Whichever Miliband wins the Labour leadership this afternoon, they are going to face a major challenge connecting Labour with mainstream voters.
If Ed Miliband wins, as the bookies are now predicting, Labour will get a fresh start. Because the former climate secretary is not well know by the public, he can paint a fresh picture on a blank canvass. But his election is going to be caricatured by the right-wing press as Labour lurching left; if David Miliband wins, he will need to retain the support of the media while proving to voters that he leads a united party that has listened to voters about the failures of New Labour.
The result is going to be so close and the contest has been so competitive that a focus on members, rather than voters, has dominated discussion on the left for the last four months. Unlike the Tories, Labour does not have someone like Lord Ashcroft to write an analysis of the last campaign. His latest offering, ‘Minority Verdict’, is as fascinating as his 2005 book ‘Smell the Coffee’.
Without Ashcroft’s resources, the Open Left project at Demos has tried to take an objective look at the result by commissioning YouGov to undertake a poll to understand the outcome of the 2010 General Election. Overall, some 92,733 British adults took part between 5th and 21st May 2010. The raw data is published today on the Open Left website so that others can conduct their own analysis.
Overall, the polling shows us that voters who left Labour at the last election were more likely to have views in common with the mainstream of public opinion than with the voters that stayed with Labour.
Labour’s 2010 coalition of voters is much more comfortable with a bigger, more active state. They are less likely to see public sector cuts as a priority and are more tolerant of immigration; conversely, Labour’s lost voters, who voted for the party in 2005 but did not vote Labour in 2010 are less likely to see the state as a guarantor of fairness through public services, are more likely to see public sector cuts as a priority, and express discomfort with immigration.
Views of the state as a force for good
Polling shows that voters were split on their ‘faith in the state’ and there is no overwhelming small state sentiment among the public. But most importantly, more than one in four (27%) of the voters that Labour lost said they saw government as “part of the problem not the solution”, compared with just over one in ten (14%) of voters that Labour retained.
More than half (54%) of voters who stuck by Labour at the last election consider government to be “a force for good” but among voters that left Labour this view fell to just one in three (33%).
NHS priorities – investment v cuts
Voters were turned off by Labour’s main election message on the need to avoid cuts to public services. When asked about the NHS, a third (33%) of voters Labour retained thought the priority was to “avoid cuts” but among the voters that Labour lost that proportion was just over one in ten (only 13%).
More than half (55%) of voters Labour lost thought that the priority should be to “seek greater efficiency and end top-down control” in the NHS, compared to just under a third (31%) of voters Labour retained. While both Labour and the Conservative Party pledged to protect NHS spending, voters who deserted Labour at the last election felt Government spending had reached or even breached acceptable limits.
Immigration as a “class issue”
Mrs Duffy may have been iconic but polling confirms that immigration was “a class issue”, with social class showing the strongest correlation to concern over immigration. Voters in the lowest social class (E) were almost twice as likely as the highest social class (AB) – 46% to 25% – to want restrictions on economic migrants.
Conversely, those in social class AB are more likely to favour an approach to immigration based on reciprocity. There is a clear social class gradient evident in the data.
Views of immigration by vote at 2010 election
Immigration was a real concern for a small but significant number of voters who deserted Labour at the last election. But the polling also shows that voters remain moderate in their desire for border controls and are more concerned about immigrants making a fair contribution. Once again, Labour’s election message on its policy for a ‘points based’ immigration system failed to connect with voters.
Overall, this polling and other data shows a similar story of disconnection with mainstream voter opinion. On this analysis, Labour has lost the political centre ground and will struggle at the next election without a shift in political positioning.
Labour needs to show they are prepared to cut public spending, that they don’t think the state is the answer to every problem and that they are prepared to protect low paid workers against the insecurity that comes with globalisation. If Labour wishes to create a recipe for returning to power, a bigger or more centralised state is entirely the wrong ingredient.
Labour will need to address voters’ perceptions on immigration but that does not necessarily mean Labour needs stronger border control policies. Labour should position policies on housing, welfare and employment rights in the context of the debates voters themselves are having about immigration. If immigration becomes a ‘no go area’ for Labour, they will remain disconnected from the electorate at large.
Labour needs to be open to the verdict of the electorate and most importantly, must accept that the party needs more than a change of leader to reconnect with the voters they lost. Labour campaigned under the slogan “a future fair for all” but this polling evidence shows that Labour’s campaign only half worked: Labour did manage to deny the Tories the political territory of ‘fairness’ but Labour failed to claim ‘the future’.
The most widely held perceptions of the Labour Party held by people who voted Labour in 2005 but not in 2010 were that the party is “weak” (73%), rather than strong (16%) and “divided” (72%), rather than united (19%). While a change of leader might shift perceptions of ‘weakness’ and ‘division’, the poll actually shows that Gordon Brown had a far better rating for being seen as “strong” compared with the party.
Labour’s biggest problem is being seen as “out of touch”, which will take more than a change of leader to address. Two thirds (66%) of voters that Labour lost at the last election said the party was ‘out of touch’ and more than half (58%) said the party represents “the past” rather than the future. Only 67% of all Labour voters thought Labour was ‘in touch’ while 85% of Tory voters saw the Conservatives as “in touch”. One in four Labour voters actually put their cross in the box while believing Labour was “out of touch”.
On this analysis, Labour’s brand is now in toxic territory. Labour’s new leader is going to need to rebrand the party to reinforce their new policy agenda and signal a clean break from Labour’s past. Most of all, Labour’s new leader needs to show they have listened to disaffected voters, not just party members.