Lord Ashcroft has crystallised Labour’s big dilemma

21st November, 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.

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