Labour needs a new electoral strategy

I’ve written an article for the latest edition of Fabian Review on how Labour needs to rethink its ‘middle Britain’ electoral strategy in light of the changes over the last 15 years in demography, geography, values, and politics.

I argue that “There is scant academic evidence that the focus on ‘Mondeo Man’ worked in electoral terms” and that the “most damning critique of the Middle Britain strategy is that it created no organisation able to support its aim and, instead, haemorrhaged support.” I go on to say:

“Building a new movement will not be easy. But the task will be harder still if the party doesn’t think hard about what has changed since 1992. While the mixed record suggests it would be wrong to continue without questioning the Middle Britain strategy, it would be equally foolish to hark back to a romantic notion of class-consciousness. Changing demography, geography, values, and political reality should all have a bearing on Labour’s next strategy.”

Ed Wallis has some kind words to say about it on Next Left as does Alex Smith on Labour List. The purpose of the essay was not to describe a new strategy but to set out the questions that the Labour party should ask itself in thinking about this election and those to come.

I’d be very interested to hear your views.

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21 Responses to “Labour needs a new electoral strategy”

  1. Will Straw

    I've written for Fabian Review about why Labour should think again about the 'middle Britain' strategy

  2. Mark

    If you want ideas look at France where many of the supporters of the Parti Socialiste are bourgeois professionals. They are quite far from the clichés of leftist workers, the unemployed and state employees.

    Back in Britain, as far as I’m concerned you can forget “Mondeo Man”, the problem is “Gordon Man”. I’m there with collective action, regulated markets and social responsibility. But I can’t get behind Gordon Brown. Whether it’s his odd persona, the disastrous legacy from his time as Chancellor, his frequent bad judgement or his relentless political calculations, Brown is Labour’s biggest liability. No sophisticated analysis is required, “anyone-but-Brown” is a vote winner. I’m sure Cameron knows this too.

  3. Silent Hunter

    How about an election strategy that doesn’t simply seek to re-elect the Labour Party for 5 more years.

    How about something that actually tackles the ABJECT SLEAZE & CORRUPTION that have flourished under “this” Labour Government?

    How about some TRUTH for a change?

    How about a Government that isn’t always looking over your shoulder, or seeking to run your life for you and your family, one that doesn’t beat the crap out of you using their private army, The Met, when you dare to protest in public?

    That would be a bloody start eh? Will.

    Or how about a simple apology to all those voters who in 1997 thought that they had elected a government that actually cared about the people of this country; instead of just electing a bunch of self-serving crooks whose only interest was to feather their own nests.

    There you go Will . . . How does the TRUTH sound to you as an Election Manifesto for Labour?

  4. robvance

    RT @wdjstraw: I've written for Fabian Review about why Labour should think again about the 'middle Britain' strategy

  5. Anne O'Nimmus

    Give us manifesto ideas that at least suggests that “new blood” is breaking in, even (& sometimes especially) if those ideas cancel out some from the past 12 years. Over policing, over recording our lives/whereabouts/activities/etc does not sit well with any part of the electorate.

    Tell us Labour will put the interests of the electorate above the demands of the City or international corporations. That when our taxes are being spent, contractors can’t hide behind “commercial in confidence” because WE are stakeholders (especially as the vast majority of us don’t have the means to avoid/evade tax!).

    Just a bunch of little things like that. I’d feel more positive.

  6. Anon E Mouse

    Mark – Labour are doomed I’m afraid with the useless Gordon Brown at the helm. The moderators at LFF just won’t admit it. They know it in their hearts and the blood letting will occur next year after the election.

    That leadership debate will finish Brown – people on the street *really* detest him. I’ve been an avid follower of politics for 30 years and I’ve never known the dislike people have for him.

    Forget Thatcher, this guy’s in a whole new league of unpopularity and I’m not just on about the fact he’s the least popular PM ever since the polls began.

    Those polls are by people interested in politics. I mean people in pubs, shops, cafes – everywhere really hate him with a passion.

    I’m always ranting in pubs and putting the world to rights but since Brown bullied his way into power I can’t do it any more – everyone agrees labour with Brown are doomed. Serves us right for being weak and allowing no leadership election…

  7. Rory

    In the 2005 General Election, the Conservatives used ‘voter vault’, a software package that enables political parties to pinpoint floating voters by finding out a worrying range of details about their lifestyles, incomes etc. It basically allows them to ignore died-in-the-wool socialists and Conservatives and mercilessly bombard the undecided with tailor-made election literature that they hope will win them their votes. Things didn’t work out too well then, but the Conservatives are fine-tuning this system and are now I believe employing software packages called ‘Merlin’ and ‘Mosaic’.

