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