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What would a 40% strategy for Labour look like?

Marcus Roberts


Marcus Roberts’ Fabian pamphlet Labour’s Next Majority: The 40 Per Cent Strategy (Roberts, 2013) offers an ambitious assessment of Labour’s opportunity to build a governing coalition from an increasingly fragmented and apathetic electorate. Here, Renewal gathers reflections from Lewis Baston, Anthony Painter, Emma Burnell and Jeremy Cliffe on Roberts’ work and on the possible roads to a Labour victory in 2015. We also print a response from Roberts replying to their comments.

 

Labour’s next majority: relating strategy to outcome

Lewis Baston, Senior Research Fellow at Democratic Audit

In autumn 2012 I wrote a paper for Progress called Marginal Difference (Baston, 2012), in which, somewhat to my surprise, I found that in many seats Labour’s defeat in 2010 owed little to direct switching from Labour to the Conservatives since 1997 but a lot to the crumbling of Labour’s vote to the Lib Dems, other parties and abstention. Merely recovering Lib Dems lost since 1997, other things being equal, would be enough to make forming a non-Labour government impossible. I argued that to scrape into power, all Labour needs are the left-wing Lib Dems whom Andrew Harrop has labelled ‘Ed’s converts’. To win a comfortable parliamentary majority, Labour will have to knock the Conservative vote down in the more challenging marginal seats, while to win a landslide would require recruiting a large number of people who have not voted in the last few elections.

In Labour’s Next Majority Marcus Roberts fills in some of the detail of what an ‘all of the above’ Labour electoral strategy designed to achieve a working majority would look like. Even in the age of coalition, the alignments of Westminster encourage one to think in two-party terms and not really take on board the full multi-dimensional complexity of the current environment:

• There are small and dwindling numbers of voters who have a gut loyalty to a party.

• Parties’ core supporters are decreasingly able to be simplified into their location within the class system, both because of ‘dealignment’ of parties and class and the increasingly complex reality of class in British society.

• Voters have, and exercise, a wider choice of party than they did before. Minority parties not only attract votes but also exercise a gravitational pull on their larger ideological neighbours, as UKIP does to the Conservatives.

• Turnout is low and variable; party strategy has to account for mobilisation and counter-mobilisation as well as choice; persuading people that voting itself is worthwhile is needed before you ask them to vote for your party.

• The media (including social media) context is bafflingly fast moving and complex compared to the days when giving a few editors knighthoods and intimidating the BBC was enough to get good coverage (although those techniques have not completely fallen out of fashion).

• There seem to be increasingly strong regional and national differences in voting behaviour.

• Perversely, although local party organisation is weaker than ever before, the effect of local campaigning seems if anything to be getting stronger.

In his clearly argued paper, Marcus Roberts has a go at drawing up a modern electoral strategy for Labour. Because of the need to make an argument, he addresses the electorate in discrete chunks, although it is important not to let this become too rigid or else it becomes another version of the failed 1980s ‘rainbow coalition’ approach. Policy demands need to be reconcilable, and there needs to be some glue to keep the coalition stuck together.

The most questionable part of the analysis probably concerns the existing Labour vote. I wonder if Roberts is being a bit too sanguine about Miliband’s Labour keeping the Labour voters of 2010 in 2015, particularly those perspicacious electors who voted Labour on the basis that Brown and Darling were safe pairs of hands in difficult economic times while the inexperienced Cameron and Osborne would make matters worse. While mid-term polling suggests that these people are anti-Tory, their safety-first instincts could well be activated by 2015 if the Tories manage to erase the memory of three years of failure with two years of modest economic growth. In 1979 and 1992 incumbent parties were propped up by ‘safety first’ voters who deserted in droves in the next election. While there were fewer of them in 2010 than either of those elections, Labour cannot take them for granted, and probably needs to scare them about the consequences of an outright Tory majority. While the vast bulk of them remain on board now (86 per cent or so in most YouGov polls), campaigning will be needed to firm up some of the other 14 per cent, and it should be noted that in 1979 the Conservatives only retained 87 per cent of their October 1974 voters. To get 27.5 per cent of the vote (or 17 per cent of the electorate) from this source seems optimistic, particularly given that ‘generational churn’ is accounted for under a different heading.

