Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Labour must understand how it won before

In the second general election of 1974 Harold Wilson won an overall majority of three.

This was the last time a Labour leader who was not called Tony Blair won a majority in the House of Commons.

Forty years … it is a long time.

But it’s true that in the eight general elections that have taken place in that time, the Labour party has won only three – 1997, 2001 and 2005 and Tony Blair was leader on all three of those occasions.

A political party that was interested in shaping history by running the government of the country would try and learn why these three elections were won but the other five were not.

And the answer must be something along the lines of there were three elections where the Labour party got a lot of people to vote Labour that do not normally do so. And in the other five elections they did not.

A linked historical fact is that yesterday the Labour party did not win the seat of Clacton. Apparently that was because the electors of Clacton are not ‘traditional Labour voters’.

But then again the Labour party won the seat in 1997 and 2001 when it was apparently OK to win seats that did not have traditional Labour voters. It lost it in 2005 by 920 votes but there were still more than 20,000 traditional Labour voters in that third election.

The explanation of these national and local electoral facts comes from having a very different political strategy in those three elections and also having the courage to apply that strategy with determination.

That strategy can be exemplified by a quote from the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci who said that modern politics was moving from a war of position to a war of manoeuvre. He argued that we need to move on from the politics of slogging out a political battle from a set of political trenches that you have always fought from. Wars of position in this context is ‘the core vote strategy’.

Developing a politics of manoeuvre means being able to cultivate and stick to politics that would appeal to people who the other political parties had always thought were ‘theirs’.

In the late 1990s the electorate of Clacton were, among other things, worried about crime as well as their access to the NHS. Addressing both of these concerns needed a set of policies which were not ‘traditionally Labour’.

This electorate needed the Labour party to feel empathy with working people who did not feel safe in their own communities. (You would have thought that the safety of working people would be something that the Labour party had always fought for but because law and order was a ‘Tory issue’ Labour talking to working people about decreasing crime was new).

This meant that the Labour party had to talk about crime safety and policing a lot. Not a single speech which could be referred back to show you had covered it, but a; prolonged and consistent campaign for several years which continued for 10 years of power in government.

The same was true in guaranteeing maximum waiting times for access to treatment for NHS patients. Then as now people loved the NHS, but waiting two years for a heart operation stretched that love quite a bit.

In 1997 and in 2001 the public believed under New Labour the NHS would be reformed to deliver quicker access.

So two areas of policies that were not ‘traditionally’ Labour – improving safety in the community and reforming the NHS – were developed and sustained over years and in government.

With that political strategy in Clacton over 20,000 electors in Clacton became, for three elections, ‘traditional Labour voters’. General elections were won with large majorities.

Those 40 years of winning and losing elections could teach the Labour party something it could well spend the next few months putting into effect.


Paul Corrigan was a health adviser to the last Labour government. He tweets @Paul_Corrigan


Photo: BBC

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Paul Corrigan

was a health adviser to the Labour government


  • Perhaps 12 years of Labour Government, under Tony Blair, that delivered very little in tangible benefits for working people – while at the same time alienating them from politicians (of all parties) due to the expenses scandal, is what has seriously diminished our core vote. Perhaps starting the privatisation of schools and hospitals has undermined any arguments we have against the Tories taking this on further and further – with the scandal of the waste of PFI funding schemes, to keep the borrowing off the books. Perhaps it was the 3 way split of votes with the Liberal Democrats that hid the major decline in Labour votes over those 12 years, as Labour disappointed core voters with a lack of any progressive policies – like building social housing or renationalisation of the railways. Perhaps 1997 saw Tony Blair elected because by then everyone hated the Tories – not because of some coalition of votes from the middle ground. Tony Blair – with a massive majority – could have implemented any radical policies he wanted – but basically continued what the Tories had been doing for the previous 20 years, to the disappointment of his core vote. The point about UKIP is that it is not Labour’s failure to strive for the middle-ground “liberal” vote that is the problem – it is the failure to deliver anything for core voters that has lead to a haemorrhage of those core Labour voters to UKIP. We are winning the middle ground, but losing our core vote – the ones the Blairites have ignored for 16 years. This was always going to come home to roost. Organisations like Progress just assumed the poor and low paid working class had nowhere else to go, so they could focus on winning the middle ground. Progress have been at the heart of this approach. Ed Miliband still has time to repair this by a radical manifesto. But if he holds to the Blairite course he risks not only losing the election, but destroying the Party. If Labour lose, the big unions will walk away and start their own more radical alternative party aimed at those core votes the Labour Party has abandoned to UKIP.

