Lord Ashcroft has crystallised Labour’s big dilemma

November 21, 2012 9:30 am

Lord Ashcroft occupies a curious position in British politics nowadays. Three years ago the Billionare from Belize was the bogeyman not just for the Labour Party, but also for a huge proportion of the media too. Now, he is semi-rehabilitated. A thorn in the side of his (former?) friend, the Prime Minister. One of Britain’s most prolific commissioners of polling. Gaining, as the Guardian put it today:

“a reputation for conducting fair and accurate polling that sometimes delivers unwelcome messages to all political parties.”

So whilst the natural reaction of Labour people upon hearing of Ashcroft’s latest – Labour specific – poll will be to ignore it. Not because the poll is without flaws (it isn’t), but because Ashcroft has earned a position in the media as a reliable and neutral(ish) pollster. The media are going to run with this poll anyway.

But that doesn’t mean that we need to accept the spin. The Times had this to say about Ashcroft’s poll this morning:

“[Ashcroft] found that Mr Miliband could secure the votes of up to 10 per cent of the electorate that is unsure whether to back Labour if he took a tougher line on the deficit….The poll divided voters into categories. Labour loyalists were the 25 per cent of the electorate who will stick with the party come what may. A further 17 per cent are “Labour joiners”, who say they will vote for Mr Miliband in 2015. Many of these assume that Labour would restore some or all of the coalition cuts. A further 10 per cent are “Labour considerers”, who may vote for Mr Miliband in future. They tend to have a low to neutral view of Mr Miliband and are much less ready to say that Labour has learnt the right lessons from its time in power.”

This all seems sensible – right? But first, lets do a spot of arithmetic. 25% solid support + 17% new support = 42%. That’s the votes Labour have accrued so far, according to Ashcroft, without taking a much firmer line on the deficit. Now I don’t know about you, but I’d take a Labour vote of 42% in the General Election. On the current boundaries that could give us a majority of around 80.

Yet the Ashcroft polling suggests Labour could secure the win – and gain an extra 10% of the electorate – by taking a firmer line on the cuts. That may well be true. And who wouldn’t want to win 52% of the vote? Imagine the majority then? And Labour would be the first government in a generation to genuinely command the support of a majority of those who voted.

And yet…we all know that life is not that simple, nor should it be. By taking a harder line on cuts (by, for example, accepting Tory spending limits for the early years of a Labour government) we might win a chunk of that 10% of potential Labour voters who are up for grabs. But we’d certainly lose a significant and unknowable % of the 42% who are already supporting us – either long standing party supporters who would see us as too close to the Tories, or former Lib Dems, who might feel let down by a second party in as many years.

Adopting a Tory-lite line on the economy may pay polling dividends for Labour. But then again, it might not. And that – in electoral terms at least – is Labour’s big dilemma. It also shows why it’s foolish to make policy calls on the basis of polling (not least because of the law of unintended consequences),

The best thing for Labour to do on the economy is to take the position that is right for the country, and which makes economic sense. Alas, that is a position that falls between the two absolutist poles of “No cuts” and “Slash the state”. The deficit needs to be reduced. Debt must be brought under control. Some form of cuts are necessary. But a Labour government should be mindful of the power of government spending – particularly in infrastructure – to boost growth and jobs. To make the cuts in the wrong place is as foolish as making no cuts, or savage cuts. Similarly making cuts that cost jobs, or show a lack of compassion to those who need the support of the state, are similarly self defeating – either economically or morally.

And thus, by neither appealing wholly to the no cuts crowd or the Tory-lite crowd, it’s likely that Labour will bleed some support from both left and right between now and 2015. Compromise invariably means the loss of support from the ideologically pure.

But what should be the balance between spending and cuts that is right for the economy, and what impact would that have on the polling? That, this far from the election, is probably unknowable, or, to paraphrase Philip Larkin:

Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor   
In their long coats
Running over the fields.
  • Jim_Watford

    Peole want common sense applied to things, they want waste dealt with while retaining decent services. This government has just waved the axe around like raving lunatics, the result has been cuts in services and no cuts whatsoever in waste. Labour are yet to offer an intelligent alternative to the Tories madness, in fact they’ve offered nothing at all. At the moment I think Labour will win The Lib Dems are losing voters and members to Labour while the Tories are losing people to UKIP. Things could change though and Labour need to be ready for that.

