Why would a good person have voted Conservative? – the question Labour needs to answer

February 28, 2013 7:39 am

As celebrity endorsements go, it was lacklustre, and for a celebrity revelation, it was deeply humdrum. However, Anthony McPartlin’s ‘confession’ that he voted Conservative at the last election prompted comment, and should give those interested in a Labour victory at the next election cause for reflection.

He was not alone – the Tories picked up two million additional votes between 2005 and 2010. Many of them were at the expense of Labour, as our support tumbled everywhere outside of Scotland and London. Now, although Labour has built up a consistent and comfortable lead in all polls, the proportion of Tory voters coming over to Labour is startlingly small: most of Labour’s new voters are former Liberal Democrats, or those who did not vote at the last election (either because they were too young, or because they chose not to).

These pools of support are welcome, not least because they are vindication for Labour activists who have long argued that the Liberals are not the progressive sister force some voters thought them to be. However, the current makeup of Labour’s electoral coalition is leading to some worrying conclusions: that we have ‘enough’ voters; that we have the ‘right’ mix of voters currently with us; and that Labour would somehow be compromised if it sought additional votes from the Conservatives.

This thinking is not just dangerous, but ahistorical. Baselining Tory support in 2010 is an odd approach, given that this election saw a generational low for Labour after three consecutive victories (two huge, the third entirely comfortable). But many Labour election watchers have done so – warning of the dangers of seeking votes ‘on the right’, and how such an approach could jeopardise the support Labour has already won from voters elsewhere.

Pigeonholing voters like this isn’t helpful and does not give a true picture of just how complex, nuanced and diverse a voter’s views are. A large and increasing number of the electorate are essentially ‘moderate’ voters: indifferent between parties, amenable to appeals from both centre-left and centre-right. Declaring such a voter – perhaps like Ant! – a Tory because they voted Conservative once does not do them justice, and wastefully writes off a section of the electorate Labour ought to be bidding for.

If the Conservatives are retaining more than 90 per cent of their 2010 vote, and losing more votes to UKIP than to Labour, this must mean Labour is failing to attract thousands of voters who supported it consistently in the past, and only switched to the Tories in the moment of our lowest electoral popularity since the early 1980s.

There seems to be a rarely-voiced fear of going after these voters, however. Even if Labour could theoretically gain votes on the ‘right’ without losing them to the ‘left’, there is a sense in the party that, if we can avoid it, we should do without them – that many members would prefer a Labour party, and a Labour government, which was not tied down by tiresome compromises with those who preferred David Cameron to Gordon Brown.

This is a mode of thinking we need to snap out of, and fast. Voters are people, not simply ballots cast either for or against us. We need to reassess our view of those who voted Tory in 2010. Their veins may not course with Tolpuddle, Jarrow and Orgreave, but this does not mean that they cannot be persuaded to vote Labour, at least in some circumstances.

Increasingly, voters value competence and trust issues more than individual policies or ideological stances. It is certainly conceivable that a non-aligned voter might have switched from Labour to Tory because they thought the Brown government had run its course, or that they thought the Tories would enact their economic policy more competently, or even that they thought Cameron and Osborne were more trustworthy. Whether they had solid reasons for thinking so is immaterial – whether they still think so is a question that should keep Labour activists awake at night.

Writing off voters who voted Conservative is certainly a problem for Labour’s election strategy. But in a wider sense, it is damaging to our ability to govern, and our view of the country that we govern. If there is a Labour government after the next election, it must govern for the whole country – those who voted for it, and those who didn’t. Ultimately, winning an election is only the first test of the acceptability of your programme for government: David Cameron is finding to his cost that you cannot dismiss the views of those who did not vote for you once you’ve gathered enough votes to enter office. Similarly, an incoming Labour government will have to deal with competing demands and wants from all sections of society: if we have become so choosy about who is welcome in our winning coalition, how can we hope to understand or persuade any of the voters whose views we were apparently so uninterested in?

