The next election may be like no other in recent decades. Peter Kellner outlines how Labour can win it.
All Ed Miliband must do to become prime minister is answer three questions correctly. First, what are Britain’s biggest problems? Second, how can they be solved? And, finally, how can he show that he has what it takes to implement the solutions?
As the TV meerkat says: simples. OK, I agree, it is only the questions that are simple. The answers are more complex. At least, the right answers will take a lot of thought and more work. Britain’s political battlefield is littered with the corpses of failed opposition leaders, who tried to win power by bribing specific groups, mouthing crude slogans, or just assuming that voters will eject a poor government when the time comes.
Those tactics are even less likely to work this time. There is little money for bribes. Crude slogans are unlikely to impress voters who know that our problems are deep and serious. And although Labour’s lead has hovered around 10 per cent for much of this year, and David Cameron is far less popular than he was, the ratings of Miliband and his party still lag behind those of past oppositions that went on to victory.
The table on page 17 the shows peak leads of opposition parties over the past half-century, omitting the short parliaments of 1964-6 and March-October 1974.
As the figures show, no opposition has gone on to win power without at some point achieving a lead of at least 20 per cent; and, as the story of the 1987-92 parliament shows, even a 23 per cent lead does not guarantee victory. That was, however, a special case: in March 1990, Margaret Thatcher was presiding over the introduction of the poll tax. By 1992 the Tories had got rid of both her and it.
Of course, any excursion down memory lane is fraught with hazard. Politics, thank goodness, does not follow deterministic rules. The future does not always resemble the past. And there is one particular reason why the next election may well be different from any other in recent decades. The fact that the Liberal Democrats are now in coalition is likely to deprive them next time of two big groups that have backed them in past elections: anti-Tory voters who have mixed feelings about Labour, and people who want to cast a protest vote but have no strong allegiances to any particular party. Labour stands a better chance than in the past of winning a large slice of these voters, with others going to the Greens, United Kingdom Independence party and Welsh and Scottish nationalists.
Moreover, it is possible that UKIP will siphon off rightwing, anti-EU voters from the Tories – not in big enough numbers to give UKIP any seats at Westminster, but enough to convert a handful of Tory marginal into Labour seats.
In short, there is everything to play for. The next election is neither a shoo-in for Labour, nor a lost cause. It may well turn on how Miliband and his colleagues tackle the three questions I outlined at the start of this article.
Here, then, are my initial, partial answers to them. First, plainly a Miliband government will face much tougher conditions than Tony Blair’s did in 1997. It will face severe limits on what it can do to improve public services to help the less well-off. In the short run that is because of the recent recession and the level of government borrowing. But there are big long-term problems, too. Even without today’s economic woes, the pressures on health, education and welfare budgets would test any competent chancellor. Labour needs a new strategy for creating a fairer society that does not need more government spending. True, bits can be done at the margin by making the tax system more progressive, but this can play only a small part of any ambitious strategy to increase fairness a lot.
Second, Labour needs a new doctrine of equality. If Britain is to remain a part of the global economy, in which trade and investment ignore national boundaries, it will struggle to fight the forces that are driving low incomes further down, and high incomes further up. Symbolically, we can and should clamp down on the worst excesses, such as bankers’ undeserved bonuses; and more could be done to banish poverty by, for example, raising the minimum wage and enforcing it properly. But these policies will make only a slight difference to the normal measure of income inequality, the Gini coefficient.
So what else could be done? Here is my suggestion: stop playing the rightwing game. Refuse to accept that money supplies the only measure of wellbeing and the only route to personal satisfaction. Instead of chasing the pipedream of financial equality, pursue the more profound ambition of truly equal citizenship – that is, a society where every child and every adult has ample chance to live long, fulfilling lives, regardless of whether they are hospital porters or high-paid plutocrats. In short, make money matter less.
This means working for a society in which prompt healthcare is available to all; where all children attend first-rate schools, and have places near their home where they can play safely; where healthy food can be bought locally at reasonable prices; where every family has a home that is dry, comfortable and affordable; where older people can go out at night and walk along well-lit streets free from the fear of being mugged; where loan sharks are drummed out of business; where the air is clean and bus fares are low. And so on: it is an ambitious agenda, and not cheap. But unless Labour proposes cutting itself off from the rest of the global economy, this is a more realistic long-term strategy than seeking to reverse 30 years of mounting income inequality.
Finally, remember that the most rigorous analysis and the best-designed policies will have no effect unless voters believe that a party and its leader are up to the job. Most general elections are about character more than policy. They are decided by floating voters, not by those of strong partisan loyalty. And while some floating voters are passionately interested in politics, most are not. They pay only glancing attention to the news. The questions they ask themselves at election time are: which leader can cut it in today’s world? Which is levelling with me, understands my daily life, and will keep their promises? Which will stay strong when the going gets tough? The key qualities that floating voters look for are competence, honesty, understanding, realism and strength.
That does not mean that policies do not matter; nor is this a recipe for cynical electioneering around slogans and soundbites. On the contrary, floating voters are perfectly able to tell when a politician is spinning a line, or when a policy has not been thought through – just as millions of motorists have a shrewd idea of which makes of car generally do not break down without understanding the detailed engineering that makes a car reliable. This assessment helps to shape the choice of which model to buy.
In the same way, Labour must develop policies that can survive rigorous analysis. But this can only ever be a stepping stone towards the larger goal: to persuade millions of floating voters that Miliband and his party pass the character test, and have what it takes to govern Britain well.
Oppositions that went on to win Oppositions that went on to lose
Lab 1959-64: 20% (June 1963) Lab 1979-83: 13% (Jan 1981)
Con 1966-70: 28% (May 1968) Lab 1983-87: 7% (June 1986)
Lab 1970-74: 22% (July 1971) Lab 1987-92: 23% (March 1990)
Con 1974-79: 25% (Nov 1976) Con 1997-2001: 8% (Sept 2000)
Lab 1992-97: 40% (Dec 1994) Con 2001-2005: 5% (Jan 2004)
Con 2005-10: 26% (May 2008)
Peter Kellner is president of YouGov
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.