Labour must learn why it has lost so many voters, especially men, argues Deborah Mattinson
Labour suffered what one shadow cabinet member described as a ‘near-death experience’ in Heywood and Middleton last month. Had the worst actually happened then maybe something would have changed. Instead, general election coordinator Douglas Alexander was insistent that no change of tack was needed.
But, given that so many voters appear unmoved by Labour’s plans, it is not unreasonable to worry that this ‘watchful waiting’ strategy may not be enough to deliver it a majority. So what does the party need to do?
First, it needs a deeper understanding of its lost voters. This is pretty belated as the exodus of older, working-class men has not happened overnight. Women voters were already propping Labour up by 2005. That is a far cry from the 1990s when the women’s vote itself was identified as a major problem. Back then the party commissioned detailed analysis of women voters to understand the problem and develop a strategy for change. It is astonishing that the same has not yet happened with this crucial group of men.
We do, however, already know quite a bit about the voters who have switched to the United Kingdom Independence party. Less likely to identify themselves as ‘rightwing’ than Conservative voters, many hold broadly ‘left’ views, for example, on attitudes to big business and employee rights. They are pessimistic about the future. They look at modern Britain and do not much like what they see. Importantly, they are more concerned about social and cultural change than economics. They reject purely transactional politics.
It is a grave mistake to assume that these voters are out of step: their views on immigration, Europe and benefits are more mainstream than many Labour supporters wish was the case. Their deep mistrust of politics is mainstream too. Ukip’s success this year shows that business as usual really will not do any more.
Unfortunately, many voters say that the thing they like least about politics is the politicians themselves. This is less about pay and expenses and much more about what politicians do and who they are. The worst insult hurled in focus groups nowadays is ‘career politicians’: metropolitan technocrats with little experience of real life who are believed to be ‘in it’ for themselves.
All main parties are seen as equally culpable. When asked about what makes a good member of parliament, voters describe a slightly idealised version of themselves. In the past, trade unions provided a route into parliament for ordinary people. The homogeneous, London-based graduates who voters accuse of ‘never having done a proper job’ are a far cry from the likes of John Prescott or Alan Johnson. In the short term, we need to think carefully about who we field as party spokespeople. In the longer term, we need to look hard at how we select MPs so that voters can look and see themselves reflected. One of the most fundamental tenets of our democracy is that representatives should be representative. We have lost it. And we need to get it back fast.
Deborah Mattinson is director of BritainThinks
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.