    As a Tory MP recently put it ‘There’s no point in reminding idiots who keep voting Labour to go out and vote.’

    This is a far cry from the 1970s when Keith Joseph, love him or loathe him, used to go to left-wing polytechnics with the perhaps futile aim of engaging the students in serious debate and winning them over.

    The new tactics in my view make a mockery of democracy. I believe Labour are just as cynical. They are like two companies trying to win as much market share as they can – the election has very little to do with real politics. Unlike companies which care about a shrinking market, the political parties are wholly unconcerned with the decline in voter turnout – as long as they win their share of it, they just don’t care.

  8. Sunder Katwala

    End of Mondeo Man? As society changes, Labour needs to rethink 'middle Britain' says @wdjstraw in Fabian Review

  9. neilrfoster

    RT @wdjstraw: I've written for Fabian Review about why Labour should think again about the 'middle Britain' strategy

  10. steve

    an interesting article with the right call to action “Putting time and energy
    into understanding these shifts is the challenge of the next year”.
    But you confuse the need for an updated electoral tactical campaign and the political offer that is attractive enough to inspire the voter.

    Geographical and demographic targeting makes sensible use of limited resource, however this can only supliment a politcal message that resonates.

    The question of who is going to vote for us, what is appealing to them and is that group large enough to win an election? is different to how should we best organise ourselves and deploy our resource to most effectively get them to vote on poling day?
    Electoral strategy and political strategy are very closely related but not the same thing. We need to examine both in the next decade

  11. tom schuller

    Good to raise these issues, Will. To me the fundamental flaw in the Mondeo man strategy post-97 was that it led to Labour’s value profile becoming so blurred. The profile needed to change in order to cater for the new demographics, and to broaden its appeal, but it became too vague. Much of this, I’m afraid, due to Blair’s basic lack of commitment to recognisable values, just at the point when he could have redefined the whole political and moral tenor of the country.

    Your article points out some of the demographic changes. One of the most important is the ageing of the population. Here’s a key theme on which Labour could take the initiative: sustaining solidarity between the generations. This doesn’t just mean paying higher pensions or providing good care – most of the talk in relation to ‘ageing population’ is puts them in a separate and passive category. It’s about how the wellbeing and success of people of different ages are positively interdependent. Younger generations support older ones in various ways, financially (eg taxes) and personally – and the same is true the other way round. The Left should be thinking creatively about how to stress these interdependencies as a basic feature of a decent and fair society. (Lowering inheritance tax not being a helpful step…)

  12. Richard Blogger

    I think your quote from Joe Moran sums it up:

    the success of the Tories in the 1980s and new Labour in the 1990s had more to do with class de-alignment (the establishment of a broad base of support across classes) than class realignment

    This is partly why the attempt to sue class in the Crewe and Nantwich by-election failed. The British public have moved toward a more class-less system and hence dislike the use of class as a political tool. (Or put it a differently, but with the same result, the British are getting more middle class, making the other ‘classes’ irrelevant.)

    To be frank, the labour party must align itself with those traditionally “middle class” policies (pensions, taxes, education, mortgages, etc) because they affect the majority of people. If the Labour Party shows that it understands the issues in those “middle class” policies the public will treat them as the natural party of power.

  13. Richard Blogger


    Forget Thatcher, this guy’s in a whole new league of unpopularity and I’m not just on about the fact he’s the least popular PM ever since the polls began.

    You cannot be much of a political follower if you think that Brown is disliked more than Thatcher. People rioted to try and oust her, she was so disliked. Yet we do not have civil unrest now. One big difference is that Brown genuinely tries to do the right thing and tries to be even-handed, but Thatcher had a visceral spitefulness, which appealed to some people who thought that her targets needed attacking.

    Brown has his faults (the dithering mainly) but you really must live in a weird world to think that he is disliked more than Thatcher.

  14. Liz McShane

    Richard B – spot on.

    Anon – what Thatcher did really well was unite the whole of the country against her. Some examples of this – The Falklands, The Miners’s Strike, The Poll Tax and I would even dare to say The Hunger Strikes in Ireland. She is in a completely different league – Thank God.

  15. Anon E Mouse

    Liz – The Falklands war was to defend a peace loving British colony attacked by a fascist regime. Coming from Northern Ireland you should understand politics. That comment is below the standards / values of the remarks you normally post – it’s Christmas so I’m not responding to it.

    Richard B – You are seeing the world the way you want to see it, not the way it is. Most of what you say is simply wrong.

