This Halloween beware of Labour’s zombie voters

31st October, 2012 11:00 am

We all know it’s a long way from a 2015 general election. An awful lot could change and there must be no room for complacency. Even so, Labour has now spent two years with an average of over 40% in the polls, more than enough to win a majority.

So answer this question: will it be easier to win by persuading the people who back Labour today to vote in 2015? Or should we forget about some of our current supporters and try and win round a whole load of new voters instead?

It sounds like a trick question. Surely when you’re riding high in the polls the best route to a majority is to convert your current supporters and ‘considerers’ into voters? After all, if someone’s not Labour now, are they really going to be in two years’ time?

However plenty of people in the party seem determined to ignore actually-existing Labour supporters in order to invent voters more to their liking. On Halloween, I’m not sure if we should be calling them zombie voters or the ghosts of Labour past. Either way, there are too many putative political strategies based on what people would wish Labour supporters to be like, not what they actually are.

First off, there are a sizeable bunch of people who would like Labour to be the party of manual labour. It’s a noble ambition, steeped in Labour’s long history (notwithstanding the odd Fabian intellectual along the way). But let’s face facts; Labour is not the political expression of the working class. Every social group has a diverse political makeup, and while there is still a tilt towards Labour within social groups C2DE, it is no more than that. According to YouGov 19% of people in these ‘working class’ economic categories say the chance they will consider Labour at the next election is ’10 out of 10’, but 15% say the same about the Tories and 10% about UKIP.

In truth Labour is a ‘One Nation’ party which brings people from all social backgrounds together in equal number.  An analysis of YouGov polling shows that 54% of today’s Labour supporters are from social groups ABC1 and 46% from C2DE. In other words Labour is the opposite of a class-based party: it is a unique institution that bridges class and geography. Nor should we begrudge this, for the party brings together people from all backgrounds who support our values. Labour would need to be far more right-wing if it were trying to pitch its tent on the centre-ground of ‘working class’ opinion, as new polling from Progress has shown in the last few days.

This takes us to a second misconception and a second group of Labour zombie voters. The thinking goes that if Labour is to be a party of broad-based support this necessitates mushy centrism: Labour needs to pitch its appeal to people who veer towards the right of politics, as the only way to find enough votes to win especially in suburban marginal constituencies.

If you look at the data in the same Progress poll, you’ll see this simply isn’t true. Party identification is a much better way of predicting people’s views than class, region or gender, with Labour’s current supporters far more likely than the average adult to lean left on policy questions. The reason for this lies in our electoral system where (with today’s turnout rates) Labour needs the backing of less than 30% of adults to win. It’s not the views of the 50:50 person that count, but someone rather to the left of the mid-point.

Unless, that is, there is a strong third party. In 2010 the Liberal Democrats were able to split the centre-left vote 4 to 5 between two sets of supporters whose views were barely indistinguishable. This is why the Liberal Democrat collapse matters. If you think the Lib Dems will poll in the mid-20s in 2015 then you’d be absolutely right to replay an election campaign from the late 1990s. If you think the best they can hope for is the mid or high teens – and that Labour will take a higher share of centre-left voters than last time – then you need a new political strategy.

After all, Labour’s transition from dismal losers to election favourites was not dependent on reaching out to a new, more right-wing sort of voter.  The party’s strong lead today has not diluted the views of Labour supporters, but actually pushed them a little further to the left: on four out of the six issues Progress have just tested, current Labour supporters had slightly more left-leaning views than our 2010 voters. This confirms previous Fabian Society polling which found that ‘Ed’s Converts’ are on average a jot to the left of Gordon’s 2010 supporters – perhaps not surprising as a little over half are former Liberal Democrats.

Post-war class-based voting is dead. But so is New Labour political strategy. In hindsight we can see New Labour was made necessary by the presence of a strong rival on the left, which seems a fairly remote prospect by 2015. So let’s stop worrying about the Labour zombie voters who aren’t with us now but might emerge from the undergrowth. It’s time to concentrate on the people who say they are thinking about voting Labour – of all backgrounds, and in every part of the country – and work out what makes them tick and how to get their votes in the ballot box in 30 months’ time.

Andrew Harrop is General Secretary of the Fabian Society

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  • Serbitar

    Liam Byrne might beg to differ.

  • “In other words Labour is the opposite of a class-based party: it is a unique institution that bridges class and geography.”

    Can it not do both?

    “Post-war class-based voting is dead.”

    Not what my doorstep data tells me. I agree over the overall strategy, by the way, but let’s not confuse babies and bathwater.

    Last thing, but the Progress poll. It tests people on policies, but not the quality of their lives under policy x or y. At best, this is a recipe for shallow opportunism.

    What if people believe in things which are scientifically less likely to make their lives any better? Why doesn’t this get asked? In my view, in an age where political culture is manufactured by a heavily right-leaning set of institutions and frames, the bridge between what people think and the reality of their lives is the key challenge for the political rather than organisational end of left strategy.

    • I think regional difference is strong here. There are higher % of middle class Labour voters in the north than there are % of working class Labour voters in the south-east.

  • Sounds sensible to me.

    What is obvious is that we lost some marginals because of abstentions, particularly in the midlands and north, less so in the south, where there was more direct switching to the Conservatives.

    This is a far more nuanced approach than the ‘lets go back to 1997’ message which we hear from the purple people

  • Brumanuensis

    “In truth Labour is a ‘One Nation’ party which brings people from all social backgrounds together in equal number. An analysis of YouGov polling shows that 54% of today’s Labour supporters are from social groups ABC1 and 46% from C2DE”.

