Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

The end of the experiment

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.


Photo: Bill Gracey

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The Progressive


  • Oh good, Labour-defeat greatest hits. This adds nothing to what Ed Miliband has been saying for the past five years starting with his first conference speech as leader (‘We need to learn some painful truths about where we went wrong and how we lost touch. We must not blame the electorate for ending up with a government we don’t like, we should blame ourselves. We have to understand why people felt they couldn’t support us. We have to show we understand the problems people face today….’ etc. etc.)

    Appealing to Tory voters is not some new idea that we just have to agree on and get on with. It’s been generally accepted in the party since the 1918 election at least right? The issue is how to do that not whether to do that, and from the subtext I guess you think we’ll do that by crawling closer to the Conservative Party.

    No. How about we look at what the real problems are, and what the real solutions are to those problems. (Hint for the Progress-inclined: it isn’t by battering single mothers and immigrants). Then appeal to the electorate (Tory, Labour, SNP, non-voters, everybody) on the basis of a programme fit for the problems of the day, not a smart-price version of an inadequate Tory programme.

  • Is it conceivable that based on past experience, i.e under Blair, many potential Labour Party supporters would not make any more than trivial variations with that which the Tories would do? In which case give the benefit of doubt to ones whom at least seem competent enough rather than opportunistically inclined to neoliberalism.

    Gaining former Tory votes (and what about UKIC, Green voters?) is not the only strategy, a massive proportion of the electorate (including much of the youth) did not and would not chose Labour.

  • This is a straight Progress pitch that the only way back for Labour is to switch Conservative voters. Unfortunately it’s not so simple as that which is why I am not voting for Kendall. The fact is we now have small “c” majority in the UK if you regard SNP as Progressive. The Conservative and UKIP vote cleared 50% on 7th May and is higher if you add in the DUP (NI) other NI Unionist votes and other right wing assorted parties.

    To break the right majority not only involves Labour in peeling off Pink Tories but in peeling away progressive voters who voted Green, SNP and Plaid. However, Labour must also gain about 2 million UKIP voters many of whose votes denied us a majority in England.

    That is a much harder feat to pull off than Blair achieved as we have have a wide range of policies to appeal to the different vote blocs. But it has to be done if the Liberal Democrats do not return to shore up Labours flank in areas where Labour do badly.

    Another nettle we need to grasp is voting reform. If the LD’s don’t revive and we do not eat into the SNP base then we need to plan for an anti-Tory coalition and include voting reform. Frankly it is ludicrous that because Labour has a stake in the first past the post game that we turn a blind eye to the Tories governing with less than 40% of the popular vote. It’s no longer acceptable.

    However we need a sound economic policy that is business friendly to small business. We need to ditch our centrist tendencies and support devolution away from the broken Whitehall machine. Our pitch should be to be the anti Government Government that will liberate communities but within a framework of the social good. We should commit that public services are ONLY privatised when its stakeholders can vote in a referendum. We need to be radical to differentiate us from Osborne and to plan our attack on his Budget in 2017-2018 when the July 2015 Budget will start to unravel.

    Just to say we need to win back Conservative voters is not the answer so I repeat I am not voting for Kendall as I do not believe in simple solutions or just rubbishing everything Ed Miliband and the Party stood for from 2010 – 2015.

  • Is Progress anti-immigrant? I’m pretty confident that Liz Kendall (aka the Progress candidate) is more relaxed about immigration than Cooper or Burnham.

  • 1979 was the last genuine rupture in British politics. The shift from Callaghan’s Labour to Thatcher’s Tories was a revolution. In the years since there has been remarkable continuity of approach, with only two ‘watershed’ elections, 1997 and 2010, neither of which were really watersheds at all.

    Prior to ’97, Blair was able to identify those elements that people liked about the Tories (economic competence, law and order) and combine them with what people liked about Labour (public services, social justice). Cameron attempted more or less the same in reverse, explicitly pitching himself as continuity Blair for those who felt Britain was losing its way under Brown. Of course, before Cameron could reach 2010 the financial crisis changed the terms of debate but this doesn’t undermine the wider point: Cameron succeeded by learning from New Labour and working out why they were so popular. His high point in the polls was during the summer before Lehman Bros.

    I would suggest that in the absence of 70s-style chaos, voters in 2020 will be looking for the same sort of continuity or modest change they have embraced for the past 36 years. We in the Labour Party need to work out which Tory clothes are most attractive to voters (and suit us best) and combine them with the things people like about us. The difficulty lies in deciding which choices to make.

    None of this should be very revelatory and none of this should be regarded as selling out or ‘Tory-lite’ or swallowing manifestos etc.

  • Why not just merge with/ join the Tory Party? Michael Carey, below, is right. We need genuinely progressive solutions to the real problems generated by neo-liberalism, particularly the gross imbalances in wealth and power that it leads to. The notion that Tory voters are more likely to be attracted to the Labour Party than those of any other Party is, in any case, sheer fantasy. We’d do much better offering the 34% who didn’t vote at all some positive reasons for voting Labour. Most of these non-voters seem to regard all politicians as the same anyway, so why not offer difference?

  • My views are based on 20 years of Labour activism, after retiring from 26 years as a lecturer and with humble roots in electrical engineering/Merchant Navy officer.