Labour lost the last election, badly. Our recovery to a commanding position in the polls since then is impressive, and authors of election advice such as this ought to acknowledge the success of the party’s leaders and campaigners in putting us in this position. But now is the time to press home our advantage. Labour people should ask themselves, ‘why would a good person have voted Conservative?’. Plenty did. If we can work out why, we can solidify our lead, build an unassailable electoral base, and enable Labour to govern successfully again.

  • Hugh

    Because of the off-putting sanctimony of the left?

  • AlanGiles

    ” ‘why would a good person have voted Conservative?’.

    David you do your case and that of Labour no good by employing hyperbole. I would never vote Conservative, but, given that a year prior to the 2010 election Labour pushed the Freud reforms through Parliament, even though by that time Freud was a Tory peer, there was nothing that “good” about Labour – especially as the men pushing the reforms through were later seriously implicated in the expenses fraud.

    This article seems to be predicated on the notion that only “bad” people would vote for your opponents. However, a few Tory MPs are more liberal than some right wing Labour MPs. You can’t generalise in this outrageous way.

    You are not likely to get those “bad” people who don’t vote Labour or have given up voting Labour back in to the fold if you are going to make moral judgements of this sort.

    As for “Ant”, he and “Dec” seem to think as one mind, so he was probably not a “good person” either, and voted the same way. There was a long article in last week’s Radio Times about them, and, though I couldn’t watch their programmes (I loathe “reality” TV and amateur talent shows), they show a friendship and loyalty to each other that is lacking in politics. They certainly demonstrate brotherly love more than Ed & Dave!

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mike-Homfray/510980099 Mike Homfray

      The article stated that they both voted Labour usually, but Ant voted Tory last time, although he didn’t appear very enamoured of them so far.
      I do think that sometimes parties run out of steam and that’s what happened to us last time

  • Monkey_Bach

    Before the last election David Cameron nobody really knew what an administration led by him would be like or would do in practice: to many Cameron seemed a compassionate and decent family man who would implement Conservative policies fairly and sensitively without the traditional Conservative cruelty and harshness. He seemed to have a plan, ideas, and promised solutions to the nation’s problems without having to be spectacularly cruel to legions of the poor and the needy. Less than three years later and Cameron has managed to make himself as unpopular as Gordon Brown was at the same point in his Premiership . Quite an achievement really. David Cameron now looks set to be remembered as the one-time Conservative Prime Minister, who never won an election, whose every policy either failed completely or was only partially successful, at best, with or without multi-millionaire Anthony McPartlin’s endorsement and support. Eeek.

  • http://twitter.com/robertsjonathan Jonathan Roberts

    Aside from the headline – which maintains the wrong-headed principle that Labour has a moral superiority and everyone else is ‘nasty’, this is a good article. It’s important for Labour people to get their heads around the fact that you can be a good person and disagree with Labour philosophies or policies. I’m from a very Conservative area, and many people I’ve met campaigning who would never vote Labour have been nothing short of lovely and thoroughly decent.

    But there are policies floating around Labour that should be attractive to both sets of voters. A cut to VAT, for example, plays well to Conservative tax cutting instincts, but also puts money back into the pocket of Labour supporters too. A cut to employers’ NI contributions for newly created jobs does the same. These are the kinds of things we should push in Lab/Con marginals.

  • Jeremy_Preece

    David, you are right to raise this question, and it is one that we all need to look at very carefully. Down here in the South of England it is very directly relevant, and many of us live in areas where the Tories have seemed to have a total stranglehold.

    You are also right that many of these people who vote Tory are not bad people at all, and it is our job to communicate with them, or at least as many as possible.

