For months the chatter in Labour circles has been ‘it’s too good to be true’. The polls may say the party is ten points ahead, but Labour strategists convince themselves the lead is ‘soft’ and the path to electability remains daunting.
But is Labour’s lead really that soft? To get to the bottom of this question the Fabian Society looked at how many people say they are certain to vote Labour. The answer suggests a Labour majority is now the most likely outcome at the 2015 election.
Today, according to YouGov polling, around 8½ million people say the chances they will consider Labour at the next election are ten-out-of-ten, while to win a majority Labour will need something like 11 million votes. So Ed Miliband needs to find in the region of 2½ million votes from people who say their minds are not totally made up.
David Cameron’s challenge is much greater: he has to find an extra 4½ million votes. This is because today there are one million fewer people who are ‘ten-out-of-ten’ Conservative voters, while the quirks of our electoral system mean Cameron needs at least one million votes more than Miliband to win a majority.
To get a feel for where these missing votes might come from we looked at people who say their chance of considering each party is between five and nine out of ten. Again, Labour has far more of these ‘possible’ voters than the Conservatives – 14 million compared to 10 million. So Miliband not only needs to win fewer votes from among his waverers, he is also fishing in a bigger pool. Assuming for a moment that all the ‘ten out ten’ supporters vote, in 2015 Miliband will need under 20% of the Labour ‘possibles’ while Cameron will need almost half the Tory equivalent.
Of course these numbers are based on mid-term polls and an awful lot could happen in the next two years. The Lib Dems might change leader, with a ‘Vince Bounce’ seeing the party claw back support from Labour. The Conservatives could stage a successful assault on Labour with an election campaign focused on the deficit, immigration, Europe, welfare and Ed Miliband’s readiness for power.
The point is that Labour has a strong cushion which gives the party space to slip some way before the chance of a majority recedes. Even a really big jump in both Conservative and Lib Dem support would still leave Labour the largest party, just short of an outright majority.
Labour is also relatively immune to losing support directly to the Conservatives. Today it is riding high in the polls despite having won over few of David Cameron’s 2010 voters while only six million of Labour’s 22 million potential supporters are considering voting Tory. Most of Cameron’s target voters currently support UKIP, the Lib Dems or are sitting on their hands. This means Labour can withstand a Tory resurgence as long as it is able to hang onto plenty of former Lib Dems and persuade some sympathisers who did not vote in 2010 to cast their ballot next time.
Chasing lots of Conservative voters by tacking to the right is unwise as well as unnecessary. It risks alienating recent Labour converts such as left-leaning Lib Dems and others disaffected during the new Labour years. Indeed Fabian analysis shows that Labour supporters today are no less left-wing than they were in 2010, even though there are so many more of them. The tectonic plates of British politics have shifted and the make-or-break voters who will decide the next election are now further to the left than in the New Labour era.
A version of this article appears on the Guardian website. To see the data informing this analysis click here.
Reaction to comments
To extend the debate I thought it would be helpful to respond to some of the comments on the article I received on Twitter. These comments largely provide evidence to substantiate the points I make above, so they get a little geeky.
It’s complacent to say ‘Even a really big jump in both Conservative and Lib Dem support would still leave Labour the largest party, just short of an outright majority’
I’m just stating what the models tell us. The scenario I picked was the Tories matching their 2010 GB vote share of 37%, Labour scoring 36% and the Lib Dems 18%. The UK polling report swingometer model projects that would leave Labour as the largest party, 15 seats short of a majority.
It’s also complacent to say ‘Labour is also relatively immune to losing support directly to the Conservatives’
Labour’s progress from 30% to 43% of the GB vote includes a swing of only 2% directly from the Conservatives. Another 3% swing is just about conceivable as 9% of Labour’s 2010 votes say they’d consider the Tories (5 out of 10 chance or more) but it doesn’t feel at all likely – only 1% of this group say they’re now ‘10 out of 10’ voting Conservative.
