Six weeks to polling day and it’s game on. Inconveniently for the Tories, what they were hoping would be a referendum on Gordon Brown has turned into a choice between two distinct visions for Britain. The question on everyone’s mind seems to be how did the all-powerful, 16-point leading, brand decontaminated, hoodie-hugging, genial David Cameron let it come to this?
Perhaps the answer lies in all of the above. Their lead was at 16 points, but hollow. Their brand was decontaminated but their product was ill-judged. They hugged hoodies, but claimed that Britain was as broken as a fictional depiction of Baltimore, and Cameron was genial but only as much as someone who reeks of politician can be.
All of these problems stem from a simple premise that the Tories went for the quick win. They didn’t play the long-term game of building their own coalition of voters. That said, Labour faces an uphill challenge to hold its original coalition together.
In our just published Demos Open Left report, The Politics of Perpetual Renewal, we suggest some fundamental demographic, attitudinal and political reasons why this might be the case.
Slowly but significantly British society has been changing: it’s ageing, it’s becoming more diverse, its family structures are becoming more varied, it’s becoming more educated and it’s professionalising, in the most part because women are upwardly mobile. What this means in practice is that the notion of the ‘core’ or ‘swing’ voters on which many political strategies are based no longer have much meaning - if indeed they ever did. We have become a richly varied country that is fragmented in many ways, and a strategy of micro-targeting particular voter groups is likely to have a negligible or even self-defeating impact.
This probably explains why the Conservatives’ detoxification and repositioning has only been a partial success. They thought that a small number of symbolic policy changes would convince the nation that they had changed. But the nation sees a party that is different in some respects but still has bags full of old Tory red meat, and in some cases just empty bags - hence their continued uncertainty. This uncertainty is captured acutely by Philip Blond in the latest edition of Prospect magazine. He takes on ConservativeHome’s Tim Montgomerie in his cry for more Tory red meat. To revert to type would ignore, according to Blond, that:
“the recent collapse of market orthodoxy, marks an inability to rethink the economic agenda and ultimately suggests the same core vote strategy that lost three elections, and would lose a fourth. In short, disastrous.”
Having said that, the centre-left needs to consider its own position. Traditionally, voters are thought to exist upon either a left-right axis, which concerns the respective roles of the state versus the market, and/or an authoritarian-libertarian axis, which concerns the degree and nature of government intervention in social policy. Both of these axes are still significant but their explanatory power is diminishing.
There are much more nuanced drivers of political choices. These include whether a voter is optimistic or pessimistic about the future, the extent to which a voter is at ease with the push and pull of global economic forces, and whether they feel their family get a fair deal compared with others or not.
This became evident in a poll which looked at Labour’s lost voters since 2005. Both the lost voters and the kept voters shared the same demographic characteristics, but those who left Labour were more pessimistic, sceptical about global market forces, and felt that others had unfair advantages.
These changes and trends are towards a more fragmented and polarised nation and this makes politics less amenable to the type of re-positioning and triangulation strategies that were probably more effective a decade ago. Consumerist politics has run its course as there is no easy way to reposition a party to build an enduring coalition and this is related to the changing nature of modern Britain and the complexity of the political outlook of its people.
Why does this matter? Well, it matters because politics matters. If we want to re-engage people with services that meet their personal needs, build new progressive institutions such as a better long-term social care system, or simply sustain the belief that politics can help people in their everyday lives, then the centre-left needs to build new broad coalitions of support and engagement.
Inevitably, renewal has become a watchword for many on the centre-left after a decade in government. But renewal needs to transcend simply new ideas. Modern Britain needs a new kind of politics altogether – a politics of broad, direct, and even permanent engagement.
It’s encouraging that many on the centre-left have taken the first step towards this by rallying behind the cause of constitutional reform. But we need to go even further.
The challenge we have always faced on the left is how to match our values with the reality of modern Britain. To do it we need to be optimistic that our values are the nation’s values, which in many ways they are. But we also need to balance it with a realism of where the country stands no matter how uncomfortable it may be. This means moving beyond on the one hand awkwardly following voters around on the other hand, shouting above all the other noise. Crucially, we need to listen and lead.
In his new book, Obliquity, the economist John Kay reminds us that the best way to adapt to complex environments is through small responses and agility rather than just focusing on big goals and targets that we then miss – sometimes spectacularly.
There is a political resonance to this message. The successful politics of the future will work in precisely these ways: direct and clear engagement with responsive adaptability, rather than the pursuit of unsatisfactory vote aggregation strategies.
A politics that engages directly with people at millions of points of contact is the key to renewal. That will require a different and more organic party – one that may have begun to emerge through this current “word of mouth” election campaign. That is the direction in which it must continue to travel beyond the election. The centre-left can own the future as long as it understands the changing nature of the country and the need for a new politics to respond.