Labour shows the problem with a core vote strategy

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Last week’s British by-elections prompt me to make one of my occasional posts. It is about the bizarre predicament of Britain’s Labour Party and the wider question this poses for the British left.

The first thing to say about Labour is that I am not a neutral observer. As a supporter of the Liberal Democrats I have endured near continuous vitriol from Labour supporters, especially since the coalition government of 2010. It doesn’t help that these Labourites were right to predict disaster for my party – against my constant efforts to look on the bright side. So I take some satisfaction in being right this time. I cannot deny a sense of schadenfreude. Perhaps it takes a victim of delusion to recognise the phenomenon in others – though to be fair quite a few Labourites are in despair rather than delusion.

The immediate fuss is over Labour’s loss to the Conservatives of the Copeland by-election. For an opposition party to lose a seat in these circumstances is nearly unprecedented. Labour did see off a challenge from Ukip in the Stoke by-election on the same day – but they cannot take much comfort from that. Their vote fell, and they only retained the seat because Ukip and the Tories split the anti-Labour vote between them. It was a bit like the Lib Dem by election win in Eastleigh during the coalition, though the margin was much better.

But this fuss is a bit overdone. The main news politically is that Ukip is on the back foot, and the Conservatives seem to be picking up much of their vote. That’s still a big problem for Labour, though: while seeing off a threat from Ukip, the threat from the Tories has become much deadlier.

But the by-elections are only the start of it. It is Labour’s complete lack of political effectiveness since Jeremy Corbyn took over that is behind the criticism. Labour are totally unable to exploit the government’s difficulties over Brexit – a political gift that most opposition parties can only dream of. Just compare the party’s performance to that under John Smith and Tony Blair as the Conservative government pushed through the Maastricht treaty in the 1990s. Labour was then able to put aside its own differences and ambiguities over Europe to harry the Conservatives to near political death. This was an object the lesson in how to be on both sides of the argument at once – one of the chief skills in politics. Labour could unite pro and anti Brexit forces by rallying round a form of soft Brexit – and using every opportunity in Parliament to make the government’s life difficult. Instead Labour’s opposition sounds like whingeing Islington dinner table chat.

And what about opposition to austerity? The government is pressing ahead with cuts, and seems unable to handle a crisis in the NHS and social care. Schools are now under threat. Austerity was supposed to be the rallying cry for Labour under Mr Corbyn, and the basis of a popular revolt – with determined resistance both inside and outside parliament. Labour was going to employ high quality economic minds to develop an alternative narrative. Instead, Labour contents itself with more quiet whingeing, and austerity has dropped way down the list of politically current issues. The economic thinkers who had been commissioned to help the party have been sent on their way.

And Scotland? There was supposed to be a fightback here – but instead the party has fallen back to third place. At his speech to the Scottish Labour conference this weekend Mr Corbyn undermined the Labour’s Scottish leader, Kezia Dugdale, who is attempting to recapture the political initiative from the SNP with a call for a UK wide constitutional convention. Unable to come up with strong political initiatives himself, Mr Corbyn undermines any attempts to do so from anybody else. Politically Labour has stalled.

But a recent poll revealed something quite interesting. It confirmed Labour’s poor standing amongst the country at large, and the lack of confidence in Mr Corbyn, which is felt by over three quarters of the electorate, with remarkably few don’t knows. But among Labour’s remaining supporters, Mr Corbyn has majority support. His position looks secure.

And this reveals a problem for Labour, and the political left generally, that goes beyond Mr Corbyn’s profound lack of political competence. It is the temptation to retreat into your own comfort zone. For Labour, this process started under Ed Miliband, Mr Corbyn’s predecessor. It took the form of the so-called 35% strategy – whereby Labour was supposed to secure power by consolidating its position amongst left-leaning voters, especially those that had supported the Lib Dems, without having to persuade voters that had voted Conservative. They were relying on the idea that the right of centre vote would be split between the Tories, Ukip and coalition-supporting Lib Dems – and hoping that non-voters would rally to the party too. It left them helpless against a surging SNP in Scotland, and an entirely predictable and ruthless Tory campaign to pressure Lib Dem and Ukip voters in marginal seats.

But the idea of staying within your political comfort zone is enticing. The Liberal Democrats are now taking this up under the guise of a “core vote strategy”. This is designed to attract loyal supporters rather than marginal votes. This is more rational for the Lib Dems than it is for Labour, given how low the party’s fortunes have sunk. But neither party will pose a serious challenge to the Tories unless it works out how to appeal to marginal voters too. And neither will they be able to achieve this by forming some form of “progressive” alliance between themselves, with or without the Greens and the SNP.

And that will mean taking core supporters out of their comfort zone. Just where is open for debate. Conventional wisdom has it that this must mean embracing elements of what the left calls “neo-liberalism” – such as marketising public services and holding taxes and public spending down. This isn’t necessarily the case – but the electorate will not be convinced by the traditional left wing idea of accruing power to the centre and declaring “trust us: we are the people.” Political power is not trusted enough for that.

