Labour must learn again how to win over those who voted Tory
If you seek a culprit for Labour’s defeat in 2015, look no further than David Marquand, principal of Mansfield College, Oxford. Marquand did not mean to cause Labour’s defeat. I suspect he regrets it, and would rather it had not happened. But he should be blamed nonetheless because of his role, 25 years ago, in popularising the notion of a ‘progressive majority.’ In 1991, his book, The Progressive Dilemma, claimed that ‘Labour, the Greens and the Liberal Democrats together overwhelmingly outnumber the Conservatives’ and concluded that what was needed was the uniting of the liberal and social democratic or socialist strands of British politics into a single anti-Tory electoral force. The marriage, in short, of Tom Paine and William Morris.
Since then many others, including Tony Blair, have daydreamed about this united front. Yet the theory has only been properly tested once, and that was by Ed Miliband between 2010 and 2015. With a Guardianista appeal to appalled Liberal Democrats, a ritual denunciation of Labour’s governments after 1997, booing of Blair’s name in his conference speech, and a leftward tilt on everything from Syria to welfare, Miliband sought to harness the progressive majority.
Unfortunately, he may as well have tried to harness a unicorn, because the progressive majority, it turns out, is also a myth. In fact, Liberal Democrats did not uniformly switch to Labour. And Labour voters, especially in the target towns, switched away from Labour. And so the Ed Miliband Experiment, after five years, emphatically failed
Early analysis by Liam Byrne, by the Fabian Society, and by the New Statesman points in the same direction. Miliband not only lost Labour one election, he has made it much harder to win the next one. But one fact stands out: for Labour to stand a chance, it must secure the votes of millions of people who voted Conservative at the last election. The Fabian Society’s analysis, The Mountain to Climb, suggests that Labour must win 106 seats across England, Wales and Scotland to form a majority. Four out of five votes in England and Wales will have to come from Conservative voters. The swing required is now twice what it was in 2015.
The battleground is mostly towns: Bolton, Bedford, Lincoln, Carlisle, Worcester, Reading, Watford, Rugby, and Nuneaton. The Fabian analysis suggests new targets would have to be added for Labour to win: places like Beverley, Canterbury and Basingstoke, which have never had Labour members of parliament since the Reform Acts. Basingstoke has had Tory MPs since 1885, with a one-year gap for a Liberal, including a string of fascists. Look it up.
So the task is clear: Labour must persuade people who voted for David Cameron and George Osborne to vote Labour, in a little under five years’ time. This requires such a leap of imagination that it is hard to see how Labour can do it. The left is never very good at reaching out to people who vote for other parties. It would rather question their motives, intelligence, sanity and parentage than contemplate for a moment why someone in Gower, Derby or Telford should vote Tory.
Peter Shore wrote in 1952 that, ‘once the mass of the people had the vote, Socialists were convinced that Conservatism would be swept away … How is it that so large a proportion of the electorate, many of whom are neither wealthy nor privileged, have been recruited to a cause which is not their own?’ After every defeat by the Conservative party, for example in 1951, after Labour created the NHS, or in 1979, when more trade unionists voted Tory than Labour, it is a question that Labour’s leaders stand around discussing, scratching their heads.
To beat the Tories, we must understand how they won. We must listen to the people who voted for them. We must understand which aspects of our high-tax, if-it-moves-ban-it, more-regulation and we-know-best manifesto so repulsed the voters. We must ask the tough questions about why working-class voters preferred Cameron, Osborne, Hunt (Jeremy) to Miliband, Ed Balls, and Hunt (Tristram). Why banging on about the bedroom tax and zero-hours contracts did nothing to sway people unaffected by either of them. Why despite all the demos and marches, and our loud and persistent warnings that the NHS was actually being abolished, they voted Tory anyway. Did they not hear? Do we need to shout louder next time?
Blair understood the need to tap into the instincts of Tory-leaning folk, and peel them away from the Conservatives. His 1996 speech, with its reference to the Tory voter cleaning the car on his driveway (who became ‘Mondeo Man’), bears re-reading. It is a straight pitch to Tories to vote Labour, and the following year they did so in their millions. A silver lining in the cloud of May 2015 is that we are no longer chasing the progressive majority. Thanks, Professor Marquand, but no thanks. Now we must construct a platform aimed squarely at Tory voters in towns and suburbs, or face several decades in progressive opposition.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
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