Labour will capitalise on the coalition’s troubles only if it builds a broad coalition of voters
Not since the summer of 2007 when, for a brief moment, Gordon Brown appeared on the verge of securing a fourth Labour term, has David Cameron’s leadership of the Conservative party seemed as politically inept as it has in the months since March’s budget. While the stagnant economy would inevitably have led the Tories’ poll ratings to plummet, a series of spectacular own goals have added to the coalition’s malaise.
However, while it is not an immutable law of politics that what goes down must inevitably come back up – John Major’s government never recovered from Black Wednesday – most postwar governments have staged some form of recovery from the traditional midterm lows. In 1990, for instance, a spectacular Labour by-election win in Mid-Staffordshire, a strong local election performance, and a 20-point poll lead, led few people to suspect that, despite presiding over the longest recession since the 1930s, the Conservatives would win a fourth term only two years later.
On that occasion, the government may have been widely disliked but that did not trump widespread distrust of Labour. Moreover, the 1992 election demonstrated that it is not enough simply for an opposition to no longer be unpalatable – as Labour was to millions of Britons for much of the 1980s – it must also offer the electorate a positive reason to support it.
The defeat that Labour suffered in 2010, polling less than 30 per cent of the popular vote, ranks with those inflicted upon it during the 1980s. Quite properly, since 2010 there has been a focus within the party on examining why and how Labour’s support fell by five million votes between its landslide in 1997 and its ejection from office. In July, a new group, Five Million Votes, focused specifically on this issue, was launched. This is to be welcomed: a true understanding of the reasons for Labour’s loss in 2010 is key to rebuilding the party on foundations stronger than the government’s midterm unpopularity.
Dig beneath that raw statistic and there appear some truly shocking findings. In 1997, for instance, Labour secured the support of 60 per cent of DE voters. In 2010, that figure dropped to four in 10. Among C2 skilled working-class voters – whose support was crucial to Margaret Thatcher’s run of wins and then to Tony Blair’s – Labour’s vote collapsed just as precipitously: from 50 per cent in 1997 to 30 per cent in 2010.
Five Million Votes has rightly suggested that ‘reaching out to people who left the party after 1997 isn’t a left-right project.’ As Paul Hunter, author of the Smith Institute’s Winning Back the Five Million, notes, ‘voters disappeared in all directions’: 1.1 million to the Tories and 1.6 million to the Liberal Democrats, while 1.6 million chose not to vote at all.
Some, however, have used the fact that Labour’s vote appeared to drop most sharply among working-class voters, coupled with the fact that, overall, only one in five of its lost voters switched to the Tories, to suggest that the party should tack left to regain its ‘traditional’ supporters, and concern itself less with middle-class ‘swing’ voters.
This is both overly simplistic and a false choice. First, as the Smith Institute report argues, middle-class voters represent not only a majority of the electorate, but a growing part of it, while polling shows a decline in working-class self-identity. There is, its author suggests, ‘no working-class majority and therefore there cannot be a “core vote” strategy in its crudest form’.
Second, it is difficult to argue that there is a direct correlation between Labour’s support among working-class voters and the party’s ideological positioning: in 1983, when Labour shifted sharply to the left, it won only 41 per cent of DE voters; in 1997, at the height of New Labour, that support hit 60 per cent.
Third, as Progress contributing editor Hopi Sen has argued, the Tories’ ‘post-1997 recovery looks as if it has been driven primarily by a recovery among C2 and DE voters’, among whom their support at the general election was roughly at the levels the party enjoyed from 1983 to 1992. By contrast, middle-class AB and C1 voters proved rather more resistant to the Tories’ appeals in 2010. Moreover, polling evidence comparing the issues that mattered most in 2005 and 2010, says Sen, suggests that the Conservatives ‘succeeded in convincing many swing C2 and DE voters that they would be more effective on the economy than Labour, stronger on crime and immigration, while Labour held only a small lead on protecting services’. In short, it would be dangerous for Labour to assume that the working-class votes it lost in 2010 were largely those of disillusioned leftwingers.
We have long argued that Labour wins when it is able to bring together the kind of broad, cross-class coalition that it assembled in 1997. The collapse of that coalition in 2010 requires neither a simplistic swing to the left, nor a focus on one group of lost voters over another. The issues and the correct response to them may have changed, but, as the party proved in the years immediately leading up to its 1997 landslide, such an approach is key to turning the government’s midterm unpopularity into positive votes for Labour.
coalition government, election 2010, Gordon Brown, Hopi Sen, John Major, Labour