The assumptions Roberts makes about the 2010 Lib Dem vote seem reasonable. Roberts thinks in terms of Labour taking 6.5 per cent of the (2015) total vote from this source, i.e. about 28 per cent of (2010) Lib Dems (and not much more than a quarter if turnout drops). YouGov’s trackers tend to find the flow from Lib Dem to Labour is stronger than required in the strategy (35 per cent or so). A little slippage from this at election time is to be expected, because some of them will end up voting tactically in seats contested between the Conservatives and Lib Dems, but this will not harm Labour’s position in its target marginals. As I noted in Marginal Difference, there is a (rather specific) group of marginal seats that the Conservatives gained in 2010 despite their vote being lower than it was in 1997, because Labour had shed support to the Lib Dems (Baston, 2012). Recovering these alone would be enough to make forming a non-Labour government impossible.

Roberts’ target for direct conversions from the Conservatives is appropriately modest. If the Conservatives are starting from 37 per cent rather than 42 per cent, one can expect fewer gains from that source. Even in 1997, the recent election with the largest element of direct conversion, the effect was of the order of 1.2 million voters, net – about 1.4 million going from 1992 Conservative to 1997 Labour and about 0.2 million going the other way (Mortimer and Worcester, 1999). The Conservatives made a net gain of around 0.7 million from direct conversion in 1979 (Crewe, 1981). The target of 1 per cent of 2015 voters (given the assumptions Roberts makes about retaining 2010’s voters, let us regard this as net rather than gross) translates into around 0.3 million as the target for 2015. Looking at the figures for direct transfer between the two parties over recent (at the time of writing) YouGov tracker polls, the numbers of direct converts bounce around a bit, as one would expect with sub-samples; at their worst for Labour there is a net transfer to the Tories, at their best a substantial transfer to Labour. In mid-October 2013 the range seemed to be between a net loss of about 170,000 electors to a net gain of 400,000. The task of cementing gains of the sort Roberts proposes, particularly given the candidate-centred approach he suggests, seems realistic, provided that not many people flow in the opposite direction.

Slightly confusingly, Roberts bundles up the physical change in the electorate (‘generational churn’) with retaining 2010 Labour voters. It might have been clearer to discuss this effect under the same heading as ‘new and non-voters’ instead, or even better to separate out previous non-voters entirely. Every election sees a cohort of older voters depart for the great polling station in the sky, and some new voters qualify by means of age or immigration. Broadly, the departing electors are Conservative and low-swing and the incoming are Labour and Lib Dem but more volatile (oddly, in 2013 they seem to be more committed to two-party politics than the middle-aged). The retirement age population of England is currently around 91 per cent white British, while the proportion among the first time voters of 2015 is around 78 per cent. Given the strength of support that BME electors have generally given Labour, the replacement of a cohort of older white voters with one of younger electors (who if they turn out will support Labour) is a plus. Labour’s vote is therefore on a very gently ascending escalator.

The problem is that so few young people seem inclined to turn out at election time, and that the situation seems to have deteriorated sharply during this parliament. Only 12 per cent say they are certain to vote, down from 30 per cent two years ago (Hansard Society, 2013). Persuading young people, and those who did not vote in 2010, to support Labour is a stiff challenge. Somehow, Labour needs to overcome the current culture of futility and cynicism about politics, against a hostile media environment. Many abstainers have sets of policy preferences that are not met in the current party system, such as wanting a more socially responsible capitalism combined with a harsh line on benefits. If one can get their attention, one then needs to steer the political agenda onto territory where they agree with and trust you rather than the other side, and hopefully convince them that voting for you will accomplish some beneficial change.

Some of the Labour voters who abstained in 2010 will return, certainly, but there will also be people moving in the other direction and a high proportion of abstainers are probably unreachable. Locating and talking to the persuadable ones is a formidable task, particularly given the lack of resources available, although the party seems to have grasped that the old techniques will not work. Parenthetically, one of the services performed by the Roberts paper is that it administers another kicking to the ‘traditional’ way of doing voter ID work – while that is fine if starting from 44 per cent, one needs some new techniques if one is starting from 29 per cent.

The prevalence of abstention makes this author wonder whether we should start using shares of the total electorate rather more in election analysis. In 2005, Labour won 35 per cent of a 61 per cent turnout, i.e. 21 per cent of the electorate. 40 per cent of a 60 per cent turnout is 24 per cent, and of a 65 per cent turnout is 26 per cent. Split the difference, and what we are really talking about here is a 25 per cent strategy. But the idea of a ‘25 per cent strategy’ sounds so unambitious (despite the fact that no party has managed it since Labour in 1997) that I am not surprised that Roberts has stuck with percentages of voters rather than electors. One can also hold the thought that the 40 per cent goalposts move with turnout. If our strategy gains the support of 25 per cent of the electorate, this could translate into 41.7 per cent of the vote if turnout is 60 per cent and 38.5 per cent if turnout is 65 per cent.

