The future of the left since 1884

Labour’s Missing Five Million

Between 1997 and 2010, Labour lost votes in all directions: understanding exactly where they all went is key winning them back. Between 1997 and 2010, Labour lost five million votes. The electoral coalition Labour had carefully nurtured in their 18 wilderness...


Between 1997 and 2010, Labour lost votes in all directions: understanding exactly where they all went is key winning them back.

Between 1997 and 2010, Labour lost five million votes. The electoral coalition Labour had carefully nurtured in their 18 wilderness years fragmented, and with it power was lost. Votes disappeared in all directions: the Conservatives gaining 1.1 million votes, the Lib Dems 1.6 million, the BNP half a million, and 1.6 million votes were lost due to lower turnout. Understanding this disintegration is crucial to formulating a winning electoral strategy that fits with Labour values.

One of the most worrying trends that emerged from Labour’s fractured vote was the steady and disproportionate loss of working class support. In 1997, 60 per cent of those in the lowest social group, DEs, voted Labour. By 2010 it had dropped to 40 per cent. Of C2s, skilled manual workers, by 2010 just 30 per cent voted Labour – down from 50 per cent in 1997. Indeed, in 2010 for the first time ever, more middle class than working class people voted for Labour. This obviously hurt Labour electorally, but also signalled a political rejection by those the Labour Party was formed to represent.

This drop in support should, of course, be balanced against the growing importance of middle class voters, who form the majority of the electorate, and (as polling has shown) a decline in working class self-identity. However, it would be unwise to say that class or, perhaps rather economic status, doesn’t matter. Of the four socio-economic classifications, Labour still retains its biggest support amongst DEs. And it is those lower earners who saw their relative wages stagnate during the New Labour years. It is arguably no coincidence either that it was those of working age who left Labour fastest. Those aged 24-55 (who represent half the electorate) dropped away from Labour twice as much as all other age groups combined.

One of the other trends was a fall in turnout from 1997 to 2010, which is closely related to lower socio-economic status. At the last election, turnout was 20 percentage points lower among DEs than ABs. This political inequality is an issue that should be addressed in and of itself (as Professor Donald Sassoon argues, socialism was not simply an economic cause but also one which sought to democratise society). Lower turnout should concern Labour for electoral reasons as well, with thousands of votes going untapped. This situation is only likely to get worse if the government’s proposals to give people the opportunity to opt-out the electoral register go through. Labour also needs to ensure that it doesn’t become trapped in a downward spiral whereby those in lower socio-economic groups don’t vote as much, so Labour stops shaping policies for them, and as a consequence they don’t turn out to vote.

Such an all-embracing electoral strategy suggests a campaign based not only onjobsand growth, but critically on better pay for those on low and medium wages. Emphasising the need for fair pay and the creation ofjobsperhaps offers a way for Labour to avoid triangulating the Conservatives’ rhetoric around ‘welfare scroungers’, the ‘undeserving poor’ and labour market deregulation.

Whilst winning back votes matters, where they are distributed matters too. Analysis based on 2010 boundaries shows that Labour could not win a majority based solely on sweeping gains from Lib Dem unpopularity. Labour must also seek to win back a proportion of votes that went to the Conservatives or those lost to apathy. This multifaceted strategy seeks to repair Labour’s vote, and not just nationally but also within key marginals. Understanding the needs and aspirations of voters in these marginals and articulating their concerns in common sense values, rather than a shopping list of policies, is also essential to a winning strategy.

With Labour winning just four seats in the south east in 2010, it is easy to conclude that this is why Labour lost and where the marginals must be. However, there is no evidence that Labour suffered worse in the south east than other regions over 13 years. When analysing the percentage point change (Labour’s percentage of the seats regionally in 1997 compared with 2010), Labour lost more heavily in the west midlands, east midlands,Londonand Yorkshire and the Humber than the south east.

Of course Labour needs to win seats in the south but it also has to succeed across other regions inEngland. New Labour’s ‘southern discomfort’ thesis may have made sense in the early 1990s when Labour was associated with defending areas suffering brutal Thatcherite de-industrialisation. However, recent elections suggest a new approach is required. The evidence shows that in 2010 Labour suffered not from ‘southern discomfort’, but rather ‘suburban discomfort’. Labour lost in places such as Bedford, Burton, Bury, Carlisle, Chester, Dudley, Ipswich, Lincoln, Loughborough, Milton Keynes, Northampton, Norwich, Reading, Rugby, Stafford, and Worcester – neither conventionally urban nor rural, nor exclusively in the south. And Labour won southern cities such asLondon,Bristol, Southampton and Plymouth.

The clearest example of this trend was theLondonelections in 2008. Labour lost because Boris Johnson focused his campaign on floating voters in suburbia and won in almost every outerLondonborough. This is not to say that Labour should forget its traditional urban and industrial vote, but seeing Labour’s electoral malaise through this prism allows for a better, more instructive understanding of the lives and issues facing those living beyond our inner cities. This means avoiding the boorish metropolitan snobbishness ofLondon’s elite, and setting out a decent offer for a suburban renaissance that works withBritain’s inner cities.

Understanding why Labour lost is critical to developing a winning strategy for the next election. Re-engaging with the missing five million will demand new thinking about how to connect with those blue collar voters who chose another party, those living or wanting to move to suburbia, and those who have lost faith in the political system. At the same time, Labour needs to keep on board its more affluent supporters who are essential to securing a majority. To make this work, Labour requires more than a carefully crafted electoral strategy and will need to redefine its purpose and vision. Success will, in part, demand articulating Labour values around fair pay, place, social protection and full-employment which can reach both the squeezed middle and those on lower incomes. In these difficult and different times ‘one more heave’ won’t be enough.

Paul Hunter is research director at the Smith Institute

Fabian membership

Join the Fabian Society today and help shape the future of the left

You’ll receive the quarterly Fabian Review and at least four reports or pamphlets each year sent to your door

Be a part of the debate at Fabian conferences and events and join one of our network of local Fabian societies

Join the Fabian Society
Fabian Society

By continuing to use the site, you agree to the use of cookies. more information

The cookie settings on this website are set to "allow cookies" to give you the best browsing experience possible. If you continue to use this website without changing your cookie settings or you click "Accept" below then you are consenting to this.