Some of the post-mortems being carried out on Labour's defeat are badly wrong
Overlooked but Decisive: Connecting with England’s Just about Managing classes, a new report from Policy Exchange, has examined the values and political attitudes of all-important C1/C2 voters in 119 ‘permanent’ battleground seats in England. It is essential reading for anyone interested in why Labour lost.
Here is a breakdown of the most important findings of the report from a Labour perspective:
1) Labour is viewed as the party of benefit claimants and trade unionists
Among C1/C2 swing voters Labour has an image problem. But so do the Conservatives; the difference is that Labour’s image problem hurt the party more on polling day. While Labour is seen as the party of people claiming benefits and working in public sector jobs, the Conservatives are viewed as representing rich people and business people. Paradoxically, despite the Conservatives overwhelmingly winning the support of C1/C2 voters at the recent election, Labour were more closely associated with the stated values of these voters – equality, fairness and family. Labour ought to have found it easier to win these voters over; yet it failed to do so.
2) It’s time to stop patronising women with talk about a ‘softer’ approach to politics
C1/C2 men overwhelmingly planned to vote Conservative at the recent election. On the other hand C1/C2 women were split. Yet this had little to do with women being put off by a lack of focus on so-called ‘softer’ issues. C1/C2 women were certainly more interested than men in childcare and the cost of living than men. Women were also more likely to name ‘family’ as their most important concern. Yet they were more concerned than men about immigration, school discipline, weak sentencing and keeping the country safe. Where they were put off by the Conservatives it probably had more to do with tone than substance.
3) ‘Squeezed middle’ voters believe in fairness. But their idea of fairness combines both left and right
Everyone has a preferred explanation as to why Labour suffered such a crushing defeat at the election and everyone’s diagnosis seems, conveniently, to align with their own politics. For those on the left the problem is that Labour wasn’t left-wing enough. If they are ‘modernisers’ or ‘Blairites’ on the other hand, Ed Miliband’s Labour party had ‘veered off to the left’ and wasn’t ‘aspirational enough.
According to the data both are to some extent wrong. Swing voters sit on the right on some issues and on the left on others. They take a tough line on crime and welfare and want less immigration. Yet they take a left-wing approach to NHS funding and structure and private sector involvement in public services. They also want higher taxes on the rich and big business.
These aren’t ‘centrists’ – they take a strong line on most issues; and that line is sometimes on the right and sometimes on the left. It’s difficult with this in mind to maintain that Labour’s problem was a lack of ‘aspiration’. But that doesn’t mean the diagnosis is any more comforting for the left: Labour should take a tougher line on crime and a fairer (perhaps a more contributory) approach to welfare if it wants to win again.
4) The public see the world very differently to political activists
Unlike political activists, swing voters don’t have an all-encompassing ‘worldview’. Instead they are driven by first principles like family, fairness, hard work and decency. They get angry at those seen to be playing the system and they dislike criminals going unpunished. Yet they also believe in the rich paying their fair share recoil from the notion of private companies profiting from public services. To C1 and C2 voters, both of these concerns emanate from the idea of ‘fairness’.
5) Swing voters are politically open-minded – Labour can win them back
Over half (59 per cent) of C1 voters and 56 per cent of C2 voters in marginals often switch between parties. Just because they overwhelmingly voted Conservative at the election just gone does not mean they will do so again in 2020. Looking at the polling, one can perhaps see why the Conservatives won them over so successfully this time around. Top C1/C2 priorities this election were: raising the personal allowance, stopping ‘health tourism’, stricter discipline in schools, increasing free childcare and ensuring the swifter deportation of foreign criminals. That sounds rather like the Conservative manifesto.
It also points to what looks like an error in some of the post-mortems being carried out on Labour’s defeat. Many critics of Ed Miliband have attacked the former Labour leader for abandoning the policies of New Labour. Miliband’s politics were, so the cliché has it, insufficiently ‘aspirational’.
Yet the problem seems to lie elsewhere. A mythology has been created around New Labour which focuses on the economy. Yet New Labour also meant being tough on things like crime and welfare. Look back at the Guardian comment pages between 1997 and 2010 and you will soon get the picture.
At the General Election it wasn’t necessarily that swing voters were worried about Ed Miliband taxing the rich or stamping out aspiration. More likely they were worried about Labour giving a green light to ‘freeloaders’, health tourists and foreign and domestic criminals. Was Ed Miliband tough enough? Hell no he wasn’t tough enough.
James Bloodworth is the editor of Left Foot Forward. Follow him on TwitterLike this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.