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

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.

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