    The crux of your argument is where you say “Increasingly, voters value competence and trust issues more than individual policies or ideological stances. It is certainly conceivable that a non-aligned voter might have switched from Labour to Tory because they thought the Brown government had run its course, or that they thought the Tories would enact their economic policy more competently, or even that they thought Cameron and Osborne were more trustworthy. Whether they had solid reasons for thinking so is immaterial – whether they still think so is a question that should keep Labour activists awake at night.”
    Clearly now there are some who are appauled by Cameron and what he is really like as a PM, and yes Monkey_Bach, he did project a nice guy moderate caring image, as also to an extent did IDS. However, now that Britain becomes aware of what the same old Tories are really like, the point is that former Labour voters are not returning back to Labour. Many are staying with the Tories and others are going to the right with parties such as UKIP. So whether the public were “fooled by Mr Nice Guy” “call me Dave” in 2010 is not relevant.
    Now we come to the real issue. It is still in the mindset of a huge number of people that the whole of the economic downturn, the world-wide banking crisis and so on are all the fault of the last Labour government. Therefore whatever happens is all Labour’s fault. Of course this is not true and is a Tory lie, but we have allowed it to take hold. It has become a “factiod” that is, something that is univerally accepted by the public even if untrue.
    It is the single biggest failure of Labour leadership to have allowed this Tory lie to take hold. What this article is really evidence of, is that allowing this lie to take hold is fatal. Not only did Labour leadership not rebuff this in a robust way, but some elements in the party were happy to allow this as a justification for “moving on from New Labour”. Just about all of the achivements of the last government have been forgotten. And phrases like “mistakes were made” only conveys the idea that we also think that we are rubbish.
    The old myth again resurfaces that the Tories are nasty but can be trusted with the economy, while Labour are soft and fluffy, very nice, but ruin the country.
    The truth is that the entire austerity programme is economically bad and killing the economy, that the justifiaction for it – in terms of keeping the AAA credit rating has been blown apart and that the real point of it is that it is a smoke screen for the Tories to carry out the most disturbing social injustice and vile score settling that they have ever managed to get away with.
    The entire model of a household with debts, which Osborne and Cameron use as an analogy for cutting public debt is fundamentally flawed. 1. Because they are actually increasing debt and lying about the debt shrinking (smoke and mirrors and confusion about debt and deficit) and 2. Beacuse the household can cut its spending without affecting its income, and in the case of the country, cutting spending, investment, infrastructure and the public debt kills the economy and reduces income, therefore worstening the deficit and increasing debt.
    If we really want to use the Tory analogy, their policy is the same as a household in debt where “the man of the house decides” to take his wife’s salary and spend it on clearling debts and decides to allow one or more of the children to starve to death, and then reward himself for inflicting the austerity on the other members of his family by going off on a world criuse. On the other hand the Labour and more Keynes approach would be where the two adults of the house manage to get better jobs and much higher wages so that they can service their debts, reduce them, improve the quality of their lives, prepare to fund university education for the kids and or expand and have another child.
    Yes we can often say that New Labour went a few bridges too far; Yes we can be critical of some of the assumptions as pandering to the Dail Mail brigade; But we really need to get back the public trust that Labour is good with the economy and better than the Conservatives. That was New Labours biggest strength. Once you can do that then the “nice people” you speak of, will vote for the party that can both run the economy and also do the good polices.
    It is then that Labour can project itself as on the NHS, Child poverty, law and order, education and opportunity and of course jobs.
    So Labour needs to do three things,
    1. Fight back about the myth that the Tories are good with money and Labour are bad.
    2. Show a policy direction and some polices that will make the public understand who Labour is and what they stand for.
    3. Be led by someone who can then punch the message through.

    • AlanGiles

      Jeremy, With all due respect I can’t see how anybody would have got the idea Duncan-Smith was a “caring” individiual (” caring image, as also to an extent did IDS.”).

      Frankly he has always come over as an arrogant man very much of the old Tory school. Even the Tories were glad to ditch him as their leader after a couple of years. He is a total disaster, with little or no integrity at all (Betsygate) and I don’t think many people were ever taken in by him.

      • Gabrielle

        Alan, I find it a tad puzzling that you quibbled on a fairly minor point in Jeremy’s post and seemingly ignored the rest of it.