  • http://twitter.com/Bickerrecord Paul Cotterill

    From the Times: “Mr Miliband could secure the votes of up to 10 per cent of the electorate that is unsure whether to back Labour if he took a tougher line on the deficit”

    From Mark: “By taking a harder line on cuts (by, for example, accepting Tory spending limits for the early years of a Labour government) we might win a chunk of that 10% of potential Labour voters who are up for grabs.”
    The core of the problem here is that a tough line on the deficit is equated with a tough line on cuts. But in economic reality a tough line on deficit equates with a tough line on not needing cuts, but needing investment instead.
    There is simply no hard evdence to back Mark’s blase assertion that “some cuts are needed”.

  • Dave Postles

    Anybody want to buy a dodgy nuclear submarine which cost almost £10bn instead of cutting £10bn from welfare funding?

  • postageincluded

    Yes indeedy, “Lord” Ashcroft (aka Satan) has set the cat among the pigeons. Why else woud he spend thousands on this poll? He knows as well as anybody that the main faultline in the Labour Party is between the Progressives, who want to out-cut the Coalition, and everyone else. He also knows that a punch-up between the factions would play well for the Tories. He does his best to encourage that punch-up by polling on subjects that will add heat to Labour’s internal debate.

    Now I don’t doubt his results, but his spin on them is dubious (and the near verbatim repetition of his spin in the Guardian shows how far Rushbridger has decayed into a Coalition sycophant). Satan is not stupid, though. These results are not as good for his purpose as he hoped, and he knows it. For example, if a quarter of “Labour Joiners” would consider switching back that means three quarters wouldn’t! And that 75% of Joiners is enough to oust the current coalition – even if Cameron retains all of his 2010 vote, a feat that even Saint Maggie didn’t achieve.

    So I’m with you on this, Mark. Economic policy should be economic, not a political “I’m harder than you” machismo competition. Satan, despite himself, has shown us that the collapse of the LibDems allows us a freedom to do the right thing. It’s not an opportunity that many of us will see again and it should be grasped and nailed down, tied up and clamped.

  • Dave Postles

    “By taking a harder line on cuts (by, for example, accepting Tory
    spending limits for the early years of a Labour government) we might win
    a chunk of that 10% of potential Labour voters who are up for grabs.”
    Good news for Beecroft and Wonga.

  • Pingback: A fiscal Red Alert? | Hopi Sen

  • Paul Johnson

    The numbers are all very interesting, however as the polling for the US elections kept teling us, there is a difference between the figures given for registered voters and ‘those likely to vote’ and many polls gave both figures. When percentages are referenced in such a way, it would be more helpful to indicate their likelihood of voting. Lots of people will say they will vote for you but to what extent does this convert into actual votes?

  • Visual

    What about increasing tax revenues by cracking down on those companies and rich individuals who pay their accountants to find ways of avoiding tax?

    No deficit reduction strategy is credible, from a progressive perspective, without doing so.

  • Jeevan Jones

    A thought to consider is that of turnout of this supposedly solid Labour support. Go too far to the right, and many of Labour’s (poorer) voters may not go out and vote.

    We’ve seen how that can happen this month in stark effect.

  • Charlie_Mansell

    Taking the 75% of Joiners will vote for us gives us about 38% and assuming the Tories campaign of ‘economic realism’ claws back their support from UKIP, we end up with Labour largest party and 9 seats short of a majority. http://www.electoralcalculus.co.uk/cgi-bin/usercode.pl?CON=38&TVCON=&LAB=38&TVLAB=&LIB=17&TVLIB=&region=All+GB+changed+seats&boundary=2010&seat=–Show+all–

    Of course another hung ‘fixed term’ parliament in dire econonomic circumstances still would mean that a relatively stable Milliband/Farron/Cable/Hughes (delete which LD DPM one prefers) government would face a lot of challenges and the real debate is whether that is all we aspire to?

    What Ashcroft tells us at present is that in polling terms the ‘1997 coalition’ is still out there but might only be firmly assembled after two or three terms of people’s alienation from a Conservative/Coalition government. From my current canvassing in a very suburban area in a Council by-election at present, people are clearly disaffected, but the anger is fractured in many ways. It includes the current Government, through to the last Labour government, through to the EU, through to the banks, and poor perceptions of immigrants and benefit recipients etc etc.

    In 1997 it was very simple there was only one group of people to blame!! We are 5-10 years off a clear narrative in any one direction and if the Ashcroft data is right we are in an early to mid 70’s series of very mixed narratives and we saw what sort of results that led to!

  • Andrew McKay

    Instead of Labour opposing every cut in public spending, we need to be honest with people and say some of these cuts would have gone ahead under a Labour gov. – that way we will regain economic credibility.

  • Crewe Stokie

    It does not have to be cuts – it could be an increase in the basic rate. Not done for over thirty years but it used to be a part of the Chancellor’s armoury.. Better in “boom” times (I wish G Brown had read Keynes seriously) but still a possibility. A very hard sell though!

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