoke out for people like them. Labour paid the price with the number of those not voting for one of the three main parties rising from 9.3 per cent in 1997 to 13.9 per cent in 2010.

While there was little good news, there was some less bad news. Pre-election polling showed that, even though they trailed the Conservatives among both groups, support for Labour was stronger among women and younger voters aged between 18 and 34. Labour also did relatively well in culturally diverse urban areas: in constituencies where more than 10 per cent of the population was non-white, Labour’s drop in support was just 0.7 per cent.

Labour held up better among public sector workers, too: in constituencies with a high proportion (22 per cent or more) the drop in support for Labour was just 4.7 per cent, half that in areas where there were few public sector workers.

Where, then, is Labour on the eve of its second conference in opposition? The party’s opinion poll rating now typically stands at 42 per cent, six per cent ahead of the Conservative party on 36 per cent, with the Liberal Democrats hovering just above the single figure threshold on 10 per cent.

However, lukewarm focus groups suggest that this success is driven more by the unpopularity of the coalition, as government approval ratings have plummeted from a high of +48 per cent in June 2010 to -31 per cent in July 2011, than it has by Labour’s own performance.

David Cameron still leads Ed Miliband by at least 10 points when it comes to ‘who would make the best prime minister’, even after the Labour leader’s strong performance during the News International phone hacking scandal. And, crucially, the Conservative party has made its argument that Labour is to blame for the economic downturn stick: despite dire economic forecasts, they continue to beat Labour as the party best able to manage 
the economy.

Labour’s rise in vote share in the polls is broad but not deep, deriving from small rises in support across the socio-demographic spectrum rather than drawn from any particular group. It is also thanks to a surge of support from ex-Liberal Democrats, with up to 40 per cent of those who voted for Nick Clegg’s party in 2010 now saying they would vote Labour if there were an election tomorrow.

The future task is complex and challenging. Labour must build on its relative strength among women, young voters and diverse urban communities, and its success in attracting disaffected Liberal Democrats.

Re-engagement with disaffected white working-class voters is vital, too, but this alone will not be enough. BritainThinks’ recent research has found Labour trails the Tories in all but one (the smallest and least well off) of the six segments of middle class identifiers who now make up 71 per cent of the total electorate. This means attracting voters from both ends of the social spectrum – a tough ask.

There is also much ground to make up among older voters, those aged over 60, who are the most likely group to turn out and vote and among whom the Tories retain a lead of around 10 per cent in the polls.

The evidence to date is that, while Labour has made some headway, progress is slow. At the same stage in the electoral cycle after the 1992 defeat and prior to the 1997 landslide victory, Labour’s poll lead was 14 points – twice that it enjoys today.

But if Labour’s challenge looks a stretch, the Conservative party’s aim of reaching an overall majority appears even harder. To achieve this they would need to retain the support of those who switched from Labour for the first time in 2010, voters who – as Lord Ashcroft’s extensive published research has shown – are among the most concerned about the cuts. They must also attract additional support from Labour’s strongest groups: women and ethnic minorities where Conservative support has been low in recent times.

Of the 37 per cent who voted for the Conservatives in 2010, 79 per cent say they would probably do so again in 2015, falling to 57 per cent among those who voted Tory for the first time in 2010. Conservative considerers are twice as likely to say that the spending cuts made by the coalition are too fast and too deep (46 per cent to 21 per cent), and among both groups women voters are more likely to think the cuts are too quick and severe.

But it is the Liberal Democrats who have the toughest challenge of all. At just 10 per cent they are clinging on to a double-digit vote share: less than half of what they achieved in 2010.

However, while the two larger parties struggle to make the significant breakthrough needed for an absolute majority, as things stand, the Liberal Democrats may once again find themselves holding the balance of power in a future hung parliament.

Labour must not repeat the mistakes that the Conservatives made in 2010. Waiting for the government to lose will not, despite its unpopularity, be enough. Instead, it must develop careful strategies to appeal to key target voters in the coming months.

 Working it out

Labour has traditionally been seen as the party of the working class because of its strong links with the unions, although in 2010 Labour support fell away more dramatically in areas where a high proportion of working-age adults were in manual occupations.

In BritainThinks’ recent class study, two politicians stood out in the focus groups among working-class identifiers: Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. Neither figure is without controversy but Thatcher is applauded for ‘giving people their council houses’, while Blair is felt to understand people’s aspirations. At the same time many regret that Labour no longer seems to be the ‘party of the working class’.

Ultimately, the verdict is that all parties and all politicians are ‘the same’ and most people in focus groups of working-class voters could scarcely name any politicians.

The latest YouGov polls put Labour’s lead over the Conservatives among C2DE voters at between 15 and 20 per cent. The economy is the most important issue among these voters – as it is among all groups – followed by immigration. This issue is the one which working-class voters are significantly more likely than the middle classes to name as being among the most important issues facing the country.

Labour needs to show this group that it is on their side if it is to further strengthen its support among working-class voters, and win back those it lost to ‘others’ between 1997 and 2010.

