The progressive majority myth is over – you need Tory votes to win


“The public is never wrong. We lose elections because we deserve to.” Just as mass each Sunday begins with the mea culpa, to force the congregation to think about the ways in which they could be better, perhaps it would be wise to begin every Labour Party meeting with these words from Alan Johnson this week. I would suggest carving the quote in stone, but that might suggest that lessons have not been learned.

In the leadership contest, the demands for a full, frank, open, wide, honest discussion will mean nothing if any candidate is willing to participate in comfort zone analysis. Conclusions that Labour only lost because of Tory lies or a right wing press are not just wrong, they completely miss the point. Even were they true (and let me stress again, they are not), they do nothing to help Labour win in 2020. The party will still face the same opposition and the same media.

The electorate too will not be dramatically different in five years’ time. And that is an important point to make, because at the root of the ‘Tory lie machine’ delusion is a belief that the voters let down Labour, and not the other way around.

This type of pathetic bubble-wrapped post-mortem is what allows the “lazy Labour” defeat narrative to take hold. The “lazy Labour” term was invented after the election by an Ipsos-MORI pollster to describe those who told polling companies that they were supporting Labour, but did not vote. It is an attempt to explain why the opinion polls were wrong, not why the Conservatives won – yet some believe it should be a basis on which Labour’s electoral strategy for the next five years is built.

Even Ed Miliband is said to buy into it. The New Statesman’s George Eaton recently reported that “Miliband is said to have emphasised that his party lost due to the failure of millions of notional supporters to turn out.”

It is depressing if Miliband has been pushing this line to his parliamentary colleagues, but not altogether surprising. Watching on television, his resignation speech on the morning of May 8th came across badly, and paled in comparison to Nick Clegg’s that same morning. Miliband accepted responsibility, and acknowledged that the voters had spoken, but made no attempt to show he knew what they had said.

However, someone who had been in the room for the speech told me they had found it emotional and powerful. There lies one of Miliband’s greatest weaknesses as leader – he too often spoke to the party, and not the country. At times, it seemed as though he was not sure what the difference was.

Miliband’s faith, on which Labour’s election plan was founded, that there is a progressive majority in this country has been shown up as misplaced. Pointing to the rise of the Greens or the SNP does nothing to change this: were every voter gained by those two parties since 2010 to have voted Labour instead, the party would still have been second in the popular vote.

Any plan for 2020 that does not have at its heart a primary focus on winning over Tory voters is a blueprint for a third successive defeat. While simply trying to build an ‘anti-Tory coalition’ may have been convincing in a landscape that suggested the Conservatives were no longer able to win majorities, we know now that that is not the case.

Some things remain as true as they always were. Non-voters tend not to vote. Protest voters do not vote for parties who want to govern. And, perhaps most importantly, Tory votes count double – every vote you take off your main rival brings you closer to their tally than one won from a smaller party.

In a democracy, you cannot choose your opponents, your press, or your electorate. If your guide to election victory is based on changing any of these three components, or a misunderstanding of what they are, then you will lose.

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