  • Yes after 12 years of Labour by 2010 the public were fed up with us and the expenses scandal didn’t help but that doesn’t explain why we lost 4 times on the trot 79-92 ,regarding Blair winning in 1997 ,because the public were fed up with us, if we couldn’t win in 1992 with the poll tax and the state of the NHS and the recession we weren’t necessarily going to win in 1997,after all the Republicans lost 5 elections on the trot 1932-1948, so Labour could have lost a fifth election in 1997, and as for Blair not being more left wing OK, but it was the ground he fought in 1997,that saw him re elected after a full term, with another landslide, something .that had never happened before.
    Define the core vote, how come the greens or respect haven’t gained millions of Ex labour votes, even the SNP haven’t got that many, as for the unions, only 30% of union money was used in the 97 campaign, by 2005 4 former Unions affiliated with labour werent backing us, labour may have lost working class votes to Ukip, what on earth makes you think the unions would bqck a alternative party, that would attract people who just voted Ukip, any working class ex labour voter, now backing Ukip, can’t want the unions to delegate policy

  • The Tories convinced many workers that there was a quick and easy way to prosperity in the 80s – buy your council house at huge discount, buy shares in privatised companies and make money, let the building societies become banks – and buy off their members. Selling off the nations housing stock and the nationalised industries was like liquidating the countries assets for a party. Fun while it happened but disastrous in the long term. Labour didn’t win despite the Poll Tax – because Labour never fought the Poll Tax – they just implemented it and sent people to prison. People had to organise outside the Party to defeat the Poll Tax. Kinnock was so awful he couldn’t even build on the people driving out Thatcher. 1997 gave us a chance to make some real change – but instead all Blair did was manage the Tory economy and start to privatise even more. We started the academies. We started privatisation of NHS services. The private sector health companies could have been throttled by the extra spending Labour put into health, but instead we threw them a life-line of cherry-picked contracts with guaranteed returns. We invested in public services – but through PFI which was expensive and allowed the public to be ripped off by the private sector, as usual. The Left and Greens haven’t gained more votes because most people – however much they may agree with those parties – know that in a fight against the Tories, under first past the post, it is a wasted vote. But they will not keep voting for a Labour Party that doesn’t deliver. A lot of UKIP voters are older working class people – who are perhaps focused on immigration – but who see a Labour Party that doesn’t reflect them any more. Professional politicians who talk weasel words and hide behind the banner of Labour. But these people are not stupid. They are desperate for a working class alternative – and this would, in truth, cut across the immigration issues if the fight was going forward against the Tories, rather than mimicking their ideas. We lost unions like the FBU and RMT because we did not deliver for them. Their members were demanding that they be allowed to support candidates from parties that did support them – like Respect and the SSP. No renationalisation of the railways after 12 years, and a vicious defeat of the Fire-fighters as they fought for the wage of the skilled workers they are. (I don’t know which other unions you believe have disaffiliated.) CWU have got close to it – with Labour proposing Privatisation of the Post Office, and opening the door to the Tories actually doing it. Even with Unite driving a serious recruitment campaign to get people into the Party our leader used it opportunistically to attack the unions (presumably in the hope of some clause 4 moment), to make Ed look tough. Attacking the Parties biggest funder – because the Blairites want 100% control over who gets to be MPs. An endless stream of people from the bubble, who have never had a real job and toe the line on every issue. These are the people who are driving working people away from the Party – careerists without an ounce of Socialist commitment in their body – but who will talk the talk for their £66k salary, but who have never had a dirty finger-nail in their life, let alone a real job. If you don’t think older working class voters ( the people who grew up in a racist and homophobic society, who still live in overwhelmingly white communities and perhaps struggle to make the transition to our modern out-look) are switching to UKIP, then you haven’t knocked enough doors lately. The trickle of unions leaving the Labour Party in the last few years will become a flood if we lose the next election. Union members will not wait another 5 years for a party whose agenda does nothing more than mollify the nastiest bits of Tory policy. People swung behind Labour at the last election despite disillusionment – but they won’t get another chance after May to let people down again. The only thing Labour offer at the moment is the chance to get rid of the Tories. Lose and they offer nothing.

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