There will be voters who go to the polls on 7th May 2015 who weren’t alive when Tony and Cherie Blair posed outside 10 Downing Street on 2nd May 1997. They will have no memory of an event which is a moment of history as distant from them as Margaret Thatcher’s 1979 election victory was for the voters of 1997. Tony Blair understood that then: he did not try to win the election that Jim Callaghan lost, nor to reconstruct Harold Wilson’s winning electoral coalition. If Ed Miliband seeks to emulate what Blair did in 1997, he too must build his own political majority for the era in which he seeks to govern.
There are important challenges – especially in rebuilding Labour’s reputation on the economy, and on Miliband establishing himself as a prime minister in waiting with the electorate. But there are also solid reasons why the bookmakers currently make him favourite to win the general election. The Labour leader has a much stronger chance of winning a majority than the Westminster orthodoxy acknowledges. Indeed, the most intelligent Conservative commentators from Lord Ashcroft to Paul Goodman, editor of ConservativeHome, acknowledge that David Cameron faces greater hurdles to secure a majority than Ed Miliband does.
This essay sets out a plausible strategy for Labour’s next majority, one that is secured through winning 40 per cent of the popular vote in May 2015, despite the challenges of a fragmenting electorate. Others have proposed varying theories emphasising this or that voter bloc, but none have drawn together all the strands of an electoral coalition tailored to the leadership of Ed Miliband.
Labour’s next majority means winning over Conservative voters but they are not likely to be the dominant source of the votes Labour needs for a clear victory. To insist that a winning Labour strategy must always and only target Tory switchers is now a matter of political superstition borne of old habits. It is not supported by the psephological evidence for 2015, which is radically different from that of 1997.
Miliband has two great new opportunities that rely on a different strategy. The first is his strong appeal to Lib Dem voters feeling betrayed by the coalition. The second is Labour’s strong focus on new voters and people who didn’t vote in 2010. Put the two together and the electoral coalition needed for a majority begins to take shape.
Sticking with Labour
There is a debate within Labour circles as to what the party’s core base of support is. Optimists argue that 2010 was the lowest it could go whilst pessimists believe support could fall still further.
The answer is that 2010 was Labour’s core vote – but it was a core vote hard fought for and hard won. And each of these votes must be earned again. The organising the party did in seats like Birmingham Edgbaston and Edinburgh South allowed Labour to achieve a 1992 sized share of seats on a 1983 sized share of votes. So come 2015 to retain this core of support the party must understand its 2010 voters in attitudinal and psephological terms and craft its strategy for their retention accordingly.
To establish the starting point for a 40 per cent strategy we must first assess how many of Labour’s 2010 voters will vote Labour again in 2015. This number is reduced by both deaths and defections. Previous Fabian analysis showed that Labour can expect to lose roughly 500,000 voters to death between 2010 and 2015. This is equivalent to a loss of 2 per cent.
The second source of loss for Labour’s 2010 vote comes from defections. In particular, some sceptics argue that Labour’s core vote come 2015 will be diminished due to the loss of those voters biased to favour the governing incumbent. They argue that the stability offered by Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling is not matched by that of Ed Miliband and Ed Balls. But such arguments fail to address the deeply anti-Tory streak of these voters. The re-toxification of the Tory brand (from the millionaires’ tax cut to assaults on the NHS) has only confirmed in their eyes the dangers of Cameron’s Conservatives.
In this respect, Miliband’s ‘same old Tories attack line’ and the work of grassroots activists in caring for existing Labour supporters is critical to ensuring that the overwhelming majority of Labour 2010 voters turn out for the party again come 2015.
Thus combining both generational churn and the anti-Tory nature of the 2010 vote and Labour can look with confidence towards a core vote of at least 27.5 per cent from which it can build.
Winning Liberal Democrat voters
For Labour to reach 40 per cent its biggest share of new supporters will come from the Liberal Democrats. Depending on likely Lib Dem performance, Labour can expect to add anywhere from 3 to 7 points of support. Achieving 40 per cent calls for a 6.5 per cent gain from the Lib Dems – an ambitious but plausible goal given that they are the largest available pool of new supporters who are most attitudinally aligned with the Labour party of Ed Miliband.
