So many activists, staffers and candidates have worked so hard. There were some remarkable victories on Thursday. So many people deserve enormous credit. Yet, despite this, without something fundamentally changing, Labour is heading for defeat next year. A majority is a long way off. Labour will struggle on Thursday’s showing to get anywhere near being the largest party. Anyone who wishes to see this Government replaced must be deeply concerned.
You can grasp hold of the Lord Ashcroft poll, or the fact that Labour topped the vote share in thirty or so key marginals, the millions of doors knocked, or the showing in London. There will be the life raft of Labour’s structural political advantage. You can grab hold of all this driftwood – and a succession of party spokespeople and supporters have done since Thursday. I just don’t think that helps at this late stage.
The clock is ticking.
These results were skewed by the UKIP vote. 50% of their support on Thursday came from 2010 Conservative voters and it was that which held the Tory vote down in many key marginals. So Labour’s lead is spurious in many seats. I have done some analysis of the Ashcroft poll published on Saturday. If 2010 Tories (and Labour) return home next year, Labour would win ten instead of thirteen of the 14 key targets covered in the poll and would have a lead of under 3% in a further two (i.e. within the margin of error). And this is likely to be a year of economic good news and we know opposition support declines in the final year before an election.
Labour’s local election results would actually see the party lose at least four seats as well as gain 29. The Ashcroft poll also shows the Tories’ operation was at least as good as Labour’s at contacting voters in key marginals. Labour’s desire to put a gloss on things is creeping into malignant complacency.
All of this can be explained away and will be. And the party will suffer as a result. Honesty is loyalty; blind faith is not.
Labour has two strategic problems: convincing white working class voters to stick with and suburban voters to support it. Labour has convinced former Liberal Democrats and that’s it. It seems to be losing ground amongst white working class voters if anything and suburban voters simply aren’t engaged.
The cost of living crisis strategy – aimed at working class voters – has become cheap and retail. Most shoppers like Aldi prices but they’d prefer to shop in Sainsbury’s given a chance. People might like the policies. But taken as a shopping basket, they see a party that is willing to offer them goodies and that makes them suspicious. So this narrowcasting becomes self-defeating. A flurry of speeches on immigration won’t put this right.
Secondly, the party’s failure to re-establish a broad reputation for economic competence is limiting its appeal in Britain’s suburbs. Without this strategic change, then a Labour majority remains extremely unlikely. This is the absolutely key issue.
At the moment, the only chance Labour has of becoming the largest party is for the UKIP vote to hold up and hurt the Tories more than it hurts Labour. That’s a pretty desperate thought: Labour’s success reliant on UKIP. Pause and reflect on that for a moment.
Labour needs a broader national narrative. The last thing it should do is go for a narrow targeting of UKIP voters. But the same lesson applies to ‘cost of living crisis’ – micro targeting is mostly ineffective.
Instead, Labour has to relentlessly focus on establishing its economic and fiscal competence over the next year. The conventional wisdom is that you should divert the conversation away from your weaknesses. That is true – unless your weakness happens to be economic competence. This requires a symbolic demonstration of the tough decisions the party would have to make. This has been sporadic at best over the last few years.
Labour should reach for a bigger but simpler offer. It could involve the following priorities:
1. Economic responsibility: a commitment to clear the day-to-day deficit as quick as, if not quicker, than George Osborne. Ed Balls and Chuka Umunna should be unleashed to push this message relentlessly. No Labour spokesperson should be allowed to make any public intervention without saying it. This would be done by spending cuts other than in the case of some tax increases for those with very high incomes and/or wealth. The recovery is now well established; the deficit needs to be tackled quickly. This is a cornerstone of economic competence – for Keynesians as much as neo-liberals.
2. Health and support for the elderly. Without making unfunded commitments, this has to be the priority expenditure area should any spare resources become available in the next Parliament. There should be no ring-fence until the day-to-day deficit is clear.
3. Apprenticeships and higher education. Again, there would be no commitments but as the deficit is cleared, additional resources would be targeted on creating the skilled workforce we need to sustain strong growth – growth that is vital to support an ageing society with high levels of national debt.
4. Housing. It is simply a betrayal of our national promise that house ownership is beyond the reach of so many and rental is so burdensome – especially in London and the South-East. Heaven and earth should be moved to increase house-building and this can be augmented by the right self-financing public investment. This would not impact the fiscal responsibility priority.
5. Wages. A Labour Government would intervene to enforce minimum wages, increase them in some sectors/areas where the benefit outweighs the harm, and ensure that wages are supported through smart procurement again where practical.
That’s it. No cost of living crisis. No flurry of retail policy offers. No nationalising rail or committing to new unfunded areas of public provision. More efficient use of public resources. A simple and relentless focus on five key priorities is the better path. Labour will never be able to out-flank the Tories and UKIP on Europe and immigration so it shouldn’t even try. It has a policy proposition in those areas already – it should stick to those. Instead, the next year should be about economic responsibility, support the NHS and older citizens, apprenticeships and higher education, housing, and wages. It may seem more narrow but it’s actually a very big offer – especially in a time of economic stress.
To be perfectly honest, I don’t see another way back other than praying for economic catastrophe or the sustained rise of UKIP. Neither of those propositions are appealing. It isn’t working, Labour needs to change tracks.