Personally I think Labour needs to embrace devolution of real political power to regions, municipalities and even neighbourhoods, even when it means passing it to opposition parties. This should involve a new constitutional settlement (just as Ms Dugdale advocates). And it includes breaking up central control of such hallowed institutions as the NHS and national public sector deals with trade unions. For Lib Dems I suspect it means developing a new narrative on rights – and the idea that key economic rights (as opposed to basic human rights) must be earned by contribution and residency, rather than being open to all comers. Also the parry’s doctrinaire line on the right to privacy needs to be rethought for the modern age – it feels too much like yesterday’s battle. Both parties needs to break out of the strait-jacket of political correctness and victim culture – while continuing to promote inclusion. And both parties need to think about a future Europe, rather than retreat into its past.

But once the left moves out of its comfort zone, power is there for the taking. The conservative coalition is not robust, and demographics are against it. Brexit will place huge strains on it. Populism will fail. But, alas, there are few signs that the left yet understands what it needs to do.  It may take another disaster.

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9 thoughts on “Labour shows the problem with a core vote strategy”

  1. We are in very turbulent times and it is hard to make sense of what is happening. Your analysis , perhaps surprisingly for a EU-ophile, totally excludes what is happening in the rest of the EU. But we do have to remember that the UK is still an EU country. We really haven’t started to leave yet.

    In Germany, the SPD has lost just about half of its support in the last 30 years. In Greece Pasok has just about ceased to exist. In Spain the PSOE is a shadow of what it was. The Socialists won’t have a hope in the coming French presidential elections. Their candidate won’t even make the run-offs. So I would argue that you need to reanalyse the UK political situation in the wider context of a potentially disintegrating EU.

    If the EU breaks up, and Brexit could be just the start of that process, then future historians will look at how the fault lines split all political parties in Europe, apart from the far right, but will analyse the history in terms of which parties coped better with those splits. It has to be said that, in the UK, the Tories under Mrs May are coping better than the Labour Party at the moment. That probably wouldn’t improve if we had someone like Owen Smith as leader. I’d say they could be worse.

    On the other hand if the EU doesn’t break up, then that must mean that those who want to save the EU will need to recognise that things have to change and will need to admit that fundamental mistakes have been made. I don’t see any signs of this happening though.

    So we’ll just have to see what happens when the dust settles and we do have a Brexit of one form or another. Until then the situation is going to be very fluid as the pros and antis of the Brexit process form some very odd alliances.

    1. Fair challenge Peter. Much as I like to emphasise Britain’s European heritage though, I think the differences between the different countries’ political ways are very important (and not just Britain vs “Continental Europeans” as lazy Britons are wont to do). Still the problem with a gap between traditional working class voters and public sector voters, and a general disillusion with the political establishment are problems that most, if not all, European socialist parties are having to confront.
      But Britain’s FPTP politics gives Labour’s importance particular resonance. It is too weak to win, but strong enough to prevent alternatives getting momentum. It is much harder to get a Syriza going, or the equivalent of Emmanuel Macron. Also Labour’s history with Tony Blair makes it sceptical of charismatic centrist types Renzi and Macron – not without reason.
      But it also means that once Labour finds a centre-left formula that resonates with voters in general, it could take off much more quickly than any equivalent in the other European countries.
      My criticism of Labour on Europe is tactical rather than strategic, though. They don’t have to make up their minds on the key questions it raises to make the government’s life hell. And if they did so, perhaps the standard of public debate on the subject would rise.

      1. I know what you are suggesting sounds plausible but I’m not sure that the situation now is comparable to the early 90’s with the Maastricht Treaty. That Treaty, which led to the establishment of the euro, was a major blunder IMO. But history can be the judge of that. And I do have to say that I wasn’t aware myself at the time just how bad that would turn out to be, so I am writing with the benefit of hindsight.

        I don’t believe you are correct in thinking that the Labour Party could be rallied around the notion of a “soft Brexit” or some sort of Norway type solution. I don’t believe that has much support at all even from previous Remainers. The Leavers will rightly say that a “soft Brexit” is just code for “no-Brexit”. The Blairites and others, as do the Lib Dems, do openly call for no-Brexit. My opinion is that we won’t be able to choose anyway. So it’s probably better to have a clean break and then re-establish ties with the rest of the EU later when passions have cooled and sensible discussion can again prevail. No more talk of punishing the UK for daring to leave in other words!

        The truth is that the Labour Party is hopelessly split on Europe and there is no simple fix or fudge which will do. The cracks are much to wide to paper over even!