The components relating to ex-Lib Dems and ex-Tories seem very feasible. The points in the strategy with which I am most uneasy are those relating to mobilising non-voters and retaining the 2010 Labour vote – and making generational churn effective by getting more than 12 per cent of young electors to turn out. These are not so much Labour problems as political system problems, from which Labour happens to suffer most – and they are therefore difficult to tackle.

The other problem arises in the observation at the beginning of this paper concerning the multi-dimensional nature of the strategic environment. Not only does a strategy have to assemble a coalition of supporters, it must also avoid the bear-trap of causing a coalition of opposition to assemble as well. As well as gaining voters from the Tories, Labour’s formula for success in 1997 was to make Conservative-inclined voters who were not going to go all the way and support Labour feel lukewarm enough about Labour to stay at home or vote for a minor party. Skipping forward another four years, Tony Blair’s triumph in 2001 was not to persuade people to vote Labour (10.7 million people did, fewer than the 11.6 million who voted Labour in 1992), but that so few people could be bothered to vote Conservative to stop him (8.4 million, compared to 14.1 million in 1992). A Labour strategy needs to keep an eye on the knock-on consequences among anti-Labour voters; a strategy that mobilises one’s own voters but has an even stronger effect on the other side is counter-productive (as we saw to some extent in 1987 and 1992). But a campaign that de-motivates one’s own side (as in 2001 and 2005) has its risks too. This is not to argue, as some would simplistically have it, that Roberts is pursuing a scary left-wing strategy (he manifestly is not), just that the strategy needs to incorporate this point.

The point of writing about a strategy, as Marcus Roberts has done here, is not that the aims of the strategy have already been accomplished (there has been some obtuse comment to this effect), and sensible strategic planning has room to fall short while succeeding in its basic objective. If the 40 per cent strategy ends up delivering 38 per cent, that is good enough to get Ed Miliband into Downing Street. The problem with the (largely imaginary) ‘35 per cent strategy’ is that it would be a disaster if it fell short and delivered something like 32 per cent (as Conservative core vote strategies did in 2001 and 2005). While this response questions whether 40 per cent will be achieved, aiming for it is entirely sensible and Roberts has made constructive suggestions in terms of policy direction and organisation towards that aim.

 

A single-use only electoral coalition?

Anthony Painter, author of Left Without a Future? Social Justice in Anxious Times (Policy Network, 2013)

The sub-title of ‘Labour’s next majority’ is ‘the 40 per cent strategy’. It is worth pausing on this. Two decades ago such a subtitle would have been a statement of the obvious. Now, in a fractured politics, such a statement sounds like high ambition. Therein lies the rub: getting to 40 per cent, which no party has done since 2001, is extraordinarily hard. In a sense, this makes Marcus Roberts’ report depressingly bold. This is not a reflection on the argument, which is optimistic and lucid. It’s a reflection on the reality of a politics of tribes and fragments. Majoritarian politics is from another world.

Just say that Labour is to get to 40 per cent, does the coalition of voters outlined by Roberts get it there? Perhaps. It is a plausible scenario. The numbers do stack up. It feels like a very shaky, single-use only coalition of support though.

A big portion of Labour voters – somewhere in the 20-30 per cent range – favour Conservative positions on immigration, welfare dependency, and the deficit (and it may not be the same 20-30 per cent in each case). The long-term exodus of many working-class voters from Labour may be paused in 2015 but is likely to resume thereafter. On welfare and immigration, these voters look very like the working-class voters who deserted Labour throughout the 2000s. These non-voters are difficult to win back as, while they do not like or trust the Tories, they do not like or trust Labour either. And if one looks at the detail of current polls, it shows that Labour has lost a few per cent of its 2010 vote already.

Labour’s strategy over the next decade and a half will be to respond to these voters’ economic anxiety, to respect their positions on issues of values and culture, but also to retain a stance of respectful engagement. Roberts’ strategy explicitly encompasses this approach and is right to do so. Ultimately, these voters will fly unless Labour can accelerate its genuine community engagement. Contact democracy is therefore key. If they fly then angry disengagement or mobilisation of class-conscious right-wing populism awaits. Labour’s challenge in 2015 is to secure a temporary truce. But the growing disaffection of working class voters is a major strategic long-term challenge for Labour, as it is for all social democratic parties across Europe.

