‘No.’ This was the simple answer from Mary Creagh that kicked off the Progress annual conference 2013 breakout session ‘Can Labour win without Tory switchers?’
To explore this issue Progress brought together a diverse panel chaired by Hopi Sen. Mary Creagh, the shadow environment secretary, was joined by Independent columnist Owen Jones, former Daily Telegraph sketchwriter Andrew Gimson and Lewis Baston, the political analyst and writer.
It didn’t take long for this panel to agree that, while a win without Tory switchers is theoretically possible, we should not be trying to win any election on these terms. The debate was then dominated by how we could win the next election with a majority rather than whether we can win without the votes of wavering Tories.
Lewis Baston was the first to highlight that the 2015 election is going to be significantly different from past elections, citing that parties tend to decline and fall apart after they lose power but that this hasn’t happened to Labour. He went on to contrast this optimism with a bleak prediction that, while a majority may be possible in 2015, we are unlikely ever to get a result similar to that in 1997 without convincing the ever-growing group that he called ‘the abstainers’ to vote.
Owen Jones also recognised the potential in this group arguing that we ‘must learn from Obama’ by ‘mobilising people who don’t vote’ and that the key to succeeding in this objective is to give people hope. Hope being the missing element from every party’s approach, making now an opportunity for us to win over those disenchanted voters. He suggested that we combine a hope-instilling message with common-sense policies, giving adopting the living wage instead of subsidising bosses with tax credits and controlling banks with a national investment bank as examples. He claimed that if we were to do this and present the arguments in relatable stories instead of cold figures, we would be able to give people confidence in our coherent alternative to the government.
Feeding into the idea that politics is dearth of hope, Andrew Gimson quoted Raymond Chandler to illustrate David Cameron’s complete lack of ideas after three years in government, citing that ‘Everything a writer learns about the art or craft of fiction takes just a little away from his need or desire to write at all. In the end he knows all the tricks and has nothing to say.’ This is the position, he argued, that David Cameron is in. Andrew Gimson claimed that, while Cameron now has the advantage of having experience in government, he does not have the same energy or dynamic vision that he had before the 2010 election needed to persuade a majority of the electorate. This therefore presents an opportunity to Labour to be the party of vision.
Mary Creagh put forward that, for Labour to connect with the electorate, we need to focus on ‘real life issues’, an area the Tories are failing to address. Disputing Owen Jones’ ‘common sense national policy approach’, she emphasised that it is by focusing on issues close to people’s hearts such as lacklustre flood insurance policies, badger culling and the rising use of foodbanks that will win us a majority. She emphasised that we need to show how Labour would impact on the country and not just talk about it.
Exploring the potential composition of our vote in 2015, one of the most interesting points in the debate, came from Lewis Baston. He argued that we are at risk of losing a substantial amount of Labour voters who voted Labour out of fear of an untested Conservative government in 2010 and may in turn vote Conservative in 2015 out of fear of an untested Labour government. This fear plus apathy caused by what Baston branded ‘horrible and alienating’ political discourse, referring to programmes such as ‘Question Time’, are the two biggest threats to what we assume is our base vote.
After a far-reaching discussion attendees were left with the feeling that no vote in the next election is guaranteed. To appeal to a broad range of voters, including 2010 Tory switchers, we need to campaign on issues voters can relate to and understand. It was made clear that only with an energised, forward-looking campaign of hope and new ideas will non-voters and voters alike be brought out of their apathy and a Labour majority achieved in 2015.
Catherine Vallis is a member of Progress. She tweets @CateVallis
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