    I go from peoples opinions in pubs and the workplace. Brown is the least popular Prime Minister ever. Well at least since the polls began in the 1920’s. The polls clearly show I’m right and you’re wrong.

    In Wales the Tories got more of the popular vote in the European elections – that’s since Lloyd George – so times change.

    The reason there are no riots are because Brown has concocted a fascist police state in Britain. The police are now armed. The government wants to lock people up for 42 days without charge.

    The Met in London shoot unarmed electricians from Brazil and arrest people in advance of crimes being committed (those climate change nutters who were going to picket a power station).

    The met detain people without charge in operations called “kettling” and if someone complains they are battered with shields and batons.

    Oh and if someone tries to get home to watch the football they are beaten to ground by the met who then lie and smear their characters, prevent the ambulance from attending the wretched man and can’t be identified because they remove their numbers from their uniforms and now he’s dead.

    People can’t even take pictures of the police in London any more – that seems like a police state to me. That’s why people don’t riot. They are afraid to.

    A woman was arrested under the terrorism act for trying to read out the names of the war dead at the cenotaph and Walter Wolfgang was arrested under the same act at the Labour conference – he’s 84 btw. His “terrorist” crime? He heckled Jack Straw.

    Oh and Thatcher never started any illegal wars, slavishly sucking up to a rabid republican US president, funded by Brown.

    And how is it even handed to remove 10p tax? And increase NI by 1% next year and on and on.

    The man’s a bullying thug who will be ousted next year and because you have your head buried in the sand I’m afraid it’s going to really whack people like yourself.

    We have treated the British public as fools and we deserve what’s coming.

  16. John Gray

    Interesting article Will but I think that if we ignore (I think it’s now “People Carrier Person” not Mondeo man) the aspirational working class there is a danger that then we will just end up in permanent opposition. They are supposed to be a key part of our core vote. To win we need to get everybody out next year. Yes, do more in terms of social justice and squeeze the rich but we ignore those “who want to get on” at our peril.

    BTW – I think some of the Anons who have posted comments above ought to check out and see what most of us actually think about your views.

  17. Anon E Mouse

    John Gray – Who cares what you think of us? Who are you?

    If you actually believe that we have a cats chance in hell of winning a general election with Brown as leader you are truly delusional.

    People like you have destroyed our core vote – Crewe and Nantwich tells you that. People like you have allowed the Labour conferences to become stage managed freak shows.

    You say I am in the Land of Angry… damn right I am John. What I’d like to know is why aren’t you?

    Why aren’t you raging in anger at what this Labour Party has done to it’s voters?

    All the comments on that blog mention not speaking to or ignoring “nutters” as you describe them. Why not try answering their points?

    Just justify removing the 10p tax band John. Tell me that you think that’s ok because I don’t.

    While the Labour Party has supporters of your ilk with your sycophantic weak views we will deservedly be consigned to opposition. Get angry John – a long time in opposition in awaiting us.

  18. Tom Chance

    I think the most important insight is that Labour shouldn’t rely on outwitting the Conservatives, using tools like Mosaic to target the latest version of the swing voter. It’s unstable and alienates the so-called “base” (which I suspect is itself a plurality of interests). Labour’s failure to connect it’s local party organisation to wider community interests is also more than just a national electoral problem. If you are genuinely concerned to make progressive changes to people’s lives then you need action all the way up from tiny community issues through councils up to Parliament and Millbank. Parachuting an MP into a constituency with a lacklustre local party and little connection to local issues is only going to produce a Parliamentarian, unless you have a very talented constituency politician.

    So yes to pluralism and electoral reform. Trying to simultaneously guarantee a hegemony of the left vote whilst focusing on areas where you have no intention or ability to build a community base just drives instinctively leftist voters who aren’t tribally Labour away. It also really pisses off local community activists who are unaligned, and potential allies in other parties who have to put up with Labour’s own version of “can’t win here” nonsense.

  19. Anon E Mouse

    Tom Chance – You make some fair points but I fear you underestimate the scale of the problem Labour have.

    Because of our behaviour towards people, especially since Blair was forced out, we have alienated whole swathes of the general public towards Labour (New or Old).

    The problem I see it twofold. Firstly we have a severe lack of councillors with all the problems regarding activists that produces.

    Secondly what are activists in marginal seats going to tell the public on the doorstep? Try it where I live in South Wales, traditionally Labour and if you tried to justify Gordon Brown you’d be lynched.

    We need the same type of change that New Labour brought to the party in order to get elected.