New and non-voters are very different and, in many ways, diametrically opposed categories. In the case of the Obama coalition, the non-voters were ethnic minorities and the new voters were millennials. There was coherence to the ‘change’ message in majoritarian terms. In the UK context, new voters are more likely to be comfortable with change and non-voters are likely to be deeply insecure about it. Merging hope and fear is not the easiest political strategy. For now, the ‘One Nation’ idea papers over the cracks and the ‘cost of living crisis’ responds to real anxieties. That the Conservative Party seems happy to leave the latter agenda so unconvincingly contested is one of the great current mysteries of the political moment. This rather suggests an unstable situation: the Conservatives will enter the battle very soon if only to defuse it.

The Roberts pamphlet challenges us to think beyond the New Labour coalition of Northern bedrock and Southern/Midlands lower middle classes. It is difficult to think of a recent election that wasn’t won or lost on the basis of footloose Southern voters. This is so ingrained in our political thinking that it is difficult not to see a more plausible strategy that targets these estuary and suburban voters. Their political character has shifted in a post-crash world, so the type of politics that appeals to them is not simply New Labour Mark II. But the parameters are the same: trusted leadership, economic competence, attuned to anxieties about welfare and immigration, a strong commitment to national security, and community safety. These are simply parameters rather than a deterministic political programme.

The Miliband argument could potentially have traction here, but the political strategy pursued thus far has been too negative, oppositional, doom-laden, tactical, and micro to really cut it. ‘One Nation’ promised national leadership but Labour hasn’t managed to reach those political heights. Pocket book politics feels too narrow and retail when there is an opportunity to make an argument for national renewal. I completely concede that such an argument may fail and the self-interest of a frothy economic recovery may prevail. Yet, while Labour is making the political weather on the ‘cost of living crisis’, it feels like the Conservatives will be able to deflect it with a series of tax cuts – to income, petrol and green taxes – and maybe even a counter-intuitive windfall tax and an increase in the national minimum wage. It should be noted, however, that the Conservatives often seem determined not to do the obvious.

If Labour is to hit 40 per cent it really will have to be fl ying politically, in organisational terms, and strategy. The Conservatives have a little more headroom with their lower middle-England strategy as long as they can tempt back their right flank from UKIP. The voters they are looking to persuade seem to be handily distributed in the South-East, South and Midlands marginals. But again, getting to 40 per cent is very hard. Is this Miliband hope-fear coalition any trickier than Cameron’s tradition-modernity coalition? Slightly, yes – but not catastrophically so.

A best guess would place both parties below 40 per cent. The next government will then be decided by the vagaries of the electoral system and the availability of viable coalitions. Majoritarian politics is ill-fitted to anxious and fragmented times. Essentially, the debate is about who can ride a bike with a bent wheel more proficiently. Labour’s Next Majority does a pretty decent job of it.

 

The dangers of ‘field of dreams’ politics

Emma Burnell, representative of Labour’s socialist societies on the National Policy Forum and blogger at http://www.scarletstandard.co.uk

It’s a cliché I know, but we currently exist in politically unchartered territory. The left is finally largely united – if not vocally excited about it – just as the broad alliance that made up the Conservative Party is facing its biggest challenge yet. For the first time in a long time, the right may be splintering.

At the same time, we have a coalition government which – in a few short years – has gone from rose garden vows to bitter and ever more public rows. Into this gap we hope will step the next Labour government, led by Ed Miliband. The question is, how do we translate that hope into the action, messaging and strategy required to achieve this eventual aim? What do Labour need to tell people we will look like in government and who is it we need to convince?

When Marcus Roberts first set out to me what he thought the winning majority for Labour would look like, I instinctively liked it. As a fairly liberal, soft-left Labour loyalist, that worried me. I don’t believe that politics is about what I like. It’s about what the majority of the public want and bringing them together in the same place at the same time to express what they want.

For a long time, the public has either widely rejected what I believe to be important (as a republican, you get used to these things) or the left has failed to come together in a coherent way to give them a substantial offer. Even through the New Labour years, we failed to deliver coherently a strand of left-wing thinking that was electorally viable – thus reinforcing the myth that left-wing ideas are unpopular and centre-left parties that place as much emphasis on the left as the centre are unelectable.

