Next year’s election is Labour’s to lose. For the forthcoming Clacton byelection confirms both that UKIP will not implode before next May and that the Tories are more interested in ideological warfare than reaching out to undecided voters in marginal seats.
Yet Labour remains in an unsatisfying, becalmed position. Its probable victory owes more to the electoral system and the internal dynamics of other parties than to anything Labour has done itself. As a consequence, the party risks scraping into Downing Street without having built a new long-term coalition of voters who can sustain it in office.
This is the true significance of UKIP for Labour: the Kippers may be more of an immediate menace to the Tories, but they appeal to many who should see Labour as a natural home. In particular, it is UKIP, not Labour, that has cracked how to win the support of people who had given up on voting. That’s why UKIP’s recent success threatens Labour’s long-term prospects. Parties always lose fair-weather supporters once elected to office; so Labour will need to tap new reservoirs of support to avoid defeat in 2020, should the party win by a whisker next year.
If Labour governs competently it may pick up a few safety-first voters who favour incumbency. If it is radical too it will retain the growing ranks of left-leaning ‘Obama’ voters, who make up Labour’s ‘new’ core – like urban, liberal graduates and ethnic minorities. Alone however they are too few to win elections in Britain.
So a sustainable voting coalition must also mean re-earning the support of Labour’s ‘old’ core of white non‑graduates: the people the party was founded to serve. All through this parliament Labour has worked hard to craft an economic offer for this group – people facing precarious work and squeezed living standards. In the process the party has discovered that policies squarely to the left of New Labour can unite a broad spectrum of potential supporters.
But Labour has failed to build emotional bridges and regain credibility. The policies are good, but for ‘old’ core voters, the party sounds grating, managerial and culturally remote – when anyone notices it at all. By contrast UKIP’s high energy politics has cut through, especially on social and cultural themes, and for the first time UKIP is gaining traction in Labour heartlands.
So unless action is taken now, the number of people who, like Gillian Duffy, are socially conservative but tribally Labour will dwindle each year. A national response is needed, including a much clearer election prospectus for pensioners, but also local renewal. Labour must become the party of community and dedicate itself to five years of pavement politics, by seeing through its tentative internal reforms.
Labour faces a genuine dilemma in appealing to its diverse coalition of potential voters. The party cannot compete in an arms-race of socially conservative policy making, so instead it must change the way it looks, sounds and feels. This is not about the message, but having a broader range of messengers, with a candour and energy the public can’t fail to notice.
Labour is the only party that bridges Britain’s great divides of geography and class. But to build the foundations for long-term success it must resemble all its supporters and unite its broad constituency through understanding, passion and leadership.
This article originally appeared in the Autumn 2014 edition of the Fabian Review