The question then becomes: what is the likely Lib Dem showing in 2015 and how much of the ex-Lib Dem vote can Labour claim? With the Lib Dems routinely polling at or around 11 per cent (down from 23.5 per cent in 2010) this may seem a simple task at first but we must assume that a number of current Lib Dem defectors will return to the fold come 2015. Labour must keep the Lib Dem vote to at or under 15 per cent to have a large enough pool of ex-Lib Dem votes to fish in. Labour must then win between 60-75 per cent of these ex-Lib Dem voters. Analysis of polling over the last year shows Labour to routinely be claiming at least 60-66 per cent of ex-Lib Dem support with these voters telling pollsters they are extremely unlikely to switch from Labour come 2015.
As tall an order as this may seem, Labour has two great advantages in achieving this. The first is that, as previous Fabian Society research has demonstrated, Lib Dem converts are closely aligned attitudinally with Labour 2010 voters thanks to the repositioning of Labour on a range of issues (civil liberties, apologizing for the Iraq war etc.) by Ed Miliband. Secondly, as Progress noted in its Marginal Difference report by the leading psephologist Lewis Baston, the Lib Dem vote is efficiently distributed in Conservative versus Labour marginal seats, meaning there is a large pool of available yellow votes to help turn blue seats red in the key battleground seats of 2015.
In order to keep the Lib Dem vote below 15 per cent, Labour must be unrelenting in its attacks not just on the Conservatives, but on the coalition itself. For two years the party’s communications have stressed the phrase ‘Tory-led government’ but such messaging must be careful not to let the Lib Dems off the hook. Explaining the Lib Dems role as the enablers of government cuts, the NHS reorganisation and the millionaires’ tax cut will be important to retaining Labour’s Lib Dem converts.
Combined with Labour’s core support, Lib Dem converts look set to take Labour to the mid-30s and likely largest party status. But Lib Dem converts, whilst necessary, are not sufficient for a Labour majority. For that another large pool of voters is needed.
Non-voters and new voters
New voters represent the second largest pool of supporters required for Labour’s 40 per cent strategy. They are divided into three categories: first time voters newly on the electoral roll, young voters who did not vote in 2010 and working class voters who despite historically self-identifying as Labour have seen declining turnout since 1997.
Labour needs to add at least 5 points to its 2010 showing from this new voter pool. Nearly half of this will come from generational churn, as first time voters replace Labour voters who have left the electoral roll. But the remaining two and half points or so of new voters that Labour needs must come from increasing turnout amongst young voters above the normal rate of churn and by increasing turnout amongst working class voters who sat out the 2010 election.
To achieve this Labour will need a policy offer focusing on making university affordable (in contrast to the coalition’s tripling of tuition fees), tackling record levels of youth unemployment and greatly expanding vocational training. Organisationally, Labour will need to live up to Ed Miliband’s rhetoric of promising “the largest voter registration drive in a generation”, evidence of which is scant to say the least.
In the case of older ‘new’ voters who sat out the 2010 election, Labour will need to deftly handle their concerns on tough issues like immigration and welfare. These voters also worry about Labour on spending and have deep doubts about the power of politics to deliver change.
To re-engage this challenging group, Ed Miliband should draw on Blue Labour-esque ideas like the equal role of responsibility to fairness in Labour’s story, of the role that contribution has to play in welfare and the importance of integration to immigration. In policy terms, the living wage, vocational training, tackling the living standards crisis and the urgent need for cheaper rents and greater housing supply will help Labour make a meaningful offer to what might be called blue collar non-voters.
But policy generosity must be matched with credibility and thus Labour must be prepared to demonstrate how its plans are fully costed and genuinely affordable – by specifying in advance its spending priorities and what the balance will be between cuts in other areas, targeted tax increases and justifiable borrowing for much needed infrastructure like transport and housing.
Organisationally, the party must continue to embrace a return to its community organising roots. The training work conducted by Arnie Graf to reintroduce Labour to low turnout communities not just through leaflets or even canvassing, but through local community campaigns that build local capacity and reconnect the party with communities is essential to strategic success.
It is important to note that the new voter pool proves a far greater challenge then the Lib Dem converts, as the attitudinal convergence between new voters and Labour is weaker then that of ex-Lib Dems and Labour. Furthermore there are splits within the new voter coalition Labour requires: whilst younger voters tend to be socially liberal and progressive (perfect for Ed Miliband’s liberal-left appeal), working class new voters tend to be more socially conservative and have more Conservative party-esque attitudes to issues like welfare, immigration and crime. Lastly, older voters are more likely to be entrenched in their non-voting habit then young voters.