I am also acutely aware of the dangers of what I have termed ‘field of dreams’ politics. A sense that you get frequently from the hard left that revolution is simply a matter of building the right model and waiting for the voters to come. By believing too easily in the Miliband majority the Fabian research was outlining, was I too in danger of believing that all it took was a change in shape – caused by the collapse of the Lib Dems – to finally deliver the longed for but much mocked progressive majority?

The truth – as always – is far more complicated. And to say I needed proof is an understatement. But Marcus has delivered. Labour’s Next Majority develops a strong case for how the Ed Miliband he and I both dedicated a long hot summer to getting elected as leader of the Labour Party can go on to be elected Prime Minister. The numbers are painstakingly worked out and they do stack up. Labour’s leaders now have a blueprint for a successful path to 40 per cent if they choose to follow it.

It will be the choosing to follow it that may cause the most problems. Roberts’ case is delivered much in the style of Ed Miliband’s leadership. It is not demagogic. It does not demand ultimate loyalty; in fact, it may not demand loyalty enough. Like Ed, the confidence of the case is strong but understated. Much like Ed, Roberts is serenely conf dent in his analysis. But he will need outriders and evangelists to ensure that it has the maximum impact that it deserves.

There are many potential pitfalls, but the worst is the potential for indecision. Miliband is – by nature – a coalition builder. His natural instinct after a long, gruelling and occasionally nasty leadership battle was to reach out beyond his supporters to those who had been his greatest critics and to bring them in to the Miliband project – with frequent success, as Ed has become more and more comfortable in asserting leadership rather than simply assuming it. In the latest reshuffle his authority was stamped not by emphasising the old divisions, but by bringing forward a new generation of talent whose defining feature is not their allegiance to old leaders, but their desire for a fresh new approach to politics.

But these admirable qualities can occasionally stymie decision making. The Fabian plan is not the only way forward being offered to Ed, and in fact will be roundly criticised by some for whom it is not radical enough and others for whom it is not centrist enough. To succeed, the plan needs commitment and discipline. It is – as Roberts’ accepts – a high risk/high reward strategy. Those who believe it can and should be the path we take – a group I am pleased to count myself in – must make sure we feel ownership of it and have enough of a stake in its success that we ensure it happens.

Under the smooth surface of left unity, there are still great proxy fights taking place about the role, shape and nature of the Labour Party. This report gives those of us who instinctively believe that the collapse of the Lib Dems gives us a chance to become the government we never had the political space to be from 1997 to 2010 (and who believe that this is political space we can and should be occupying) must now rally together to implement this strategy, to win over both colleagues and the groups of voters so painstakingly identified by Roberts to ensure the success and achievement of Labour’s Next Majority.

 

Mondeo Man rides the bus: Labour’s new electorate

Jeremy Cliffe, Britain political correspondent of The Economist

In his paper Labour’s Next Majority, Marcus Roberts describes the 40 per cent of the electorate on which, he maintains, the Labour Party could build a convincing election victory in 2015. The group is composed as follows. The party’s core vote comprises 27.5 per cent of the electorate. Liberal Democrat voters who could be persuaded to vote Labour make up some 6.5 per cent. Another 5 per cent comes from new voters and non-voters. Conservative voters at the last election provide the final 1 per cent.

Commentators such as Hopi Sen (Sen, 2013), Atul Hatwal (Hatwal, 2013) and Anthony Painter (Painter, 2013) have questioned parts of this argument. Three main objections have emerged. First, critics question Labour’s ability to mobilise the non-voters who, they claim, neither share the party’s outlook, nor repay campaigners’ attentions by turning out at the ballot box. Second, they allege that to give relatively low priority to Conservative voters is to admit defeat on some level. Third, they claim that the coalition proposed by Roberts is doomed to fragmentation.

These points share a common flaw. They imply a static electorate arranged in a bell curve along the left-right spectrum. The merit of Labour’s Next Majority is that it acknowledges the more complicated reality: as the economy, the labour market, and society evolve, so multifarious voter types steadily emerge, fluctuate, and dissolve. Each has distinct priorities, views, and interests. Sometimes the priorities and attitudes of a sufficiently large number of these types partially elide, clearing the way for a successful, unifying electoral proposition.

