Double trouble

The Labour party risks a squeeze both north and south of the border, warns Matthew Goodwin

The past two months have not been kind to Labour. Ed Miliband’s poorly received conference speech returned attention to his lacklustre leadership ratings, while at the same time several opinion polls put the Conservative party ahead of Labour for the first time in more than two years. Against a continuing economic recovery, these events have underscored the fragility of Labour’s position as it approaches the short campaign for the general election in 2015.

But if this highlights the immediate threat to Labour’s hopes for a return to power in May then two other developments point to the longer-term challenge. First, the outcome of the Scottish referendum and support for independence among former Labour voters has raised questions about the party’s ability to retain its current presence north of the border. The reality is that Labour has been struggling in Scotland for some time, not least since the 2011 Holyrood elections. But the dynamics of the ‘Yes’ vote have added to this picture, and present some awkward findings.

Based on a battery of polls and surveys it is estimated that around one out of every three of those who voted Labour in 2011 voted ‘Yes’ in 2014, and thus ignored the wishes of Miliband and his party. Who were they? Most tended to be financially insecure, working class, younger and came from areas that have suffered more than most from economic deprivation. Each of the four areas that saw a majority of voters opt for independence are among the six that have the highest number of unemployed claimants. As John Curtice noted after the result, nothing correlated more strongly with support for ‘Yes’ than the level of unemployment. These are disadvantaged people who should be among the most loyal to the Labour party, the traditional defender of the economically vulnerable.

Further evidence about their motivations is also revealing. Evidence from polls and surveys suggests that, by far, their most important motive for supporting independence was the belief that such a move would bring economic benefits. Identity considerations also played a key role, with those describing themselves as Scottish (rather than British) being the most likely to vote ‘Yes’, but foremost it appears that economic motivations were key.

Where might this lead? The Scottish National party has already outpolled Labour at the 2011 Holyrood elections and the 2014 European parliament elections and could cause additional problems next May. Against the backdrop of low trust in Miliband among voters in Scotland more generally, YouGov’s Peter Kellner estimates that, while a five per cent swing to the SNP would cost Labour three seats, a more significant eight per cent swing could cost 19 seats. Such a swing, however, seems unlikely. Irrespective of the referendum, Labour’s support in Westminster election polls in Scotland has remained fairly stable, albeit down on earlier years. There is also a lack of SNP-Labour marginals where this direct threat seems likely to materialise, and, in broad terms, Labour has not seen the major loss of support in Scotland that some excited pundits have alluded to. But make no mistake: unless Labour covers its flank by shoring up its support among these more economically disadvantaged voters, who feel profoundly pessimistic about the future, then it faces a clear and present risk, especially when we consider a second development.

Interestingly, and with the exception of age, since 2010 the same social groups have been fuelling the rise of another challenge to Labour in England: Nigel Farage and the United Kingdom Independence party. As the book I co-authored, Revolt on the Right, revealed, those who are supporting Ukip tend to be older, white and working class, voters with few qualifications and skills, and who are very pessimistic about their future prospects. In fact, since 2010 and in relative terms Ukip has been growing faster than Labour among these groups.

The profile of this ‘left behind’ base helps to explain why Ukip’s support has been more resilient than many initially expected. The conventional wisdom back in May was that Ukip would quickly crash and burn by the end of the summer. But this overlooked the fact that these voters were struggling financially long before the post-2008 financial crisis, were then among the hardest hit by the crisis and austerity, and are now among the least likely of all to feel the economic recovery and to expect to feel it in the future. They are not returning to the Conservatives or switching to Labour because they do not have an economic motive to do so, and are also animated strongly by the issue of immigration, on which the Labour offer is weak in the minds of these voters.

It is also worth stressing that on many economic issues (with the one exception of redistribution) these voters are also instinctively receptive to leftwing ideas: they agree with calls to clamp down on bankers’ bonuses, tax evasion and global corporate power. It is thus not unreasonable to suggest that Labour should be competitive among these ‘left behind’ voters who are flocking to Ukip, if not winning them over.

Ukip does not pose the same kind of direct and immediate threat to Labour in 2015 that it does to the Tories, but it does carry the potential to pose an indirect long-term threat. Ukip’s plan is to emerge as the second major force in dozens of parliamentary constituencies next May, looking to an unpopular post-2015 Labour government as a further opportunity to make inroads among angry, struggling and pessimistic blue-collar Britons. Ukip’s ability to do so was most aptly demonstrated by the result of the Heywood and Middleton parliamentary by-election last month. Even with a short campaign, and while most of its activists were busy in Clacton, Farage’s party came to within a few hundred votes of claiming victory. This has rightly rung alarm bells within Labour, but it suggests that there are further incursions to come next May, not only in its northern England heartlands but north of the border as well.

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Matthew Goodwin is co-author of Revolt on the Right: Explaining Support for the Radical Right in Britain

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Photo: Nicola Sturgeon

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