It’s now well known that the single greatest explanation for Labour’s steady lead in the polls is the defection of former Liberal Democrat voters to the party’s ranks. If Labour can sustain a decent proportion of this new Lib Dem support it is on track to be the largest party in the next parliament.
But new Fabian Society research shows that an outright majority in 2015 also depends on Labour winning over people who didn’t vote at all in 2010. The good news is that huge numbers of people who declined to vote at the last election now say they’ll back us. But the party will only secure a majority if it can persuade these new supporters to actually cast their ballots in two years’ time.
We used a specially commissioned You Gov poll to assess the voting intentions of people who didn’t vote in the 2010 election. You Gov’s polling methodology is particularly suitable for this analysis because the pollster uses a panel of respondents and so is able to re-question people who originally told them they didn’t vote immediately after the May 2010 election. The poll found that 23 per cent of the sample of 2010 non-voters now say they’ll vote Labour. According to Fabian Society calculations using the data, this means an estimated 1.4 million people in the non-voter group now plan to vote Labour.
This shift in support is factored into Labour’s headline polling numbers and has boosted Labour’s lead by around five percentage points, which could translate into an extra 40 seats in the House of Commons. With the polls expected to narrow as the election nears, the stickiness of this non-voter bloc is likely to make the difference between a hung parliament and a Labour majority.
2010 non-voters are so important because the party has won very few supporters directly from the Conservatives. Despite the troubles the government has faced over the last 12 months only one to two per cent of voters have switched directly from Labour to the Tories (estimated at 400,000 people). Hardly ideal perhaps, but let’s not beat ourselves up too much. Even without many ex-Tories, we’re well ahead in the polls so the priority is to hang on to the supporters we’ve got.
That means accentuating our positives. I’ve suggested before that Labour is doing well because it is succeeding in building a centre left coalition of support. We know that Labour’s post-2010 converts are just as left-leaning as our 2010 voters, so it’s likely that many of the non-voters we’ve acquired are former Labour supporters who gave up on the party in the latter half of our term of office (rather like many of the ex-Lib Dems who are now returning to us). As these broadly left-leaning voters have seen the effects of the coalition and as Labour’s time in office has grown more distant they have been prepared to consider the party again.
Labour’s strength is therefore based on the return of former supporters who turned away from the party and new voters who share the same values. Meanwhile Labour’s failure to attract 2010 Conservatives has a silver lining: it means the party has fairly few current supporters who might switch back to the Tories as their mid-term blues recede. I’d argue that Labour’s polling lead is much more vulnerable to apathy and disenchantment among its loose centre-left coalition than it is to deserters from Conservative-inclined ‘swing voters’. Labour must craft its manifesto and campaign with this in mind.
In other words, 2015 is set to be an ‘Obama-style’ election, with very few people likely to switch between the two main parties and a Labour victory dependent on motivating and mobilising sympathetic voters. This analysis indicates that Labour stands a strong chance of winning as long as we can learn from the grassroots campaign techniques of the Democrats.
Ed Miliband is not Tony Blair and he’ll need to seize power in his own way. Blair’s success was based on winning over disillusioned ex-Tories who are so far resisting Miliband’s appeal. But Ed has won the backing of people who had given up on voting as well as former Lib Dems: the Fabian research shows that together there are enough of them for Labour to win.
Andrew Harrop is the General Secretary of the Fabian Society