    This is true in absolute numerical terms, but in proportional terms we still draw most of our support from lower-income groups, particuarly DEs and C2s*. So I don’t quite buy the idea that we’re a class-less Party now. 

    *For example, in 1992 we won:

    AB – 20%
    C1 – 25%
    C2 – 41%
    DE – 50%

    In 1997:

    AB – 31%
    C1 – 39%
    C2 – 50%
    DE – 59%

    In 2001:

    AB – 30%
    C1 – 38%
    C2 – 49%
    DE – 55% 

    In 2005:

    AB – 28%
    C1 – 32%
    C2 – 40%
    DE – 48%

    In 2010:

    AB – 28%
    C1 – 28%
    C2 – 29%
    DE – 40%

    • AndrewHarrop

      True – but remember there’s also differential turnout to think about. A smaller share of DEs vote. It doesn’t eliminate the DE-bias but it suppresses it.

    • robertcp

      I agree with you and Andrew.  The most important point might be that there are fewer manual workers than in the 1950s and 1960s. 

    • robertcp

      I agree with you and Andrew.  The most important point might be that there are fewer manual workers than in the 1950s and 1960s. 

  • Honestly a bit dubious about the threat the Lib Dems posed to New Labour in 1997. Surely NL was a right-wing reaction to left tendencies within the party, stemming back eighteen years, rather than an attempt to fend off the third party?

  • Sounds like the policy the Labour Party has already been following for a number of years. That is why many traditional supporters are looking round for someone else to support.

  • Dave Postles

    It should be a party ‘for’ the working class, employed, underemployed, unemployed or with disabilities,  in the sense that it accords priority to the needs of these people.  Sensitive middle-class people, at whatever level of middle class or origin, are invited to share those concerns. 

    • robertcp

      It might be the other way around.  Labour is the party of the sensitive middle class and the working class etc are invited to vote Labour as well.

    • robertcp

      It might be the other way around.  Labour is the party of the sensitive middle class and the working class etc are invited to vote Labour as well.

  • I still think there’ s a big mistake in looking at the future of Labour in “left” and “right” terms. If anything’s alienating our working class vote it’s this kind of ideolological dogma.

    Reading Owen Jones’ debate with Hazel Blears, elsewhere in ‘Progress’ it was very clear that Hazel was attacking Owen for championing the working class over all others when his defintion of the term worker was a lot broader – cutting across all classes and incorporating those who’d love to work (if they had jobs) – in short, as great a misunderstanding as her idea that anyone is blaming cashiers or ordinary every day Barclays employees for the Libor crisis.

    If we are going to win the next election, it will be on hard policy that supplies high quality health, housing, jobs, fair pay, transport and education in an accountable, well-managed and fairly accessible fashion – and as a party we shouldn’t be deflected from those aims by random opinion polls showing certain sections of the community can have unsavoury views on a number of issues, particularly ones that don’t drive party allegiences.

    • Bert Morgan

      “If we are going to win the next election, it will be on hard policy that supplies high quality health, housing, jobs, fair pay, transport and education in an accountable, well-managed and fairly accessible fashion ”

      Right, Sue. But where are these hard policy statements?
      It probably suits the Labour leadership at this time to avoid agitating its left-right factions by not making too many policy commitments that might antagonise either.
      In the meantime, however, rising public ire and disillusionment with an introspective and ostensibly impotent opposition may deservedly translate into a low turnout for Labour in 2015.

    • Bert Morgan

      “If we are going to win the next election, it will be on hard policy that supplies high quality health, housing, jobs, fair pay, transport and education in an accountable, well-managed and fairly accessible fashion ”

      Right, Sue. But where are these hard policy statements?
      It probably suits the Labour leadership at this time to avoid agitating its left-right factions by not making too many policy commitments that might antagonise either.
      In the meantime, however, rising public ire and disillusionment with an introspective and ostensibly impotent opposition may deservedly translate into a low turnout for Labour in 2015.

  • Charlie_Mansell

    So what makes people tick? Class is still important, but in the 1950’s when class based voting was at its peak, 33% of C2DEs voted Tory and 25% of ABC1s voted Labour and more recent trends on that are shown here: http://www.ipsos-mori.com/researchpublications/researcharchive/poll.aspx?oItemID=101 What was it then that drove a significant minority of people to vote against their class interest at all times since the term was created? Was it their social networks they existed in and the values that they generated? Are the balance of these values more important now as class based voting is clearly less firm? Labour does not just need to reach out to the centre-ground, it also needs to communicate a ‘one nation’ message to those who are perhaps middle class and cosmopolitan, but also those who are aspirational ‘strivers’ and also those who are ‘cultural traditionalists’ (a more useful frame for this debate than the term ‘cultural conservative’) who may hold quite leftist views on the economy but which are tempered by much less progressive views towards welfare and immigration mainly because their own social networks do not feature many bankers living nearby to them but do put them in close ‘proximity’ to people who they think might be undeserving or do not share their cultural identity. In order to communicate messages we need to express the same things in different ways so they reach out more widely and effectively. Supplementing an understanding of class with an understanding of people’s motivating values would strengthen our unifying one nation message. This is a useful book for understanding what makes people tick: http://www.amazon.co.uk/What-Makes-People-Tick-Prospectors/dp/184876720X You will see a good review of it by Anthony Painter if you click on the link and go down the page. And if you don’t want to buy it a good summary is here: http://www.sciencewise-erc.org.uk/cms/assets/Uploads/Publications/Consultation-and-communicationsReport.pdf

  • Brumanuensis

    A very fair point and a good reason for Labour to invest in registering and encouraging voting amongst DEs and C2s.

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