    It’ll happen after the next election I’m sure but with Brown in place we have no hope and for the life of me I cannot understand why the activists don’t put the needs of the Party before the needs of Brown and his bullying cohorts and cronies.

  20. willstraw

    Fascinating comments. Thanks to everyone for sharing their thoughts. Here are a few responses from me.

    Core vote vs aspirational voters
    In my view, we clearly need both and, as John Gray points out, aspirational voters should be part of our core vote. But we need to be very careful not to confuse aspirational voters with an ill defined “Middle Britain”, its proxy “Mondeo Man”, or to try and reach this pool through papers like the Daily Mail which is not actually read by many people in the middle 5th of the income distribution anyway.
    We also need to be careful not to court aspirational voters at the expense of the other parts of our core (eg traditional working class or Guardian readers).
    We managed this in 1997 with a manifesto which combined the minimum wage with a ceiling on income tax. But this withered as Blair defined himself against the “forces of conservatism” and made the Warwick agreement on new worker rights appear to be a capitulation to union interests rather than a celebration of the union movement.

    Policies & a message
    Of course, we need these as well but it seems to me that in a democracy, a political party has to start with a set of values, then work out who these values appeal to (the answers to the questions raised in my essay), then seek the policies that meet these voters’ concerns, and finally craft the message/narrative that articulates the policy platform to the target groups.
    Going straight from values to policies without thinking about the audience can lead you to come up with some wonderfully well crafted policies that don’t actually have an audience (and therefore offer no chance of gaining power).
    Tom S’s point here is important. Labour’s values (as articulated on the back of the membership card) could lead to many different policy priorities. But if we know that our audience includes more pensioners now than in 1997 then we need to focus more on policies that meet their concerns eg care.

    The movement
    The greatest failing of new Labour has been its failure to create a vibrant movement. My book “The Change We Need” sets out some of the reasons why I think this has happened but any new electoral strategy has to empower local activists, be more pluralistic to encourage the unaligned community activists that Tom Chance speaks of. The simple economics of a cash-limited campaign means that some use of targeting technologies like Mosaic will be necessary (Obama certainly made use of them to great effect). But this is no substitute for hard work on the doorstep – the Keith Joseph point that Rory raises in instructive here and tallies nice with what Obama also did with his 50-state strategy where he said there were no “no go” areas.

    The leadership question
    Gordon Brown does appear to be an unpopular leader and, as someone who worked as a civil servant for the Treasury during his final 4 years there, I have been disappointed by the lack of vision and decisiveness about where to take the party. But to say that he is the most unpopular party leader since records began is plain wrong. UK polling report shows that his unpopularity has come down from -60 in the summer of 2008 to -40 now. This is the same level that Blair was at from 2005-07:
    It is also lower than the -55 that Thatcher suffered during her final year in office. Major was at -50 for much of 1993-95:
    Those who advocated removing Brown now often suggest that doing so would save Labour 30+ seats because polling shows that this is the bounce that AJ or David M would deliver. But would the public (in practice rather than theory) really tolerate a second leadership change in 3 years. And what if someone less popular became leader?
    So in my humble opinion, we are where we are with the leadership and we now need to rally for the election.

  21. Anon E Mouse

    Will – Popularity, like I said and your figures confirm, Brown is the least popular PM ever.

    Alun Johnson I may vote for – Miliband no way – he is everything people dislike about Labour – careerists without a clue about the real world.

    The reason you say “we are where we are” is because (for reasons beyond me) you still support Brown.

    Are you afraid of a flying Nokia Mobile phone heading in your direction Will?

    The leadership debates will show what a liability he is.

    What makes me laugh is everyone knows how bad he is and for some reason the elephant in the room is being ignored.

    Labour has lost it’s will to win elections – it smells of desperation in every interview a minister gives.

    Labour should stop being reactive, it looks weak. The Tories have only announced one policy, Inheritance Tax and every time ministers get in front of a camera they go on and on about it.

    The only people who care are the working class vote and not many of those to be honest. Those same working class voters will read the most popular newspaper in the UK and in their demographic – The Sun and that will explain how Labour are about to tax them 1% more in NI.

    That’ll kill the Labour vote for sure and is the reason I think the election will be before May 6th.

    My question to you Will is why not ditch Brown? The man doesn’t deserve any loyalty after the way his bullies, McBride and Co treated members of Labour.

    You say the electorate won’t forgive you for two leaders in three years but they’ll appreciate that more than Brown.

    Why so timid? Why so passive? Why so defeatist? If Labour activists are so ineffective why should anyone have any faith in the party?

    If the Labour party won’t get rid of Brown the electorate will – stop making excuses for the inexcusable and be decisive man.

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