The future of the left since 1884

Labour’s Britain: Winning voters back

Labour’s leadership must chart a route to the common good that builds on its working- and middle-class support. The vast majority of voters who deserted Labour after 1997 appear not to vote at all. But a significant proportion of ex-Labour supporters...


Labour’s leadership must chart a route to the common good that builds on its working- and middle-class support.
The vast majority of voters who deserted Labour after 1997 appear not to vote at all. But a significant proportion of ex-Labour supporters are now voting UKIP.
Working-class Labour voters still believe that they would be better off financially under a Labour government. And while the views of this group on Labour’s economic competence are important, a more fundamental force has been at work. This force is primarily cultural and ethical, not economic.
A significant proportion of deserting Labour voters do not see Labour as being committed to the flag – i.e. being proud of the country, or having a clear stand in controlling the country’s borders, or in promoting a welfare state where rewards have to be earned.
So what policies are necessary to demonstrate to Labour’s traditional supporters that their values will regain their old primacy in whatever coalition of voters Labour attempts to put together? I would suggest four initiatives are fundamental to underpin and appeal to that new coalition of voters, built around their conceptions of the common good.
First, the style of Labour’s fight back on immigration is crucial. What the party now proposes might have met the hour back in 1997. Not so now. The politics of regaining Labour’s footloose core vote entails the use of initiatives which speak sacramentally to voters. The party’s outward policy announcements have to be seen to reflect an inward change in the attitudes and beliefs of the Labour leadership. How might this be achieved?
Labour needs to commit itself to the end of the free movement of labour within the EU. No one will underestimate the size of this task. And for those who caution this objective as unachievable, and that the leadership should not embark upon it, seem to ignore totally the impact such a stance would have on the attitude of Labour’s lost voters and in changing the political weather on this issue. The party’s core voters will mark Labour’s card as trying to defend their interest instead of standing idly by and witnessing yet further erosions of their living standards.
Second, the primary role of the family has to be reasserted through policy commitments and not simply by words. Core voters accept the diversity of family life. But the traditional model remains for most working-class Labour voters the ideal to aim for, and through which their happiness is maximised. It is not only that within this framework that most children are best nurtured. Working-class women, in particular, stress the importance to their happiness of having a partner in full time work so that their work can be fitted around the needs of their family.
There are also powerful fiscal reasons for a recommitment to the traditional family. Child poverty is a major problem in modern day Britain yet there are almost no (repeat, no) poor children in households where one partner works full time and one part time. ‘If you do not want your children to be poor, you need a partner who works’ should be part of our social highway code.
Third, the working-class belief that it is the performance of duties which gives rise to rights has to be enshrined in our welfare state. The leadership’s welcome phrase of ‘something for something’ has to be taken from sound bite and be enshrined in actual policies.
The galloping spread since 1979 under both Tory and Labour government of means tested assistance amounts to a full frontal attack on a working-class moral economy that believes in work, effort, savings and honesty, and that these great drivers of human endeavour should be rewarded rather than penalised. The welfare state has to be reconstructed away from means-testing onto a national insurance basis. Such a revolution cannot be achieved over night. But the first steps in a clearly marked 20-year route map have to be taken, and a commitment to that route map given.
Fourth, work is crucial to human dignity, the well-functioning of the family as well as the prosperity of the nation. Labour must commit itself to a full employment strategy with higher paying jobs being central to this objective. Part of those jobs will be created by a commitment to build by the end of the Parliament 300,000 social houses each year – the Tory commitment in 1951. A building programme of housing would also be one that strengthens families. It is difficult to survive, let alone thrive, in the semi-slum conditions into which all too many families are now condemned. ​

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