Nonetheless, we can see how the addition of five points of new voters to Ed Miliband’s electoral coalition takes Labour to within touching distance of 40 per cent and in all likelihood a technical majority.
To reach 40 per cent and a working majority Labour must win one point from the Conservative party. This is the smallest percentage of new support Miliband must win over but it comes from the smallest available pool. Nonetheless, it is essential to Miliband’s hopes for a working majority.
The reason why these numbers are as small as they are essential is two-fold. Firstly, it is to do with the available pool of prospective blue to red converts. Even during this current period of midterm strife for the government, only around 4 per cent of 2010 Conservative voters have currently switched to Labour. Contrast that with a potential pool of 10-13 points of Lib Dem 2010 voters or 4-8 per cent of potential new voters for Labour.
Secondly, the Tories’ inevitable bombardment on issues like welfare, immigration, borrowing, taxation, the deficit and ‘prime ministerialness’ will take its toll. Labour can expect to see blue to red converts and considerers switch back to the blues the closer the election comes.
But to retain just one point of these Conservative converts, Labour can play on Cameron’s re-toxification of the Tory brand. Miliband can make the case to these voters that whilst they understandably gave Cameron a chance in 2010 when they thought Labour was out of touch and the Conservatives had truly changed, the government’s record gives the lie to Cameron’s old promises. It is for these voters that the ‘same old Tories’ line may prove most salient.
This sliver of ex-Conservative voters, when combined with the larger pools of ex-Lib Dems and new voters, will deliver Ed Miliband a working majority of roughly 20 seats.
How the voters we pursue shape the government we get
Taken together we can see how an electoral coalition of Labour 2010 voters combined with large numbers of ex LibDems and new voters alongside a carefully targeted slice of 2010 Conservative voters amounts to 40 per cent and thus a majority. This coalition can be summed up as the fusion of progressive, liberal middle class voters and working class small c-conservative working class voters.
The message, policy, organisation and leadership that will deliver this election coalition will not be easy for Labour but must be embraced if 40 per cent is to be achieved. In practice this means the following: in messaging, ‘one nation’ must move from being an answer in search of a question to become a coherent response to the deliberately divisive politics of a Conservative party that gleefully pits people against one and other. In policy, Labour must offer the ‘bright primary colours’ that Jon Cruddas spoke of when Miliband originally appointed him to lead the policy review. Specifically this means proposing a short but radical manifesto that focuses on a few big ideas like a million affordable homes in one parliament, the integration of social care and the NHS, universal childcare and renationalising the railways. And in organisation it means a Labour party of hundreds of thousands of activists having millions of conversations with voters rather than a desiccated machine of a few tens of thousands delivering leaflets read less by voters then pizza offers.
Because for Labour to fuse a coalition of white collar and blue collar voters together to win 40 per cent it must combine policy and politics in a movement which excites mass participation. Hence the need for big ideas to mobilise around, because movements aren’t fuelled by small politics.
Obviously a coalition that demands us to include both liberal, middle class voters and small c-conservative working class voters will require an extremely careful balancing act. Miliband must show non-voting C2DEs that he shares their concerns whilst not engaging in the kind of populist rhetoric that may lose him critical liberal ABC1 support. So too on welfare Miliband has made strong running by linking the idea of responsibility at the top and the bottom of society, connecting unjustified bankers bonuses with those who abuse the welfare system.
However, the combination of the great recession, the creation of the coalition and the living standards crisis, presents common problems shared by both of these groups. Progressive liberal middle class voters find themselves struggling with the same questions over bills and making ends meet as small c-conservative working class voters in a way that they never did in the heady days of New Labour. This provides Ed Miliband with the opportunity to present a common politics that appeals to both very different groups. Because the problems are the same, the solutions can be the same.
Critical to this argument is an understanding that just targeting one voter bloc will not work. Rather, Labour needs an all-of-the-above strategy in which all the building blocks come together to win Ed Miliband his majority. This strategy calls for Labour to prioritise Lib Dem votes but also requires the addition of some Tories and a large measure of new voters too.
In 1997 a swing voter strategy was as logical as it was efficacious. That is no longer the case. As that great arguer of numbers John Maynard Keynes once said: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?”
Well, when the numbers change, I change my strategy. What do you do?