Labour’s lost voters – lego politics or grand design?

Anthony Painter

Another day, another initiative. Today it’s a new project called ‘5 million votes’ from a group of E-milibandistas. The project is designed to identify why Labour ‘lost’ 5 million votes between 1997 and 2010 and how it can win them back. It makes a big opening declaration:

“We believe strongly that triangulation, whilst successful in the 90s, has reached its limits.”

Ah, that triangulation that the Clinton, Blairs and Schroders used to do. For what it’s worth, I don’t think that Blair was really much of a triangulator in reality – he just believed different things to the soft left. But let’s not get diverted. The reality is that the ‘five million lost votes’ approach is about triangulation or it’s about nothing. And there’s nothing new in the analysis – the soft left and others have been down this road a hundred times already, each time ending up at a dead end.

It started after the 2005 election. Labour won a majority in that election – by the skin of its teeth. For a decade or more, the left had been told that it had a choice: change or face continual defeat. When the tide started turning on New Labour then straight away, the left sought to exact psephological revenge. If New Labour was no longer popular then, ipso facto, its entire electoral argument was false. Never again.

So some in the Compass campaign group decided to taste the forbidden fruit of polling even if that meant banishment from the ideological garden of Eden. They spotted that Labour had lost support amongst ‘ABs’ and ethnic minorities. Of course, that must be Iraq. It had lost support amongst DEs. That must be because New Labour wasn’t social democratic enough. And so it went, a demographic was identified and a motivation ascribed to them. This morning, in an otherwise pretty fair analysis, Polly Toynbee fell into this type of analysis:

“There are ABs disgusted with Iraq or disillusioned with City worship; trade unionists angered at public sector privatising; and working class voters who don’t think Labour stands for them.”

So the basic reason Labour ‘lost five million votes’ was because it wasn’t liberal and social democratic enough. The purpose of this approach was to reclaim triangulation from the party’s right. Yes, triangulation was right but the right was wrong – the party should triangulate left. But it wouldn’t be called triangulation; it would instead be called ‘reconnecting with the core’ or some such.

The problem is that the right had the evidence on their side. After the 2005 election, YouGov started to compare the attitudes of ‘Labour’s lost’ voters versus those it had kept. The liberal social democrats tended to stay with Labour. Those who were sceptical about welfare, immigration and wasteful state spending tended to desert the party. What’s more, the group that Labour ‘lost’ were closer to the views of the rest of the population. While at Demos, I commissioned a large scale poll through YouGov asking precisely these questions. Triangulating left is just not an option if your strategy is ‘moving to where voters are’. As it happens, I’ve come the conclusion that such a strategy is highly flawed as I will come onto.

Whatever you think of that Demos poll, it backs up the findings of any systematic analysis of why Labour ‘lost’ voters. It also picks up the loss of trust in Labour’s leaders which is a major factor also. The Smith Institute in Winning back the 5 milllion looked at party support regardless of individual attitudes and came to the conclusion:

“Any simple shift to the left to gain votes from the Lib Dems and win back Labour’s core vote does not add up. Whilst the Lib Dems gained most in votes from 1997 to 2010 (1.6 million votes), in the same period some 2.5million voters went firmly rightwards (to the Tories, UKIP and BNP).”

So my friendly advice is if you want the Labour to adopt a softer left stance as the names on the ‘Five million votes’ website would all appear to do then I wouldn’t go down the Labour’s ‘lost’ votes road – you won’t like the evidence. The analysis has been done many times and the results are the same each time – if the analysis is done properly. It ends up in one of two places – triangulation and a pitch right or ignoring the bulk of the evidence and fitting the numbers to your pre-ordained theory.

Instead, I would spend my time challenging the entire way that the party does ‘strategy’. There are two basic approaches – the ‘lego approach’ and the ‘grand designs approach’. With the ‘lego approach’ you try to build a majority by stacking together blocks of voters who you fire targeted messages at. The problem with this approach is that, unlike lego, all the bricks don’t fit together. It’s difficult to bring together the block of universal ethic of welfare support with the block that wants to slash welfare whatever the impact. People who think the public sector is entirely wasteful and they are sick of paying so much tax to support it don’t naturally fit with those who want to defend public sector pay and pensions. ‘5 million lost voters’ strategy is the ‘lego approach’ – and you’ll never complete the final model.

The grand designs approach is infinitely preferable. Just like the Channel 4 show of the same name, you imagine your dream home and you plan to build it. As costs increase, the weather plays havoc and the logistics are more difficult than you thought they would be, you work out where you can compromise and where not.

So you concentrate on your national vision. Be yourself. Don’t start off in a mood to compromise but do have some flexibility along the way, albeit with red lines. This is the leadership model. You have to answer how the window or the under-floor heating will work but that’s just part of the process on the way to creating something amazing. If I were Ed Miliband, I would be a grand designs leader. To be honest, nothing else works. Tony Blair was himself and people bought it up to the second term. Ed Miliband has to be himself. What’s the point of being leader otherwise?

Will it generate a majority? We’ll see. This is art not science. It is emotion first and rational calculation second. Ed will either be the man for these times or he won’t. Alongside, he should build an organisation that will be aimed at 40 million voters, not 5 million. His vision should be general not micro-targeted and driven by conviction not calculation. Sure, it should be communicated with his audience in mind but it should be his politics, his personality, his policy.

While I’m sure we’ll disagree on a number of the details – the national challenges we face are far form simple – that is the sort of leader worth backing. The recent evidence is that he is ‘grand designs’ rather than ‘lego’ and that’s no bad thing. And my guess is that significantly more than 5 million will come to that conclusion too – majority or not.

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