        Looking at it logically it would seem better if we had one political grouping on the left who were largely Eurosceptical, in the Bennite and Pre-2015 Corbyn sense, on the EU. Then we could have the right wing of the Labour Party joined up with the Lib Dems, and with maybe some Tories like Ken Clarke, to form a pro-EU Bloc. Then we’d have the present day Tory Party under Mrs May. There’s really no need for a UKIP at all.

        1. Few would make soft Brexit a first preference, though the Leave campaign did appear to offer it as their main option – much as the SNP offered a distinctly soft version of Scots independence. The argument runs that if you combine Leave voters who thought they were voting for soft Brexit, with Remain voters for whom it is a second preference, then you have your majority. But I do share your reservations about it. It is best seen as a transitional step – either to soften the impact of a full Brexit, or as a staging post to rejoining – and that is its political potential.
          Maastricht was very different to Brexit – but it is a useful example how tough political tactics can create strategic space for a political party. In 1992 things looked desperate for Labour. But John Major’s European strategy (starting wit the ERM) caused his complete unravelment. Labour had no coherent strategy of their own – or if they did (to be “at the centre” of the EU) they ignored it. An alternative Labour leadership now (if Corbyn had been locked out and Yvette Cooper had won, perhaps) might have found a similar a way back into political contention, even while Labour left some of its own strategic questions unanswered. Pure speculation, of course. Labour doesn’t have to concede the initiative to the Tories just because (understandably) it is split and does not know what to do. They can still unite around hating the Tories!

  2. My title is a little disingenuous – aimed as it is to those interested in Lib Dem strategy. The problem for Labour is that it has lost traditional working class voters – which were very much part of its core. They have now become marginal voters, open to the attractions of Tories, Ukippers, and maybe one day Lib Dems. Labour are falling back on another part of their core: public sector dependents and many ethnic minority communities. , probably amounting to about 20% of the electorate.

    1. Maybe I should leave this discussion to Lib Dems, but you’re right that Labour has lost a lot of its former working class support. The tendency is mainly to abstain rather than vote Tory though. That’s a step too far for most. There’s a lower psychological barrier to voting UKIP but, even so, it’s a difficult thing to do, even for ex-Labour voters might be passionately anti-EU. The bye-election at Stoke showed that UKIP can’t expect to pick up enough votes from Labour or ex-Labour leave voters.

      But why have they fallen out of love with Labour in the first place? I’d say it is because it previously became too much like the Lib Dems. They aren’t or weren’t a socialist party any longer. Even though the majority of the party and, indeed, the country as a whole favoured such policies as renationalisation of the the utilities and the railways, the Labour Party shied away from all that.

      So the chances of “maybe one day Lib Dems”, at least as far as Labour’s core vote, or former core vote, is concerned, are slim to non-existent in the foreseeable future. The Lib Dems have a much better chance with the many what I would term “progressive liberals” who inhabit the Labour Party. The PLP is full of them and they have to accept responsibility for turning off many former Labour supporters.

      Whey the ex-voters say “they are all the same” they do have a point.

      1. Apparently there is recent polling evidence that Theresa May is less off-putting to working class voters than David Cameron was. According to one survey at least Labour was now neck and neck with the Tories in less-skilled working class voters (for the first time since the data series started in the 1970s – and a comfortable lead amongst the more skilled working classes, though that is not unprecedented. Admittedly both of these results are more a question of Labour weakness than Tory strength, but Tory working class support has never been stronger according to this data. Of course the working classes are a much more complicated thing that the stereotypes we carry in our heads, based on the various people we have met.
        You may well be right that Labour is losing support because they are “too much like the Lib Dems” – though Labour’s highest level of support amongst working classes in recent times (after 1970) was under Tony Blair – even higher than in the early 1970s. I don’t think many people thought he was a socialist! Actually I think the problem was that Labour became too socially liberal – Blair had a bit of a conservative streak (on antisocial behaviour, etc) which went down very well.
        And as for the Lib dems and the working classes (and “progressive liberals”) – I suspect you are right. This is a bit of a family conversation amongst Lib Dems. I really don’t want the Lib Dems to stop even trying to reach out to working class voters. Cosmopolitanism should mean genuine dialogue with everybody, including with people who do not regard themselves as cosmopolitan!

        1. Yes I think you are right about Theresa May. I do have a bit of a problem when writing about the working classes. Do I say ‘we’ or ‘they’?

          My roots are firmly working class, my father was a union official and manual worker, although many would say that my education and subsequent professional carreer has removed me from the ranks of the ‘working class’.

          Nevertheless the basic instincts are still there. I quite like Theresa May even though I disagree with her on many issues. I’m sure many feel the same . She’s proving to be a tough cookie. I quite like Tim Farron too – on a personal level. I’d say he’s got more working class appeal than Nick Clegg. He comes across as a decent sort of person. He needs more exposure on TV though. I’d say many voters would be hard pressed to name the Lib Dem leader at the moment. So, you need to make more of his appeal.

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