Labour’s defeat at the 2015 election was severe. There is no getting around that. Before the election many media commentators speculated that the Conservatives might run a ‘1992 campaign’ and perhaps Labour might end up with a 1992 result. It was worse than that. It was far more like a 1987 result for Labour both in terms of numbers of seats and percentage vote. In 1987 Labour secured 229 seats on 30.8 per cent of the vote, and in 2015 232 seats on 30.4 per cent. In raw numbers of voters, in 2015 Labour managed only 9.35 million compared to 10 million in 1987.
When Labour was defeated in 1979 it had still secured 11 million votes, 37 per cent of the total. Labour even in defeat in both 1970 and 1959 managed over 43 per cent and 12.2 million votes on both occasions.
In 2015, compared to 2010 Ed Miliband managed to push Labour’s vote from 8.6 million to 9.3 million. But the collapse of the Liberal Democrat vote from 6.8 million in 2010 to 2.4 million in 2015 saw an insufficient proportion of that going to Labour. Yes, Labour’s result would have been better had it not lost 40 seats in Scotland, but it did and they will not be won back by magic. Moreover, at the next election likely boundary changes across the United Kingdom mean that Labour seats, were 2015 voting patterns replicated, would be even fewer still.
David Cameron’s failure to secure more than 37 per cent of the vote reflects weaknesses that make Labour’s failure to secure more than 31 per cent of the vote all the more stark.
It is clear that any strategy predicated on Labour increasing its vote by securing the votes of (presumed leftwing) non-voters is doomed to failure. Tony Benn famously quipped in defeat that Labour’s 1983 result represented ‘Eight and a half million votes for socialism’. If that was so, then Margaret Thatcher’s total of 13 million votes and the SDP-Liberal Alliance’s 7.8 million add up to a fairly chunky majority in a different direction.
If there is a clear lesson from history it is this: Labour needs to win a bigger coalition of voters, which means persuading those in swing seats who have backed other parties to swing back. Labour’s deputy leader Herbert Morrison put it very well back in the days when Labour still won over 48 per cent of the vote even when it ‘lost’: ‘We have to impress the country, our country, including that 25 per cent of the working class … who are still voting Tory. We have to convince these people. It is no good hating them, because that will only make them worse. It is far better to talk nicely to them, even in Beckenham. We have to convince them that we know what we are talking about and that we are ready to face unwelcome as well as welcome, facts; that we are responsible … we cannot solve our problems merely by passing self-gratifying resolutions’.
For Morrison, as he put it three years after the 1945 landslide victory he had engineered, an election-winning strategy was for Labour ‘to take into account the opinions of all sections of the community. Let us not forget the one, two, or more millions of voters, “the floaters” who in the end will in all likelihood determine whether there is a Labour government or not.’
Morrison bet his own political career on the approach that he ensured, as Labour’s election strategist, that the party took to the 1945 election. Facing the elimination of his South Hackney seat at the impending boundary review, he turned down the offer of safe Labour Lewisham Deptford to make the extraordinary personal gamble of fighting the 6,500 Tory-majority at East Lewisham, a seat Labour had never before won. He told the press, ‘For many years I have counselled the socialist party that, if it is ever to secure an independent stable parliamentary majority, it must gain and keep support, not only of the politically conscious organised workers, but also of the large numbers of professional, technical and administrative workers of whom there are many in East Lewisham. It is because I have confidence in the reasoned appeal the socialist party can make to all sections of the community, manual workers and black coats [ie white-collar workers] alike, that I have decided to go for East Lewisham … emphasising by this action my conviction that the soundest socialist appeal is that which is most universal in scope.’
Morrison knew that appeals to altruism were not enough. Ramsay MacDonald tried that in 1923 when he unsuccessfully urged voters ‘to refuse to make this general election a wretched partisan squabble about mean and huckstering policies … to believe in the possibility of building up a sane and ordered society, to oppose the squalid materialism … to hold out their hands in friendship and good will to the struggling people everywhere who want only freedom, security and a happier life’.
Where Labour has won elections, as in 1997, the manifesto has combined a clear vision of relevance to voters with practical policies to achieve it, in plain English. Hence Labour’s 1945 manifesto promise: ‘social provision against rainy days, coupled with economic policies calculated to reduce rainy days to a minimum’. To voters, it made sense.
Greg Rosen is author of Old Labour to New and chair of the Labour History Group
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