How can Labour win back lost voters?

1:07 pm - October 23rd 2012

by Don Paskini    

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According to analysis from Peter Kellner, president of YouGov, there is only one way that Labour can win back the people who stopped supporting it between 1997 and 2010, by reaffirming Tony Blair’s aim to become ‘the political arm of the British people’, ensuring that every policy passes the ‘One Nation’ test, and ensuring that there is no ‘whiff of the politics of social contest’.

Kellner presents this not as another installment in the long-running and popular series amongst bloggers and commentators called ‘to win the next election, Labour must do all the things which I personally like’, but as an evidence based argument rooted in polling data.

The first half of his article is an overview of some of the findings from YouGov’s research. This suggests that Labour has won back most of the left wingers who stopped supporting it by 2010, but has had less success with people on the centre or right, many of whom are from similar social backgrounds but are currently undecided and have low opinions of all the parties.

This is a useful insight, though one thing which he doesn’t mention is that Labour’s current level of support would be comfortably enough to win the next General Election. YouGov’s data doesn’t shed any light on whether appealing to undecided centrist and centre right voters might come at the cost of losing support amongst left wingers.

In the second half of his article, he moves on from the evidence based arguments to assertions that Labour should do the things which he personally supports, appealing to what he calls the ‘normal, moderate Sun and Mail reading’ undecided voters not just the ‘aberrant’ Labour loyalists.

For example, he argues that Labour should ‘reject the language of ideology, class and social division, and revive the appeal of national purpose’. Yet YouGov’s polling found that 58% of Labour ‘defectors’ would favour a law limiting maximum pay to £1 million. Kellner argues that any attempts to pitch ‘our people’ against ‘their people’ would do immense harm. Yet YouGov found that 78% of Labour ‘defectors’ and 67% of Labour ‘loyalists’ want net immigration reduced to zero. There is little if any link between the evidence presented and the conclusions which he draws.

One interesting bit of Kellner’s article is his argument that overall British politics has become largely consensual, and that the political classes are more divided than the establishment. I’m not convinced about this, given that the perception of many voters is the opposite, that politicians are ‘all the same’, and many of the policies supported by a majority of voters, from salary caps to zero net immigration, are ones which are opposed by most MPs. But it would be useful to learn more about where and to what extent there is ‘common ground’ between most voters about what should be done.

He makes some strong points about the limitations of a traditional left wing approach, noting how changes in the British economy and society and decline of working class institutions make this strategy less effective than it would have been in the past.

Overall, though, Kellner’s article doesn’t make a convincing, evidence based case that there is one correct way to win back the voters which Labour lost between 1997 and 2010. He seems to think that Labour should be aiming to reassemble the coalition of support which secured them a 1997 style landslide, which doesn’t seem awfully realistic (Labour is not, for example, going to win half the seats in Hertfordshire at the next election).

In the run up to the 1997 election, Labour’s strategy focused on attempting to win a forty or so seat majority, and focused its policies, messages and organisation to that end. That seems like a much more realistic aim than the one which Kellner proposes, and his article is of very limited use in trying to work out how to turn that aim into practice.

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About the author
Don Paskini is deputy-editor of LC. He also blogs at donpaskini. He is on twitter as @donpaskini
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Reader comments

Kellner is the kind of quisling ‘friend’ that the centre left sorely doesnt need (see also: Rob Marchant, Dan Hodges, PLP Blairite ultras etc)

How on earth could you limit ‘pay’?
What is pay anyway?

Salary, discretionary bonus, one-off bonus, share options, performance-related share options, membership of an EIS, other employee benfits, equity growth, dividends, pension growth, capital gains, asset value growth, yada yada yada.

I’m not in the top 2%, but really…

I suspect that invocations of Tony Blair are more likely to become a millstone for Labour than a means of resurrection. Between the elections of 1997 and 2010, Labour lost 5 million votes, 4 million of those 5 million votes were lost between the elections of 1997 and 2005 when Blair was PM.

New Labour’s commitment to maintaining “light touch” regulation of the banking sector owed more to the clamour from Conservatives for ever more Deregulation than to any analysis of what was actually happening in financial markets.

Labour in government disappointed its supporters by its lamentable records on promoting social mobility and achieving a more equitable distribution of income, indices of social well-being where Britain compares unfavourably with peer-group countries in Western Europe. It was hardly a hallmark of radical government to have achieved the top-spot in the league of per capita prison populations in Western Europe.

