It’s a truism of politics that elections are won from the centre-ground. New Fabian analysis suggests however that the ‘centre’ is now further ‘left’ than it was. Our research shows that the people who will decide the next election – the voters who will make the difference between Labour polling 34% or 38% on election day – are now more left-leaning than they have been for a decade.
With Labour riding high in the polls, we looked in depth at people declaring support for Labour today who did not back the party in 2010: ‘Ed’s converts’ as we call them. Three quarters are former Liberal Democrats, with 2010 Lib Dem voters outnumbering Conservatives four-to-one. Indeed Labour is well ahead in the polls despite having won over just 6% of David Cameron’s 2010 supporters.
What really surprised us was that as a group, ‘Ed’s converts’ are actually more left wing than the typical supporter of either the Liberal Democrat or Labour parties in 2010. 77% agree that public services should not be run as businesses, compared to 67% of 2010 Labour supporters and 60% of the public. Even more notable, 40% of ‘Ed’s converts’ support higher taxes to pay for public services. This compares to 22% of the public, 35% of 2010 Labour voters and 33% of 2010 Liberal Democrats.
These results show that the former Lib Dems who have swelled Labour ranks mainly come from the left of the party, the Charles Kennedy social democrat wing. This comes as no surprise, but it is surprising that there are enough of these new left-leaning Labour supporters to give the party such a comfortable lead in the polls.
Of course these are mid-term polls, but our analysis also shows that a large proportion of ‘Ed’s converts’ are likely to stick with Labour. As many of Labour’s new supporters say they are very likely to consider Labour at the next election as is the case for Gordon Brown’s 2010 voters: 86% in the case of ‘Ed’s converts’, compared to 85% of 2010 Labour voters.
Meanwhile only 17% of the group would even consider voting Conservative and 43% Liberal Democrat, suggesting that around half Labour’s new supporters are pretty much undetachable, even if the coalition parties stage a good recovery. This ‘worst case’ level of support would still translate to Labour securing around 35% in the next election, which guarantees another hung parliament. For the Tories to lead Labour pretty much all ‘Ed’s converts’ who are still consider voting Conservative or Liberal Democrat would need to switch their allegiance back. That’s not impossible, but it should be preventable.
With the ‘uniting’ of the left behind Labour it therefore becomes possible to imagine a Labour polling close to 40% and winning a majority without a ‘new Labour’ appeal to lots of those famous swing-voters who choose between Labour and the Conservatives at each election. All Ed would need to do to win would be to keep the very modest number of former Tory supporters who have already switched to Labour.
This is potentially revolutionary for how Labour does politics because a voter with a 50:50 chance of voting Conservative or Labour tends to be on the right of centre-ground opinion (remember that 64% of voters didn’t back the Tories in 2010). An appeal to this demographic segment therefore drags political discourse to the right of mainstream public opinion. So a Labour campaign that relied less on swing-voters would permit a modest shift to the left without the prospect of electoral oblivion.
That does not mean that Labour’s work is done. Far from it. For the notional Labour vote reported in the polls actually needs to turn out on election day. Labour still has a long way to go to develop ideas and language that appeal both to lower income communities and left liberal voters, who now make up two distinct ‘core’ constituencies for the party.
Ed Miliband’s role-models now must be Obama or Hollande not Tony Blair. The critical factors for success will be leadership and economic credibility. The Labour Party does not need to trim to the centre to win, indeed it may need to do more to show it offers a distinct alternative to the coalition. But it does need to be seen as a convincing Government-in-waiting.
It is becoming received wisdom in Westminster that politics is in ‘stalemate’ with neither large party able to win voters off the other. While this is true, the Fabian analysis shows that it is because Labour has won few ex-Tory votes that its current lead is less ‘soft’ than first appears. Even without an army of former Cameron supporters, Labour stands a very good chance of winning a majority in 2015 if it successfully unites the left. Victory in 2015 is Ed Miliband’s to throw away. Labour are now the favourites, with all the pressures, pitfalls and opportunities that implies.
A version of this article also appears on the Fabian Review website launched on 11 May. It forms part of the society’s Labour’s Next Majority programme.