How can Labour have a “core vote” strategy if our core vote don’t know what we’re for?

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It’s now less than three weeks since Scotland decided to stay in the Union, with Miliband’s closing promise to the people of Scotland being that Labour would boot the Tories out next year. And yet every day since the referendum result has brought bad news for Labour. Our conference was flat. Miliband’s speech was lacklustre and largely forgettable (Do you remember the six point plan for Britain’s future?). Tory conference was cheerful – at first inexplicably, and then after Cameron’s speech, explicably. It didn’t seem to matter that it was built on shonky figures, it suggested sunlit uplands after years of despair.

And now, for the third day in a row, YouGov has the Tories pulling ahead of Labour. One poll is an outrider, two is a fluke, but three is a trend. Once multiple pollsters start showing Tory leads, the Labour Party will begin to despair. This was not the script. Steady as she goes wasn’t meant to bring us to this place, this far from the election.

Some will claim that such an outcome was inevitable. The idea that Labour has been pursuing a “core vote” strategy is one that has been circulating for a while. Those of us who wanted to see something more ambitious talked about the need to get the “missing millions” back onboard, and aim for a 40% strategy. At present it’s looking like such warnings were ignored. Yesterday Peter Kellner blogged on YouGov polling that shows the fallacy (or failure) of the “core vote” strategy:

“Implicit in media discussions of the core-vote strategy is the assumption that these are all firm party loyalists, and that Miliband’s task is simply to mobilise them..The trouble is, they aren’t….If there is a case for pursuing a core-vote strategy, it is not that Labour’s base is firm, but that it is fragile and urgently needs strengthening.”

So what might the core vote want to see from Miliband? The one time his personal poll ratings have lept upwards was after his Energy Price Fleeze pledge, followed by him taking on the Mail’s treatment of his father. Miliband stood up for what he believed in, showed ambition, stuck it to the unaccountable and powerful forces that run Britain, and received a dividend. Since then, we’ve seen nothing on that scale.

Ed Miliband's New Year's Message 2014 - YouTube 2013-12-30 11-21-35

So what might motivate Labour voters – and the electorate more generally – to back Labour? Well there are many things Miliband could do that I’d happily walk through fire for (or perhaps more realistically, stomach painful cuts in other departments for). Building enough homes so that every family can have a place to call their own, a genuine Health and Social Care service that guarantees quality care for vulnerable and older people without bankrupting them or their families, Universal childcare which unleashes the full potential of our society rather than leaving parents unable to work due to sky high costs – and of course a living wage for all, eliminating poverty pay by ensuring that the minimum wage pays everyone enough to live, not just enough to eat.

These – any single one of these – would show ambition, radically change Britain in the way Miliband claims he wants to and appeal to those potential-Labour voters who are frankly unimpressed by what they evidently see as tinkering around the edges.

If Ed Miliband wants some dividing lines, he can pick any of those and run with them – rather than just deploying the NHS parachute like the Labour Party always does when things look tough.

The Labour Party is a moral crusade or it is nothing. But at the moment, too many of the British people don’t have a sense of what Miliband and Labour are fighting for, and they no longer believe in sufficient numbers that we’re fighting for them.

So is Labour pursuing a core vote strategy? Compared to what’s on offer at the moment I wish we had a core vote strategy. At the moment we have a “take much of our core vote for granted strategy”. It has been the Labour Party’s strategy on and off for a decade or more. And tacking on disaffected 2010 Lib Dems to that diminishing core vote no longer looks enough to get Miliband into Downing Street next year. Bigger thinking is needed. Labour needs to prove that it’s on the side of Britain’s forgotten millions – or the “core vote” as the media might prefer to call them – who are struggling on low pay, unable to find a home, unable to get to work because they can’t afford childcare or struggling to pay their parents care costs. These millions of people aren’t all poor, they don’t all live in the North, Scotland, Wales or London and they didn’t all vote Labour in 2010. But what they do have in common is a desire to see fundamental change to how our Britain works, matched by a loss of hope that such change is possible.

At the moment, those millions must still look at Labour (and the rest of the political establishment) and wonder what on earth – and who on earth – we are for.

If the Scottish referendum reminded me of anything, it’s that millions of people have been told for years that their hopes of big, radical change in their circumstances in particular and British society in general are pie in the sky. Politics used to inspire people and make them believe that a better tomorrow was possible. Now the art of the possible has become the art of pessimism. Nothing much will change, say the people, because that’s the mantra that our politicians seem only too willing to impart. The case Salmond made for Scottish independence was weak. He spoke of higher wages and benefits, lower taxes, higher public spending and oil money aplenty. It was cobblers, and if there had been a Yes vote his promises would have been exposed for the fools gold they were. But what he showed is that motivating people through hope of a brighter tomorrow is a simpler endeavour than motivating people with a marginally improved tomorrow.

A year ago we still had the organisation of Arnie Graf and the policy platform of Jon Cruddas to be hopeful about. Now one has been silenced and the other is strangely silent. And so all eyes fall upon Miliband to bring hope before despair sets in. What have you got, Ed?

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