4. Chaise Guevara

Who on Earth calls Mail-readers “normal and moderate”?

5. James from Durham

Chaise – Other Mail Readers? EDL members?

6. Chaise Guevara

@ 3 Bob B

“I suspect that invocations of Tony Blair are more likely to become a millstone for Labour than a means of resurrection. Between the elections of 1997 and 2010, Labour lost 5 million votes, 4 million of those 5 million votes were lost between the elections of 1997 and 2005 when Blair was PM.”

How do those numbers stack up against the votes won by Blair in the first place, though?

Who on Earth calls Mail-readers “normal and moderate”?

Normal and moderate Sun readers?

Who on Earth calls Mail-readers “normal and moderate”

My Grandparents read the Mail. I don’t think that they’re especially abnormal.

A thoroughly meretricious reading of the political landscape. And deliberately misleading since the Thatcher/Major period pushed British politics to the right, and the Blair/Brown era did little to push back (witness the vast sluice of money diverted to the private sector via PFI and a range of titanic IT project fails). So Kellner’s ‘analysis’ about polls on voters understanding of what constitutes left and right, and where they place themselves in it, is fundamentally flawed. The sentence ending “the range of opinions held by Labour, Tory and Lib Dem voters is far more similar than the parties, and their media cheerleaders, generally acknowledge” is a deliberate distortion of the truth.

“In the run up to the 1997 election, Labour’s strategy focused on attempting to win a forty or so seat majority, and focused its policies, messages and organisation to that end. That seems like a much more realistic aim than the one which Kellner proposes”

Within this context, it is important to realise that we do not know the landscape for the 2015 election. Will this be an England and Wales election? Will boundary changes go through? Etc. At the very least I would be expecting labour HQ to be designing strategies for various scenario’s based on this, which means hedging their bets somewhat with this.

And also becoming a lot more friendly with the DUP….

My family and I are among those lost Labour voters, ex Labour Party members, ex trade unionists, backing the Labour Party since 1900 when Keir Hardie was elected to represent Aberdare and Merthyr.
We are done with them.
In 1997 a cerebally challenged Oranutang could have defeated John Major’s sleaze ridden Tory Party, instead New Labour fell for the arch manipulator’s spin that only he could lead them to electoral triumph.
Once in power Blair pursued his main and only aim – personal wealth and the weak and greedy New Labour M.P.s were only too happy to help him do it.
Whilst we despise the Tories, we will never again allow ourselves to be taken in by these self-serving scum masquerading as legislators.
Labour betrayed us and we’re not up for forgetting anytime soon.
We’re done with tribal politics, they all have one ambition in common and it isn’t helping the British people.
If there are five honest politicians in Westminster I would be very surprised.

6 Chaise: “How do those numbers stack up against the votes won by Blair in the first place, though?”

In the 1997 general election, at 9.6 million votes, the Conservatives were down about 4½ million votes, compared with their result in the 1992 general election, Labour were up almost 2 million votes at 13.5 million, and the LibDems at 5.2 million were down 0.8 million on their 1992 result.

It’s worth noting that in 1992, the Conservatives with 14 million votes scored a larger total vote than Labour did in 1997. An illuminating insight is that in 1992, up to a week before the election, the polls had been predicting a Labour win. A Labour rally in Sheffield on Wednesday 1 April turned the tide.

Another instructive insight is the relatively low turnouts at the general elections after 1997 by the standards of other elections since WW2:

The low turnouts at those elections can hardly be construed as a sign of overwhelming enthusiasm for Blair and New Labour.

I tend to err on the side of governments losing elections as opposed to oppositions winning them. If there was an election imminent there’s little doubt that Dave and George’s efforts will ensure Labour would win. I suspect they will win in 2015 too.

The problem is what then? Will they present an alternative that will prevent the Tories winning the subsequent election or will they fail and allow a Tory comeback? My concern is that too much New Labour remains that will take the government down a Tory-lite road. Then the public disillusionment and the slow demise of the Labour Party will continue.

” would favour a law limiting maximum pay to £1 million. ”

I am sure in there greed they favour such a law.