    It is ridiculous to try and blame one person for Labour’s rout. There are many reasons for its defeat but my main contention is the culture and people in (New) Labour’s intelligentsia. This needs radical reform but “turkeys will not vote for Christmas,” even if for the good of the Party, ordinary people and the Nation. I recently wrote an email to a once high profile political friend in my age group [who is certainly NOT of the harder Left persuasion] who agreed with my sentiments. I extract these below:

    “… Needless to say, I am utterly disillusioned these days with politics and, especially, young (and not so young) Career Politicians who dominate the parties, think tanks, NGOs, etc. I believe the “ordinary voters” have nothing but contempt for them. Labour is floundering and the leadership election is a clear example. Where are the Labour MPs of charisma, distinction, maturity, vision, [wisdom], etc., who should lead the party? Are they all keeping their heads down so that they can enjoy the easy life? The electorate would probably identify well with Johnson but he does not want it. I thought of Hilary Benn ……

    I despair at the top down class war the Tories are engaged in and the wet fish Labour politicians who meekly go along with it. I love the British countryside [for example] but the Tories (of all parties) seem to be hell bent on destroying it. It seems that the “New Breed” Tories are so wedded to the business and Market Philosophy they only care about political survival and not the long term damage they are doing. God help us, the environment/countryside and, especially, the less well off (poor) in the next five years and beyond. I am sure that there will be a backlash against Tories by the end of this parliament, but will Labour be in a position to offer a creditable alternative? Not with this shower of career politicians deeply embedded in politics and NGOs! Most are self serving [and gutless]. Mention a “Left Wing” policy and they all go scuttling into corners. The rise of the SNP was on the back of Scottish disillusionment with the Westminster Bubble [and true socialist policies]. But then, I’m sure you do not need me to tell you that!”
    Policies are also a key factor but ordinary, floating voters feel that Labour is so close to Tories [and often see the Labour elites as Tories] that they might as well vote for them. The only [limp wristed “Left”] policy that grabbed the electors’ attention was the energy price freeze. Well, I was advocating REAL price controls years ago at conferences to try and curb the unethical utility monsters created by Thatcher and, implicitly, supported by many New Labour factions. Utilities should SERVE consumers, NOT SHAFT them for every penny they’ve got! And that can only happen if the they are not for profit, State owned, effective mutuals driven by ethical trading values.
    On another issue, I, along with millions of Grey Vote National Trust/CPRE, RSPB, etc. members are in despair at the countryside’s devastation by the Tories’ rampant housing developments. It DID save their political skins by fuelling unsustainable, pseudo “growth.” However, where are the Labour politicians who are opposed to this policy? Andrew Pakes [part of the Progress elite] , for example, bangs on about fox hunting in another article, but says nothing about the destructive and long lasting Tory policies. Yet he stood in a Milton Keynes constituency where there is (seemingly) uncontrolled house building and (just down the road) in the once sleepy little town of Bicester. Thousands of acres of green fields are being concreted over. But then he probably goes along with the policy in the mistaken belief that house prices will fall!!! [a view voiced to me by young, inexperienced career politicians]. NO THEY WON’Tt! By much, anyway, even WHEN the price rise bubble bursts because they are largely being bought by long term investors. Added to this Tories [and their councils] are carpet bagging public assets, selling them off to their rich mates.
    Many of us in the Grey Vote have had the best years, but we are deeply concerned about the legacy left to our children/grandchildren. If Labour picked up THIS batten, there might be millions of votes in it!!!
    Vic Parks is my real name if Andrew wants to reply!

  • And not one mention of the allowing the Tories to lie their way through the last 5 years as well as the General Election without once challenging these many lies. When someone lies you can actually call them a lier; and if you don’t the public think it is the truth. In a blind test the majority of people actually preferred Labour’s policies!

  • OGG, I emailed you previously but perhaps it never arrived. I taught electronics too.

  • I think the writer of this piece has missed the point of a “progressive alliance”? Surely it would be to let each party within the alliance appeal to their own voters by being themselves, then forming a loose coalition against the Tories, with their total number of seats exceeding those of the Tories. This would involve parties within this alliance tactically stepping aside in seats where the anti Tory vote would be otherwise split. This is not what we tried to achieve in the last election. We tried to instead take the votes off the other parties that could have been in alliance with us, by being a jack of all trades, and this just led to a splitting of the anti Tory vote. I don’t know if Marquand’s Progressive Alliance would work. I’m just pointing out we haven’t actually tried it.

  • Or she’s an opportunist without any actual beliefs or opinions about what is right trying to tailor her comments to the audience. I’m more inclined to believe that the public face she wants to present was to Newsnight rather than to Victoria Derbyshire.

    It’s not even about lying really- it’s more that she’s just empty and mediocre. It’s hard to say she’s lying about an opinion if she doesn’t actually have one of her own. Same with Progress I think – obsessing over opinion polls and policy ‘offers’ as just tools for convincing people to choose Coke rather than Pepsi, rather than doing any thinking about policies that are good, policies that are equal to the problems our society has, and that we can go out and argue for because we think it would make the country a better place to live. I’m not going to spend any more shoe leather on a programme of ‘slightly slower dismantling of civilization than the Tories’ any more but if you want to go and vote for Kendall, Burnham or Cooper.

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