Labour’s much-mythologised campaign in 1997 was one such occasion. It is widely remembered as the party’s catching-up (under Tony Blair’s reforming leadership) with the social and economic make-up of the country after nearly two decades of lagging behind it. In reality it was something more complicated: the convergence of party and country. The changes of the preceding years – the Lawson boom, the decline of unions, the sale of council houses, the retail explosion, dissolving class identities – had aligned the evolving outlook and interests of ‘Labour’ voters in the North and Scotland with those of newly middle-class and upwardly mobile working-class ‘Conservative’ voters in the Midlands and the urban South. These groups shared (or at least, tolerated) each other’s priorities: schools, hospitals, safe streets, economic stability, and low inflation. Blair, Peter Mandelson, Philip Gould and others precision-targeted messages at groups within this coalition and wove these into an electoral offering that enthused crucial core voters while simultaneously mobilising new camps.

New Labour’s focus on ‘Mondeo Man’ was iconic of this approach. Living in Essex, driving a mid-range family saloon, and owning his own home, this voter sought self-improvement and social mobility; in other words low interest rates and better schools for his children. Blair’s 1997 victory rested on the emergence of sociological types like this (‘Worcester Woman’ being another), and the alignment of their concerns with those of Labour’s essential voters.

Internationally, other recent political successes were similarly contingent on shifting psephological sands. In the United States, George W. Bush’s presidency was founded on the growing significance of social and moral politics (which bound blue-collar voters to traditional Republican ones) over economic issues (which divided these groups). More recently, Barack Obama has won two election victories by sewing together the new leftish patchwork first identified in the 2002 book The Emerging Democratic Majority (Judis and Teixeira, 2002): urban liberals, ethnic minorities, and blue-collar workers. In Germany, Angela Merkel has used the environment (among other topics) as the basis of a new electoral coalition uniting urban and rural voters.

The merit of Labour’s Next Majority, then, is that it ventures an explanation of how social and economic changes are reshaping the British electorate today; and one of the possible electoral coalitions that this produces. It sketches a new electoral landscape defined by stagnant wages, an hourglass economy, rising prices, and the burst credit bubble. Mondeo Man, as it were, cannot afford his petrol bills. These days he rides the bus. According to the charity Shelter, he is also more likely to rent his home than in the past (Jefferys, 2012). Indeed, as a recent BBC survey (Devine and Savage, 2013) demonstrated, Britain’s current economic circumstances are fragmenting the traditional upper-middle-lower class system, creating new groups like the ‘emergent service workers’ and the ‘precariat’.

These changes up-end accepted electoral truisms. Hence the critiques of Labour’s Next Majority: each rests on assumptions about the truths governing British politics that are no longer accurate: ‘do not waste time on non-voters’, ‘Labour wins elections by taking votes from the Tories’, ‘middle-class liberals and blue-collar voters are near-irreconcilable’. The new politics of living standards aligns the interests of different social classes, diminishes the pool of ‘natural’ Tory voters available to Labour, and pushes to the fore issues that resonate with non-voters.

Such is the background to Labour’s next election bid. Whether the party will go into the 2015 campaign with the right messages and policies, and the right ground-work completed in crucial constituencies, is another matter. But initial campaign preparations by Arnie Graf and Iain McNicol, as well as cost-of-living announcements on wages and energy bills by Ed Miliband, suggest that the party is – at the very least – alive to the merits of the strategy that Roberts proposes.

 

‘Riding a bike with a bent wheel’ whilst ‘Mondeo Man rides the bus’: responding to the metaphors and critiques of Baston, Painter, Burnell and Cliffe

Marcus A. Roberts, Deputy General Secretary of the Fabian Society

Politically, I grew increasingly concerned throughout 2013 that the Labour Party was sleep walking into a 35 per cent strategy in which an assumption of victory thanks to Lib Dem defectors was the order of the day. In my assessment, this idea existed because of a curious alliance of convenience between those in the Labour leadership who wanted to cleave to a more comfortable, classic social democratic politics and those in the party who thought that 35 per cent was the maximum result possible under an Ed Miliband leadership. I wanted to challenge both views simultaneously.