3,12 bob b, I hardl yfeel tahtthe tories getting 14.1milion in 1992 yet laobur being ahead in the opnion polls a week before was all down to Sheffield rally, for a start people who were thinking of voting liberal ,didn’t through fear of labour, the polls were innacurate as laobur was in the lead on the eve of voting and the torty press rinted that laobur were going to put the basic rate of tax, up, When we said we weren’t also Labour were 20 plus percent ahead in both 1986 and 1990, so It’s not entirely accurate

regarding the view that labour lst 5 million votes between 1997- 2010, You also know that labour gained 5.2 million votes between 1983 and 1997.

1 So Blairite PLP aren’t what laobur needs, You mean they supported a leader who actually won labour elections,

6 chaise well said

regarding this article, lot’s of left wingers have come back, but will they stay If Ed realises he needs middle england

Would Middle England be reassured afresh at the prospect of another Labour government by a gallery with nostalgic pictures of Tony Blair with President GW Bush, the late Col Gaddafi of Libya and President Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan? I feel confident that the first and last would gladly provide testimonials but that will prove more challenging in the case of Col Gaddafi without Satanic assistance.

18. Chaise Guevara

@ 8 BenSix

“My Grandparents read the Mail. I don’t think that they’re especially abnormal.”

Oh, some people read the Mail mainly for the supplements, or read it for the news but don’t take the editorial line seriously. I myself respect its film reviews.

Apparently about 10% of its readership vote Labour. That’s not an indication of “normalness”, but it does show that not all Mail-readers agree with what they’re reading.

However, when “Mail-readers” are referred to as an archetype – as the quote in the OP seems to do – then it’s referring to the target audience: ignorant, small-minded, resentful people. The target audience is hard-right, which I hope isn’t “normal”. Maybe “Mail-disciple” or something would be more accurate.

Obviously I have no idea what your grandparents are like.

Maybe I’m wrong and he wasn’t using it as an archetype, in which I case I would withdraw my previous comment.

19. Chaise Guevara

@ 12 Bob

Cheers – I always assumed that it was more down to Labour winning votes than the Tories losing them. Although that’s still a lot of minds changed by Blair (and he probably achieved more than that, in terms of dissuading people from voting Tory “to keep Labour out”.

I’m not getting into a debate about how “Blairist” Milliband is, but it’s worth noting that the public perception of his politics can’t be assumed to mirror Blair’s unless he decides to invade Iraq.

You mean, by continuing to betray the many on behalf of the few who benefit from free market capitalism? Bliar’s embrace of neoliberalism at home and neoconservatism abroad made him as right wing as the Tories. It’s up to the new Labour leadership to persuade the English that there are better and more democratic reasons for casting your vote than aspiring to be one of the few who own a mansion and a ferrari.

21. Carina O'Reilly

Don, I think this is a really important area for debate within the Labour Party, but I’m disappointed with this piece for a number of reasons. I should point out that I’m not banging any rightwing drums here – I felt that there were a lot of things lacking from the Blairite position and a lot of opportunities missed for us in government. However, I think we need to try to follow the evidence, rather than letting our instincts guide us past what the electoral and polling evidence is telling us.
You point out that Labour is currently in a position to win the next general election. Yes, if it happened right now. The fact that it isn’t due for several years will be skewing the data in our favour, and it is likely that our lead will shrink in the months and years to come. Moreover, the current level of support is not based on the strong left of centre – take a look at the data on solid Labour supporters’ reading habits and how many of them in fact read the Mail and the Sun rather than the Guardian or the Mirror. The actual number of our traditional ‘core voters’ to appeal to, meanwhile, is shrinking. If we can’t appeal beyond the public sector and council house tenants, we will find that we only have a minority because their numbers are going down steadily and have dropped substantially since 1997 – when they did vote for us despite a manifesto that was by no means particularly left wing, as you may agree.
Moreover, the current Labour leadership is already focusing its attention on the centre ground, and this is what our current numbers reflect. It also doesn’t allow for advantages that parties have in incumbency – so Cambridge for example is much safer for the Lib Dems than national polling data suggests, as can be seen by the last several local election results. This effect will be magnified, not diminished, in a general election.
You say that YouGov doesn’t shed any light on whether appealing to undecided centrist and centre right voters might come at the cost of losing support amongst left wingers. Perhaps not, but the evidence from the past seems to suggest not, to any large scale at any rate. There is plenty of evidence, however, to demonstrate that appealing to parties’ core voters, who would in general vote for you anyway, alienates the centre ground, or at least fails to appeal. See for example Labour at the 1992 election, or the Tories under Michael Howard. Several analysts have recently sought to argue both that the 1992 election represented the last true ‘Socialist’ Labour manifesto, and that Labour needs to move left. This argument seems to defeat itself, based on the evidence available.