        I don’t think Jeremy was suggesting IDS was ‘caring’, or that anyone with any insight thought him so, it was just that that was the image the Tories were peddling as the sham that was carey-sharey Project Dave.

        • AlanGiles

          I wasn’t quibbling, just surprised anyone could be taken in by Smith’s acting.

          The truth is, I suppose, you should never take any politician at face value – they can say one thing and do another (as we well know!)

        • AlanGiles

          I wasn’t quibbling, just surprised anyone could be taken in by Smith’s acting.

          The truth is, I suppose, you should never take any politician at face value – they can say one thing and do another (as we well know!)

        • AlanGiles

          I wasn’t quibbling, just surprised anyone could be taken in by Smith’s acting.

          The truth is, I suppose, you should never take any politician at face value – they can say one thing and do another (as we well know!)

          • Gabrielle

            Nah, I don’t buy that ‘don’t trust any politician’ theme, which will be one of the many weapons Lynton Crosby will be pushing before the next election.

          • Daniel Speight

            Gabrielle I can’t see how you think Crosby can play the anti-political class theme when he will be representing one of the major parties, unless you think he will desert to UKIP of course.

      • AlanGiles

        THREE downs! I never realised Duncan-Smith was so popular. It’s a funny old world…..

        • http://twitter.com/_DaveTalbot David Talbot

          Or you unpopular. Just a thought old boy!

          • AlanGiles

            More than likely David. But then again a broken clock is right twice a day. I still maintain anybody who had the impression Duncan-Smith was a “caring” sort of bloke must have been watching and listening to a different man than I have heard in the past 15 years or so.

            I can see how some people might have been taken in by Cameron during his “compassionate Conservatism, hug a hoodie” period but Duncan-Smith!?

          • AlanGiles

            UPDATE Friday. You are unquestionably right David. FOUR “downs” now, which tends to support my theory that on welfare you can’t get a tram ticket between the two major parties. :-)

    • Gabrielle

      Really good post, Jeremy – I hope some movers and shakers from Labour read it, because it’s quite frustrating how it seems that they sometimes don’t see the wood for the trees.

      Labour really do need to focus more on their record of competence, rather than all the mea culpa stuff. I suspect the average voter finds that more irritating than endearing, and it really does need to be spelt out how Labour had got the economy back in growth after facing a global financial meltdown, etc, plus good economic management before that and improvements in living standards.

  • Phil n

    Having the right leader is paramount to any successful campaign, perhaps more than policy.. Gordon Brown killed any chance of labour winning the last election with his bumbling ability to wind the public up with his nonexistent man management skills. People still did not trust the Tories , hence the need for the lib dems to bail them out. If labour had been more proficient in their explanation of their high spending, and there were reasons, labour would be even further up on the opinion polls. Do we have the right leader to make the difference? I think the Tories are making such a hash of things that it might not even matter this time, the reason, joe public is very scared at the moment and they can feel and see things deteriorating further.

  • Holby18

    I am one of those people! I made a difficult decision after voting labour for over 40 years. My reasons are complex and many. Here are some:

    I have always been on the right of the party.
    I was, and remain a great admirer of Tony Blair.
    I am an avid reader of political books academic, biographies etc.
    I was fully aware at the last election of the treachery of Gordon Brown in undermining TB.
    I was appalled at how inadequate GB was as leader.
    I thought that those around GB – particularly EB were ghastly with nasty briefings against colleagues. I can recall the briefing against John Reid when he was considering standing for the leadership. There are many more incidents that I am aware of.
    I am tired of the State getting bigger and the cost to the taxpayer.
    I was tired of a culture developing under the last government that the State would provide and that personal responsibility did not matter.
    I was tired of difficult decisions being put off. Reform of the police, education (we have slipped down international league) etc etc.

    So do I return?
    I am sorry but I associate some shadow ministers with the Brown regime. I think that will lose the party votes and am with Anthony Seldon on this issue.
    I am fed up with every attempt to reduce welfare spending being trashed when we all know it is out of control.
    I am fed up with listening to EB going on about borrowing more money. The public are against this.
    I am fed up with populist messages for short term political gain when we all know it will take years to get the economy back on track.
    I also feel that labour are loving opposition…..

