How to measure Labour’s progress over the next 12 months
Some historically minded psephologists apply the trends of the past, and produce models that predict Tory recovery and Labour decline: few oppositions win from the poll share Labour enjoys. For Labour’s pessimists, our lead is too fragile for victory. Others point out the uniqueness of this election: the collapse of the Liberal Democrats, the rise of the United Kingdom Independence party. They also see exceptions to iron laws: victories for unpopular leaders, elections where recoveries were voteless. They point out that prosperity is subjective, and that most do not feel it. For Labour’s greatest optimists, this election also sees a reunification of the centre-left which makes victory almost inevitable.
Faced with these competing analyses, we should reject the inevitability of victory or defeat. We are in the margin of error, so whether Labour wins next year will depend on how well our party persuades, not on a model or precedent. Instead, why not set out five tests for a Labour victory in 2015? We can measure ourselves against these to tell us where we should keep our focus, and where we might need to change.
First, are former Liberal Democrats staying put? A large chunk of Liberal Democrat support shifted over to Labour in 2010, and these voters have kept Labour ahead of the Conservatives ever since. However, although they are often presented as a leftwing block vote, former Liberal Democrats are disparate. Since 2012, Labour support has fallen slightly among this group, but the biggest beneficiary of this has been Ukip, not the Liberal Democrats or Tories. That around a fifth of 2010 Liberal Democrats now say they will vote Conservative or Ukip should remind us that not all this group have a leftist mindset. Some may be more typical ‘protest’ voters, who may find easy oppositionalism attractive as the election comes closer.
There is also another group we need to be aware of: former Liberal Democrats are more likely to tell pollsters they simply do not know who they will vote for. If these voters back the Liberal Democrats and the Tories, Labour’s share could fall by as much as two points without Labour losing a single voter. To retain our share of 2010 Liberal Democrats, we will need to persuade Liberal Democrat ‘Don’t Knows’ as well as our current supporters. To win, we will likely need both.
Second, are Labour voters’ doubts dissolving? As only seven in 10 Labour supporters tell YouGov Labour is ready for government, and many fewer Labour voters than Tory voters say their leader would make the best prime minister, you can see why some observers think Labour’s vote is soft.
Yet these voters are backing Labour today. Understanding why is crucial. Is it that they do not trust the Conservatives to be on their side? Is it that they are convinced by Labour’s position on public services? Do they think the answers will come this year? Focus groups will help Labour strategists understand how to keep these voters on board, and to work out how to get the message across. The rest of us will have to watch if the doubts of Labour supporters dissolve, or if they begin to depart out of apathy.
Third, can we create more Tory converts? Across this electoral cycle there has been little switching between Labour and the Conservatives. Including ‘Don’t Knows’, we often see only two or three per cent crossing the floor directly. The more that do, the better Labour’s chance of winning.
Current Tory voters seem very happy with both their leader and their party, so the most profitable place to look for former Tories might be those who have already abandoned David Cameron. Polling for the High Pay Centre suggests that many Ukip supporters share Ed Miliband’s analysis of the problems of inequality and believe too much power is in the hands of the few. This suggests some could be won over by Labour’s ‘One Nation’ message, despite their apparent hostility towards immigration and Europe. Securing even a few former Tories could be crucial.
Fourth, will the young and uninterested vote? Recent YouGov polls suggest that Labour support is reasonably even across all age groups except the over-60s. However, younger voters are substantially less likely to vote than pensioners, which shows why turnout is essential to success. Much of that effort is organisational – the acid test of getting people to the polls in key seats. However, all age groups say they are more likely to vote than in recent elections: almost 80 per cent of voters tell YouGov they will vote next year. If this falls back it will hurt Labour most, so Labour will need to watch electoral enthusiasm.
Fifth, can we stop the right uniting? With Labour’s poll lead in the range of 3-5 points, a collapse in Ukip support could see the Tories gaining ground. However, Ukip supporters show significant hostility to Cameron’s Conservatives, seeing them as elitist, out of touch and uninterested in their problems. If Ukip voters decide to hold their nose and vote Tory it will make a Labour victory harder. So, to prevent a recovery on the right, Labour needs Ukip voters to know that the Conservatives will do them little good, and that they have little to fear from Miliband in No 10. Watching the attitude of Ukip supporters towards the Conservatives, and reinforcing their belief about the gulf between Tory values and their own will be crucial to victory.
So, five tests for Labour in the final year. Will we need to pass all of them to win? No, but if they are trending in the right direction, we can feel more confident we are doing the right things.
If, on the other hand, we see these warning lights flashing, it will at least give us time to react.
Hopi Sen is a contributing editor to Progress
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