You also seem to take issue at loyalists being called aberrant. Sadly, all political activists and loyalists are aberrant, by definition. We are a small minority. Which makes the rest of them normal, again by definition. You also seem to be making assumptions about Kellner’s personal views that aren’t justified by the article, or at least backed up by evidence that Kellner feels the way you assume he does.

Your next points, bolstering that argument, I find very confusing. Limiting maximum pay is quite easily subsumed within a language of national purpose as much as it is ideology and class division – I can imagine it easily being part of a one-nation manifesto. And Kellner is clearly and explicitly referring to the need to think in terms of one nation rather than social contest – the reference to immigration is a bit bizarre and out of context entirely.

As for it being useful to see where there’s common ground, I completely agree. But the evidence Kellner has presented in the article itself does show quite a lot of overlap. I’m not sure what you mean by establishment, as Kellner doesn’t use this word once. However, as you say, some of these policies may well be opposed by MPs, but if that’s the case, I suspect it may be more to do with pragmatism – the art of the possible is in politicians’ minds more than voters I suspect. I am guessing here, though.

Finally, you chastise Kellner for being unrealistic in trying to secure a 1997 style landslide. In fact, from the very beginning, Kellner is pointing out that such a task is impossible, for a start because a chunk of them are dead. Assembling a coalition looks to me to be a lot more realistic than resurrecting the dead.

I do think there is room for a serious debate here – but it has to be based on a serious and comprehensive sifting of the evidence, rather than a counterattack on straw men. I do hope that you’ll contribute to such a debate, as I generally admire and enjoy your writing, but I think that this particular article cuts a lot of corners in doing so.

All parties seem to be vying for votes from the centre. We really need solutions that will solve the problems we face today, not 1997.

Blair may have won three elections in successsion, but anyone would have won had they been up against the tory opposition at the time.

As for the mail, i stopped buying it a few years ago.

Hi Carina,

Thanks for those very thoughtful comments. Some quick responses:

On whether or not there are trade offs between appealing to centre/right undecided voters and keeping lefties, the risk is that we end up losing some who have switched to us since 2010 while failing to win over the currently uncommitted.

For example, it is possible to imagine a scenario in which Labour pledges to stick to Tory spending plans for two years after the next election in order to reassure undecided voters who are worried about Labour’s economic competence. This could lead to loss of support on the left (from people who switched to Labour because they oppose the cuts), while also failing to impress centrists (who take it as an admission that the Tories were taking tough but necessary action on the economy).

Or, it could also be a wild success as in 1997 which reassures the undecided while keeping lefties on side – the key point is that we don’t know and Kellner’s evidence doesn’t tell us anything useful about where the trade offs are.

On incumbency, I agree this is an important factor (though in the specific case of Cambridge, Labour got 43% to 25% for the Lib Dems in the 2012 local elections). All the more reason, perhaps, for Labour to concentrate on firming up the support of the people who are currently planning to support us, rather than chasing after the votes of those who are uncommitted even when the government are deep in mid term blues in an attempt to win a landslide?

I don’t find the particular policy examples which Kellner uses very illuminating, because no political party would adopt them (Hopi Sen wrote a good piece about what daft ideas they are). I do think, though, that if even if Labour sought to portray a cap on maximum pay as ‘one nation’, it would be attacked as an ideological piece of class warfare. Similarly, zero net immigration is a policy designed to pit ‘our people’ against ‘their people’, something which Kellner says would be immensely damaging, and yet which his own polling suggests would be popular.

By ‘establishment’, I’m referring to what Kellner calls the ‘political classes’. I’m still not convinced by his portrayal of a united electorate and divided political classes, but think this is an area worthy of further investigation.

I agree with you that there is room for serious, evidence-based debate here. Apologies if my response came across as cutting corners, but my main frustration with Kellner’s piece is that it seemed like an attempt to shut down debate by claiming that the evidence shows that there is one correct approach, rather than opening it up by presenting what we know, and highlighting where there are areas where we need to try and find out more to determine the best strategy.

