How Labour can win Tory voters in 2015

Tory voters are defecting. The problem is that only a fifth of these defectors are switching their allegiance to Labour.

According to polling by Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft, Labour is failing to sufficiently attract disaffected 2010 Tory voters.

Less than one in five of those who voted Tory in 2010 but won’t do so in 2015 have switched to Labour or the Lib Dems.

As Andrew Rawnsley wrote in Sunday’s Observer, this a measure of Labour failure:

“Labour is doing badly at taking voters directly from the Tories, a major drag on Labour’s prospects that Ed Miliband would be sensible to address this year.”

Tory voters are certainly defecting. The problem is that the defectors are rarely switching their allegiance to Labour.

However uncomfortable it may be, the first port of call in addressing this must be to formulate at least some policies that are likely to attract soft Tory voters. With next year’s election looking as if it could be as closely fought as the last one, the more of these that Labour can attract the better the party’s chances of an overall majority.

With this in mind, here are three suggestions aimed at winning over disillusioned Tories.

1) Start talking about contributory welfare again

Along with immigration, the Tories are way ahead of Labour on welfare, with 53 per cent of those questioned in a recent poll supporting coalition changes to the benefits system and only a quarter (27 per cent) opposing the changes.

According to the Guardian, the only groups of voters who were against the government’s changes “were likely to be Labour supporters, indicating that the party was not well placed to win over floating voters on the issues”.

There is of course a danger that in attempting to counteract thise narrative Labour becomes embroiled in race to the bottom on welfare. This means that any ostensibly punitive measure should contain a progressive element. The compulsory jobs guarantee is a great start, but the electorate what more – many remain sceptical as to where the jobs are going to come from in the first place.

Last year the Labour Party looked briefly at restoring the contributory principle to welfare but has hardly talked about it since. It’s difficult to understand why, when it seemed to chime so well with public concerns.

Overall people are still broadly supportive of the welfare state, but that support is undermined when there is a perception that the system is unfair. A great way to address this is to ensure that those who have paid the most in get the most out when they fall upon hard times.

It could be argued that this separates the ‘deserving’ from the ‘undeserving’ poor; but it’s hard to see how the accusation can be avoided: are we really saying that contribution makes no difference?

Last year Demos published proposals on this which would arguably have significant appeal. The government could pay higher benefits to those with strong work records (around £95 per week job seekers allowance) and retain the £71.70 that everyone gets at the moment for others regardless of their employment record.

Leaving the benefits system unreformed is what allows the Tories to come in and slash and burn with their ideological axe. Fairness should be Labour’s territory.

2) Employ extra immigration officers

The debate on immigration has become increasingly toxic. People who see migration as a problem outweigh those who see it as opportunity by 64 to 29 per cent. 40 per cent of Labour party supporters think immigration is bad for the economy and 36 per cent believe it is good for the economy. A little more encouragingly, 41 per cent think immigration is good for British culture compared to 40 per cent who see it as bad.

Thoroughly depressing stuff, all the same.

Short of leaving the EU, there is very little either the Tories or Labour can do to reduce EU migration. In terms of the economy, there are also few reasons why as a country we’d even want to. Migrants contribute far more in taxes than they take in benefits, and the average migrant is young, well-educated and willing to do unglamorous jobs which British employers say they find hard to fill.

As well as legal EU migration, the public are also concerned about illegal immigration, however; and it is here that Labour has scope to be ‘tough’ without damaging the economy or flouting EU laws. As Atul Hatwal recently suggested on Labour Uncut (p128), a good way to do this would be to promise more immigration officers (he suggests 8,000) to help rebuild trust in the immigration system. According to polling for the website, illegal immigration was a far bigger concern (p 128) than the numbers legally migrating to the UK – by 60 per cent to 23 per cent.

It is inaccurate to portray the British people as either xenophobic or brainwashed by reactionary tabloids. People tend to have a positive view of migrants in their locality or on an individual basis, but they want to know that the system is fair. That means ensuring that those who are in the country have a right to be in the country.

3) Guarantee a referendum on Europe

There are a number of people in the Labour party and on the left in general who would like Ed Miliband to promise a referendum on Europe. There are probably more, however, who would strongly caution against it.

While we at Left Foot Forward believe strongly in the European project, we also recognise that there is work to be done in democratising the EU. As a starting point this obviously involves giving the British people a say over whether to remain in the EU or go it alone.

Democracy should be the natural territory of the Left, and we shouldn’t allow the Right to paint themselves as the defenders of the ‘common man’ against the bureaucrats. The EU is something we should support; but it must be a thoroughly democratic EU, rather than a bureaucratic one.

The left should be constantly looking to push democracy beyond the confines of 19th century liberalism. That applies just as much to so-called ‘progressive’ institutions. An EU referendum would be a good start.

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