    A lot to think about…..

  • http://www.facebook.com/matthew.blott Matthew Blott

    Well one very big reason people were turned off Labour was its leader Gordon Brown. I thought he looked like a dog that needed putting out of its misery. Labour tribalists fail to see it but he was a spectacularly awful communicator. Anybody else was always going to be a significant improvement.

    • Dave Postles

      Anyone but Blair, my friend.

  • Dave Postles

    I live in a Conservative-controlled constituency in the East Midlands and know other people in another perennial Tory constituency in the East Midlands. Their first thought is that they will vote for the party which will reduce their taxes. IMHO, that’s not virtue but blinkered individualism – and sod everything else. No, I’ve never voted Tory and will never do so – and I’m a complex person of good and bad, not a good person.

    • Alexwilliamz

      That’s true I heard some retired gent in a local cafe recently moaning about taxes in relation to the cost of electricity?! Now I might have been jumping to conclusions from the context, area and clothing but the chap was far from a middle class high earner. Many’s people’s experience of ‘taxes’ are of the indirect kind on things like fags and alcohol, this then gets extrapolated to just about every cost of living with a suspicion that everything is expensive due to taxes. Hence cheap shots like high taxing – high spending Labour resonate across social strata and is one of the few things that people ‘see’ in tangible terms of gvt.

      • charles.ward

        Green taxes have doubled on energy and 15% of the cost of electricity is now due to tax.

        It wasn’t that long ago that VAT was not chaged on domestic fuel bills and green taxes are also a relatively new thing (a least at the high level they are now at).

        Both parties have increased these “stealth” taxes precisely because people don’t notice them going up as much the basic rate of tax going up.

    • Alexwilliamz

      That’s true I heard some retired gent in a local cafe recently moaning about taxes in relation to the cost of electricity?! Now I might have been jumping to conclusions from the context, area and clothing but the chap was far from a middle class high earner. Many’s people’s experience of ‘taxes’ are of the indirect kind on things like fags and alcohol, this then gets extrapolated to just about every cost of living with a suspicion that everything is expensive due to taxes. Hence cheap shots like high taxing – high spending Labour resonate across social strata and is one of the few things that people ‘see’ in tangible terms of gvt.

  • Alexwilliamz

    Not sure where the idea that people who vote conservative are bad. I think the point is there is not much choice and for many people there was a combination of the tories attempting a rebrand, people (especially newer voters) did not experience the darker tory days and a feeling I got from a lot of people was that we just needed a change. There has always been a left wing element of the conservative party currently represented by people like Blond and we have even pinched their one nation riff. Equally there are also a lot of traditionalists that vote conservative for a number of comfort blanket reasons. There are also many people who’s lives are match the narrative of the conservatives spout actually makes reasonable sense. it can sometimes be dismissively seen as simplistic view of our nation by leftwing critics but can be very powerful when people’s anecdotal experiences back it up. None of these reasons make people bad, and it is always the challenge of the left to convince people that fraternity is a moral and even necessary component of modern society.

  • Alexwilliamz

    Not sure where the idea that people who vote conservative are bad. I think the point is there is not much choice and for many people there was a combination of the tories attempting a rebrand, people (especially newer voters) did not experience the darker tory days and a feeling I got from a lot of people was that we just needed a change. There has always been a left wing element of the conservative party currently represented by people like Blond and we have even pinched their one nation riff. Equally there are also a lot of traditionalists that vote conservative for a number of comfort blanket reasons. There are also many people who’s lives are match the narrative of the conservatives spout actually makes reasonable sense. it can sometimes be dismissively seen as simplistic view of our nation by leftwing critics but can be very powerful when people’s anecdotal experiences back it up. None of these reasons make people bad, and it is always the challenge of the left to convince people that fraternity is a moral and even necessary component of modern society.

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