24. Man on Clapham Omnibusa

This is really like watching a spinning coin come to rest.
The wild oscillation of politics coming to a consensus. Brings tears to your eyes except for one important fact and that is the world outside. As capitalist organisations continue to concentrate, much needed revenue will increasingly leak from the economy. There will consequently be little financial basis on which to make social policy which will increasingly be selective (including the state pension I suspect) and sparse. Law and order will be key elements of the future state as consensus will ultimately break down. I suggest there will be a natural tendency for politics to steadily move to the right since especially Tories,and maybe all of us, favour risk aversion and rule following over problem solving.

@19 Chaise: “I’m not getting into a debate about how ‘Blairist’ Milliband is”

Which is a very sensible position to take IMO. By occasional reports at the time, there was an unstated convention at the recent Labour Party Conference not to mention the name “Blair”, most likely because that would inevitably lead to noisy, abusive reactions on the part of many present.

As best I can tell, “Blairites” seem not to appreciate that there is a substantial anti-Blair fan club, among potential Labour supporters as well as among floating voters at large, for reasons that extend well beyond the invasion of Iraq.

Try this:

Honderich is also a consequentialist, which partly explains his hatred towards Tony Blair. “He is always asking to be judged by the morality of his intentions,” he spits. “He doesn’t understand that no one cares about his fucking morality. We judge him by the consequences of his actions. In any case, his morality is so muddy and ill-considered. I’m increasingly coming to the opinion that Blair’s main problem is that he’s not very bright.”

Ted Honderich, now retired, was the Grote Professor of Mind and Logic at ICL, a chair once held by Ayer, and by Strawson. Honderich is not the only one to have suggested that Blair wasn’t any too bright. Woy Jenkins and Simon Jenkins have also been reported saying or implying something similar.

Labour can begin to regain votes by understanding something very simple. The last fifteen years have been a time of enormous change in Britain: socially, economically and culturally. The speed of change has left people reeling; they don’t know what to expect, how to plan, what to do, or what is coming round the corner — the benchmarks have shifted dramatically.

For example, things that seemed possible ten years ago, such as being able to afford family housing in your 30s and 40s if you worked hard, now don’t seem possible at all for huge numbers of people under 40. Likewise, the direct cost of higher education to a student has jumped from zero to £9k pa in the space of, what?, ten years? How do people know it will not double again by 2022?

The speed of change has to slow down. People have to be able to vaguely predict what they can expect in five, ten years time; they have to have enough stability in order to be able to make decisions for themselves and their lives.

This requires thought about legislation and regulation of the finance industry, about demographic change, about education, about the taxation structure, about state spend. Talking about a maximum income in this scenario is like arguing over the cost of a handbag held by a model having a nervous breakdown.

Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Don Paskini

    @Bickerrecord just done an article on Kellner's not very evidence based arguments @philbc3

  2. Jason Brickley

    How can Labour win back lost voters?

  3. Paul Wood

    Being less shit & Tory-lite. Not just hoping voters will abandon Gov RT @libcon: How can Labour win back lost voters?

  4. leftlinks

    Liberal Conspiracy – How can Labour win back lost voters?

  5. Andy Hicks

    Excellent: How can Labour win back lost voters? | Liberal Conspiracy via @libcon

  6. Frankie Caldwell MBE

    Excellent: How can Labour win back lost voters? | Liberal Conspiracy via @libcon

  7. Neil Harding

    Excellent: How can Labour win back lost voters? | Liberal Conspiracy via @libcon

  8. Stewart Owadally

    Bit of a weird article on @libcon

  9. Gavin

    Cover up Peter Kellner your false premises are showing, @donpaskini exposes a poor analysis:

  10. BevR

    How can Labour win back lost voters? | Liberal Conspiracy via @libcon

  11. BevR

    How can Labour win back lost voters? | Liberal Conspiracy

  12. AlanW_PoliticsUK

    What can Labour do to win back voters at the next election?…

  13. AlanW_PoliticsUK

    What can Labour do to win back voters at the next election?…

  14. Kellner’s ‘unpalatable truths’ « Though Cowards Flinch

    […] ground is where the votes are. Among the bigger blogs, there was a response piece by the decent Don Paskini over at Liberal Conspiracy, but it started from the dubious premise that, since Labour was already high in the polls, we […]

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