Winning women

The leadership of Tony Blair, a politician who women felt really understood them, persuaded women voters that Labour was on their side for the first time: 44 per cent of women voted Labour in 1997, up 10 per cent on the figure for 1992.

Since the 2010 general election, Labour has typically scored between 45 per cent and 50 per cent among women in the polls – somewhat better than its performance among men.

Focus groups suggest this success among women is partially a consequence of the economic situation and the Conservative approach to dealing with the deficit. Women tend to be more downbeat about the prospects for the economy and concerned about the impact of the cuts on public services. They are more likely to have been personally affected by cuts in public services and state benefits, and more likely to fear for their jobs, with women workers comprising a greater proportion of the public sector workforce than in the private sector.

Women are also more sceptical about the Conservative party and less warm towards David Cameron. They need Labour to spell out what it will do for them, and they need to get to know Ed Miliband better than they currently do.

Stuck in the middle

BritainThinks’ research into class found that 71 per cent now define themselves as middle class. That represents a massive 33.6 million votes. And those people are more interested in politics (79 per cent compared with 64 per cent of working-class identifiers) and, importantly, more likely to turn out and vote (69 per cent  compared with 55 per cent of the working class). They are more likely to be ‘floating’ or undecided voters – nearly one in five – and more likely to be politically active – twice as likely to be members of a political party at five per cent.

Yet Labour only wins with one of the six middle-class groups identified in the research: the smallest one, Squeezed Strugglers. Two of the groups, Daily Mail Disciplinarians and Deserving Downtimers, seem out of reach as both give the Conservatives a share of the vote of more than 50 per cent. The remaining three groups are more achievable for Labour with 38 per cent of non-Labour voting Comfortable Greens, 43 per cent of non-Labour Urban Networkers and 24 per cent of non-Labour Bargain Hunters all prepared to reconsider.

The latest YouGov polling shows the Conservatives leading Labour by 10 per cent among ABC1 voters. The economy is by far the biggest issue among this group and, although around half think that the government is handling the economy badly, middle-class voters are more likely than working-class voters to think the coalition is handling things well (38 per cent to 26 per cent). And, crucially, the Labour government is the factor most frequently cited as the source of blame for the current state of the British economy: 41 per cent blame Labour, up from 34 per cent among C2DE voters. Labour must, therefore, regain its economic credibility among middle-class voters if it is to make significant gains among this group at the next general election.


Deborah Mattinson is director of BritainThinks and David Ashton is former research lead at BritainThinks


Image: Adrian Teal

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  • ‘people’ may be rethinking immigration resentment in light of ‘arab spring/summer/winter/fall (!) and the appallingly inhumane atrocities revealed; feeling proud of a Britain that sought to provide a refuge,yes we feel there’s not enough to go round etc blah blah blah,but as a nation we will not pass people by. And regain economic credibility ! blimey capitalism can’t even do that at the moment ! If the middle-blah think Labour simply spent our reserves blah blah then again the message the lesson the point the bleedin’ truth just has to be reiterated with confidence
    of how spending was always offset in relation to growth.When growth had its legs chopped off and fell on its head ,it took everyone by surprise apart from those betting on it ,who had that ’round the back private view ‘
    because they own the engine.

  • This analysis is far from convincing. The Labour vote has been falling particularly among its core voters. THere are no heartlands left and many safe seats are becoming marginals.
    The white working class has been abandoned by Labour which has only contempt for it. And as for the subject of immigration, Labour’s only response is to call voters ‘racist’.
    Instead Labour accelerated mass immigration including the inward migrationof those who are permanently economically inactive.
    Illegal entrants were not removed.
    The white working class have now abandoned Labour which patronised them and will not be returning.
    There is a lesson there somewhere.

  • gawd Angela,the white working class,illegal entrant, you make it sound like the 19th century! yes one knows what you mean but a Somali boy who smuggled himself here under /in back of trucks to evade beatings rape and forced soldiering say,deserves a better title don’t you think ? or this famous working class,which I consider myself to be too,if they are behaving like hopeless children scrounging, eating muck ignoring their children then their developed opinion of how to use their vote is something we have to tackle in a different way. Recently flagged up obesity issues and poor food
    an example.Not allowing the state education sytstem to be hijacked another.
    Fighting to maintain communities that are being cleared out to make investment opportunities for developers(including Councils!) If Labour fight for the right things and are seen to be doing so ,shouting about it – then disadvantaged people will see Labour and realise the answer was not to turn on their coloured neighbour to make more space !

  • I have nothing against hung parliaments per se – coalitions work well elsewhere. One fact is true – Government’s lose power not oppositions who win – Labour will just have to wait it out until the ‘tectonic plates’ shift.

  • Glenn – I hadn’t realised political life was so hopeless, is a bunch of opposition spokesmen doing nothing more than waiting for the pendulum to swing back all we need?

  • “At the same time many regret that Labour no longer seems to be the ‘party of the working class’.”

    What does that mean, other than that the world and the job market has changed in ways that many people find difficult to make sense of?

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