Labour’s pool of 22 million possible voters (5 out of 10 chance or more) includes fairly few Conservative leaning people. As I said in the article around 6 million in this group would also consider the Conservatives. I could have added that just over 2 million of the pool actually voted Conservative last time or currently say they are intending to vote Conservative.
Of course I’m delighted that these people now support Labour – or are considering the party – and I want to see Labour politics that reaches out to this group. But it is important to recognise they are fairly few in number compared to our overall potential support, so the chase for Tory-Labour swing-voters should not excessively distort Labour’s overall offer to its ‘considerers’.
‘Most of Cameron’s target voters currently support UKIP, the Lib Dems or are sitting on their hands’
The logic of this statement flows from what I’ve written above – and you can see this very clearly when you look at the views of 2010 voters. But I’m actually thinking of analysis from Lord Ashcroft. In his latest Project Blueprint report he says, for example:
Is it possible, then, to square the circle – keep the Loyalists and Joiners, win back the (often UKIP leaning) Defectors and persuade the (often Lib Dem-leaning) Considerers?
Using mid-term polls tells you nothing or leads to complacency
I completely agree that looking at headline voting intention tells you little about the next election. Even the numbers saying they are ’10 out of 10’ certain to vote Labour will move over time, though it is plausible to argue this number should be less volatile. However a mid-term poll with a strong Labour lead is very useful to help us understand the pool of potential Labour voters – both the 12 million+ who currently say they’d vote for us and the 22 million+ who would consider Labour. Someone who’s not even considering voting Labour at this stage in the parliament really isn’t very likely to change their minds later on. We shouldn’t try to reinvent the group of people we’d like to be considering Labour, we should be targeting the millions who already are.
Chasing support from ex Lib Dems, non-voters etc means placing ourselves in the hands of extreme views
Not really. The views of current Labour supporters (when we’re at 43% in the polls) are very similar to those of our 2010 voters even though there are so many more of them. For example 51% of our voters in 2010 described themselves as being on the left, compared to 53% of our current support. The point is not that we can only retain our new support by swinging to the left – it is that we don’t need to swing to the right.
Ex-Lib Dems and non-voters aren’t in key marginals
Progress have just published an excellent new pamphlet which debunks this myth, Marginal Difference: Who Labour needs to win and where by Lewis Baston. This shows that Labour lost marginal seats because its vote collapsed far more than because of votes swinging to the Conservatives. The report concludes that simply winning votes from Lib Dems is enough for Labour to become the largest party. To win a majority Labour needs to win-back non-voters and/or secure a modest swing from the Tories.
You should chase every vote, don’t segment voters
I’m arguing that at this stage of the parliament we should segment in terms of whether people are considering Labour or not. After that we should be targeting every vote, but we also need to be mindful of trade-offs. There are a lot more of both former Liberal Democrats and non-voters who are currently considering Labour than there are 2010 Conservative voters. We need to consider this carefully as we look to strike the balance.
Labour can mount a big broad appeal that is attractive to all our potential voters. In the last year Fabian research has shown that Labour ‘targets’ are supportive of economic reform and a strong welfare state. Collectively the people who didn’t vote for us in 2010 but are considering it now look far more like past Labour than Conservative voters.
It’s worth bearing in mind that non-voters and Tory swing-voters include a lot of people who are influenced by ‘valence’, not the content of politics. In other words they want to support a party and leader they can trust and see as strong, rather than evaluating on a left-right basis. This is why people’s perspective on Ed Miliband as a potential leader, rather than his political views, matters such a lot.
A clear, bold plan that shows Labour has substance, direction and courage should appeal to ‘valance voters’ just as much as to content-focused former Liberal Democrats. Of course this doesn’t mean tacking to the far left (especially as fiscal pain is inevitable, whatever the political considerations) but there is an appetite for a different approach to the economy from across Labour’s potential supporters.