Two blogs this week by Peter Watt on Labour Uncut and Sue Marsh on LabourList have asserted that the Labour brand is toxic and it’s a challenge that the leadership needs to deal with. But I feel very strongly that this is the wrong assumption and to fall foul of it would lead us down the wrong path if we’re to stand a chance of winning back power in 2015 or whenever the next general election may be.
You may, rightly question, that living in Camden (in the Labour held seat of Holborn & St Pancras), I have a skewed view of how the rest of the country sees Labour. Afterall, we regained control of our council and increased Frank Dobson’s majority and vote share in last year’s elections. Up the road, Labour held the marginal Hampstead and Kilburn, made up predominantly of Camden wards and the overall picture in London was much more favourable for Labour than it was in the rest of the country. And indeed I thought I’d better challenge my perspective.
Currently, less than a year after the general election, Labour is running regularly in excess of 40% in the polls. On the odd ocasion our poll rating outstrips that of the two coalition parties combined. I’m not naive enough to think that this poll rating would translate in to vote share if the general election were held tomorrow. But opinion polls are instructive.
13 years ago today – February 23 1998, Ipsos Mori finished field work for an opinion poll that put Labour on 52% (that’s not a typo) and the Conservatives on 28%. We were on more than we’d polled in the general election held in the previous May, the Tories were on less. Come the 2001 general election the Tories increased their vote share from the 1997 position of 30.7% to a whopping 31.7%. Their main media cheerleader, the Daily Mail, failed to endorse the party in either the 1997 or 2001 general elections. They didn’t regularly poll above what political commentators regard to be the magic 40% until David Cameron had been leader for more than a year. And 13 years after losing power, following the biggest financial crisis since the depression of the 1930s, facing a party of power with a deeply unpopular leader (who arguably was toxic in the election), they still couldn’t translate poll gains in to an outright victory.
Conversely, we’re already back in the 40s and regularly so. If Labour’s brand was actually toxic there would simply be no way we’d be back at this level in the polls. From 1997 – 2005 as opinion polls tracked support moving away from Labour it wasn’t going to the Tories at all, it was fraying in almost every direction but to the Tories. Even in the post-Iraq election of 2005, the Tories polled less than 2% more than they had in 1997. This is what a toxic brand looks like. And it takes years to recover and arguably the Tories haven’t.
If our brand was actually toxic the Tory line (take the N out if you want) that the economic mess was all of our making would have full traction and government ministers wouldn’t be being booed for saying so (see Francis Maude on Question Time a couple of weeks back). We’ve already seen voters coming back to Labour in council by-elections up and down the country, including notable gains from both the Lib Dems and Tories in what will be key seats come the next general election. Again, this is not what happens to a toxic brand.
The challenge for Labour isn’t to detoxify our brand, it’s to translate high poll ratings and dissatisfaction with the Tory led coalition in to real votes on big election days, not just council by-elections. Herein lies the danger.
Our poll ratings are in part down to the unpopularity of the Tory-led coaltion. But come a general election, it’s not enough to simply be ‘not the other guy’ because however unpopular the other guy is voters need (and deserve) something positive to vote for. Just ask David Cameron – it’s part of the reason why he’s Prime Minister of a coalition not a Tory majority government.
While the Tory-led coalition are making themselves deeply deeply unpopular, it can be tempting to sit back and let it happen. From ideology (Tuition fees, NHS reorganisation, Big Society) to incompetence (forests, school sport) the coalition are doing a pretty good job of boosting Labour’s poll ratings. (We should pause for a moment to thank them).
But the big risk is that by the time Ed Miliband’s policy reviews are complete in 1-2 years time, the economy will have settled down, people will have adjusted to the cuts and adapted to a new landscape of public service provision and we’ll have missed the opportunity to make arguments against the way deficit reduction is being handled, why public services and the welfare state are so important and why the Tory led ideological approach to services, communities and society is wrong. We run the risk of becoming irrelevant.
This could be cemented at a local level (where campaigns are really won and lost) if Labour run councils become seen as the purveyor of coalition cuts rather than the defender of services and people.
Don’t get me wrong, I think some time and space to ponder an election defeat is a positive and essential. But Labour needs to be sure that positive introspection doesn’t turn in to naval gazing.
Because it’s just possible that when we look up again politics and economics will have moved on. And so will the voters.
Sarah also blogs at Sarah Hayward’s blog, where this post was originally published.