Labour should ignore old labels of ‘left’ and ‘right’, argues Owen Jones. Read also Philip Collins’ response to How does Labour win a mandate for change, the theme of this Saturday’s Progress annual conference
Labour should not even be in the running to win a mandate for change in 2015. Oppositions rarely win back power after a single term, and Labour did not suffer a run-of-the-mill loss in 2010: it experienced its second-worst defeat in postwar history. Labour’s failure to undermine the narrative that overspending caused the economic crisis – or to emphasise that the Tories backed its spending pound-for-pound until the end of 2008 – ensured that its reputation for economic credibility has never recovered. Ed Miliband’s personal ratings are poor. While parties have won in the past when lagging behind either in economic credibility or in leadership ratings, the precedent for winning when both are the case is not there. In the major economic crises of the 1930s and 1970s, it was the right that benefitted.
The factors that give most hope are largely out of the Labour leadership’s hands. By the time of the 2015 election the Tories will not have won a general election for nearly a quarter of a century. Every time they have triumphed in a general election since 1955 it has been on a lower share of the vote than the time before. What were once Tory strongholds in Liverpool, Manchester and Sheffield are now blue rosette-free zones. Governing parties almost never increase their share of the vote. The United Kingdom Independence party surge may subside, but it will still disproportionately damage the Conservatives. The electoral boundaries favour Labour; indeed, in 2005, Labour managed to win a 67-seat majority on 35 per cent of the popular vote (less than three points ahead of Michael Howard’s Conservatives). The defecting 2010 Liberal Democrat voters are further to the left than the core Labour base.
There are no real ‘iron laws’ of British politics, and precedents can always be broken. One scenario – which is far from unlikely – is that Labour could win the greatest number of seats, but lose the popular vote. It would hardly be an inspiring mandate for change, although, given the Tories are committed supporters of First Past The Post
(and themselves won a parliamentary majority while losing the popular vote in 1951), it is difficult to imagine they could credibly complain about a lack of legitimacy. Although it would be argued that the 2011 Alternative Vote referendum settled the issue of electoral reform for a generation, two hung parliaments under FPTP would help shatter the argument that the status quo delivers stable majority governments. Undoubtedly it is partly pre-election positioning, but the Tories have made it clear that they are done with Nick Clegg, and so Labour and the Liberal Democrats would enter a coalition, presumably with some form of electoral reform back on the agenda.
The Liberal Democrats are understandably deeply unpopular among Labour supporters, and the idea of depending on the discredited rump of Clegg’s party is hardly something to aspire to. But the recent narrowing of the polls has left a Labour majority looking ever more unlikely. As far as Labour’s ranks are concerned, David Axelrod seems to have become a form of Valium to stabilise fraying nerves.
It is worth looking at what the polls do show. They do not – yet – suggest significant improvements in the Conservatives’ polling position. Last month’s Guardian/ICM poll that sent stomachs hurtling towards mouths in the Labour camp suggested that, while Miliband’s party suffered a six-point collapse in support, the Tories had only gained a single point. ComRes, for example, has Labour’s position shrinking two points to 33 per cent, but the Tories remain on just 29 per cent. While most polls show the Tories have improved from their lowest position in this parliament, they remain significantly down from their 2010 result, let alone where they were during their polling high point after the coalition was formed.
For a long time, a complacent Labour assumption has been that the Ukip surge will not eat into the party’s vote. All the evidence shows that the Farageistes inflict disproportionate damage on the Tories, but unless Labour answers the fears and insecurities of working people, Ukip may extend its appeal to those sometimes patronisingly dismissed as ‘Labour’s traditional supporters’. But those who have called for tougher rhetoric on immigration are promoting a suicidal strategy: the more immigration is driven up the political agenda, the more debate focuses on an issue Labour’s opponents will always be trusted to crack down on harder. If voters enter polling booths next May with immigration at the forefront of their minds, Labour will lose.
The polls do show the Green vote has jumped: one poll has the party on eight per cent support for the general election, and the latest post-European election YouGov poll has the party on five per cent. All the polls show a significant increase from their 0.9 per cent showing in 2010. Part of the reason for Labour’s tumble in the polls is that some 2010 Liberal Democrat voters who were repelled by the coalition have now left the Labour camp and defected to the Greens. It is unlikely that the Greens will have such a strong showing in 2015. The European election effect may be trickling into the general election polls. Many of these voters may return to Labour if it becomes clear there is a choice between a Miliband-led government and the Tories. But the polling does now confirm that Labour does not have a done deal with former Liberal Democrat voters. Their contempt for a Tory-led government does not automatically translate into a vote for Labour.
A Progress stalwart will no doubt – with an eyeroll – expect that my prescription will be ‘Labour must shift to the left.’ But a point I routinely make is that, outside of the political bubble, most people do not think in terms of ‘left and right’; they think in terms of issues to be addressed, in a convincing and coherent way, in a language that resonates with them. Most Ukip voters, for example, support nationalising key utilities, hiking taxes on the rich, controlling private rents, building council housing, and so on. And the mantra that Labour has shifted decisively to the left under Miliband is a myth. Labour is committed to Osborne’s spending plans for a year and to backing a real-terms public sector pay cut; it has shifted to the right on immigration (to the consternation of some Blairites); it has changed the union link in a manner Tony Blair stated he wish he had done himself; and it has made clear any 50p tax band is ‘temporary.’ Hints that Labour might flirt with some form of public ownership of rail look less radical when you remember that Blair’s Labour pledged to renationalise the industry (and then failed to do so).
One electoral strategy would be to pitch for Tory voters. But the Tories are currently close to their core vote, so there are few pickings here. Labour should certainly learn from the Tory leadership, though. They pick key policies and messages, and they hammer away at them relentlessly. Labour has a habit of announcing a policy in a not very inspiring way – a setpiece speech of some sort – and then not driving the message home. The pledge to see a GP within 48 hours is a classic example: abruptly announced, and then largely allowed to disappear into the ether. This approach undermines any impression of Labour offering a coherent agenda: if they even notice, the voters see a load of disjointed one-off policy proposals.
My own view is Labour needs to offer a relentlessly hopeful message, focusing on people’s aspirations to have a better life for themselves and their children, and to live in a more just and equal society. A living wage, instead of subsidising low-paying bosses at vast expense; lifting the cap on councils so they can build housing, reducing subsidies to landlords, creating jobs and stimulating the economy; an industrial strategy that creates hundreds of thousands of renewable energy jobs; turning the bailed-out banks into democratically accountable local public investment banks to rebuild our economy; tax justice, including an all-out assault on tax avoidance along with progressive wealth and income taxes; bringing rail back into public ownership as each franchise expires; a universal childcare system that allows people to work; and a new charter for workers’ rights, bringing them into the 21st century.
But, whatever the message, it has to be coherent and relentlessly hammered away at. No part of the electorate should be written off: there should be far more direct appeals to Ukip voters, for example, whose economic views are on a total collision course with those of Ukip leaders. With a message of hope, Labour can win the mandate for meaningful change we so desperately need.
Owen Jones is a columnist at the Guardian
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