So the 40 per cent strategy was conceived as much to win an internal argument as an external one – to try to raise the ambitions of the complacents while challenging critics. The key to achieving this was data. One of my great annoyances with British politics is the extent to which it is dominated by national polls rather than marginal seats analysis (with Lord Ashcroft’s work as the great and noble exception) and untested articles of faith (like ‘the Lobby über alles’). Meanwhile the groundbreaking work of academics in such fields as valence politics (Clarke et al., 2011) or Get Out the Vote studies (Yale University Institution for Social and Policy Studies, 2013) has been ignored by far too many decision-makers and commentariat influencers alike. That’s why the modelling of which voters moving in which directions in what numbers resulting in which seat gains was key to working out a path to a majority. To achieve this I set out to at least offer a sketch of what an actual strategy would entail. That meant dealing, albeit too briefly, with all the main elements of a campaign (candidates, field operations, the leader, communications and policy), not as discrete matters but as components of the pursuit of a numbers-driven strategy.

The idea of picking a win number in each constituency, breaking that number down by voter pool and then determining all campaign activities based upon what will achieve those numbers is now simply good practice on US campaigns but not embedded enough in the UK. The continued resistance to this approach in British politics is one reason why the 40 per cent strategy may suffer in the short term.

Still, by offering a guide both nationally and at the level of marginal seats for the kind of politics and organisation that could create a Miliband majority, and by helping to stir a debate on Labour’s ambitions and choices, I hope to have helped those charged with decision-making, be they a parliamentary candidate, constituency organiser or Brewer’s Green strategist, with ideas and numbers that are useful. I am grateful to each of the respondents for their careful consideration of my report, and to Renewal for making this debate possible, and will now deal with each in turn.

 

Miliband’s majority: criticisms and considerations

Turning first to Anthony Painter’s critique of the strategy as a ‘depressingly bold … single-use only coalition of support’ (the idea that the Miliband coalition will work only for the purposes of 2015 and not thereafter). Painter rightly notes the tendency of many of the most important voters within the strategy (blue collar non-voters and Conservative converts) to ‘favour Conservative positions on immigration, welfare dependency, and the deficit’ and correctly cites ‘contact democracy’ (voter contact through conversation rather than literature) as key to their ballots. This is an area of vulnerability for Labour. For Ed Miliband must make an offer to them that is ‘Blue Labour’ enough that he wins them over whilst not appearing false. In fact, an earlier draft of my paper that I discarded called for micro-targeting and explicit narrow-cast messaging until my colleague Ed Wallis shook me out of such cynicism and urged me to ‘think harder’ to come up with a coherent, bigger politics that could unite middle class progressives and working class conservatives alike.

For the extent to which it is a ‘one-use only’ coalition will be determined by the scale of Miliband’s radicalism. If he embraces a truly transformative politics and leads a great reforming government that tackles the underlying causes of our nation’s problems (housing supply, chronic low pay, price gouging utility and train companies, and public spending that prioritises health-care and welfare over social care and infrastructure), then there is every reason to believe that Miliband can prove worthy of their 2015 trust come 2020. But that policy agenda alone is insufficient unless the means of Miliband government are as radically different from New Labour as his policy agenda. In place of top-down statism, Miliband must embrace in government a politics of partnership between state, private sector, and community alike to make Painter’s idea of ‘contact democracy’ real. For Painter is at his best when he says ‘pocket book politics feels too narrow and retail when there is an opportunity to make an argument for national renewal.’

But this shift in politics does have electoral implications. As Painter noted, ‘in a post-crash world … the type of politics that appeals to them is not simply New Labour Mark II.’ Emma Burnell explores this concept well. She notes that ‘for the first time in a long time, the right may be splintering.’ A fair criticism of my paper is my avoidance of UKIP (another is that at one point in the paper I mistyped the date of the general election!). This was a conscious choice so as to make a positive case for what Labour can do to win, as opposed to how it might exploit Conservative weakness. But the strategic rationale for skipping UKIP was to keep the strategy focus on the things Labour can control. The extent to which UKIP leaches off the Tories is not an area of great influence for Labour strategists, organisers, and candidates, except to the extent that a more blue-collar friendly politics should help suppress UKIP’s inroads into Labour’s own base of support. That said, if there is some day a second report UKIP will be integrated into the modelling.

Burnell is a self-described ‘quite liberal, soft-left Labour loyalist’, who nevertheless gets that elections are less about what we want and more about what the voters want. As such, Burnell tempers her excitement about the Liberal Democrat converts with an understanding
that they form part of the overall coalition (albeit the largest new bloc of support). It is all too easy to be seduced by this bloc alone and dream only of stratagems reliant upon 2010 Labour voters plus Lib Dem switchers. But the hard yards of making One Nation Labour a reality lie in marrying these progressive, often middle class voters with small c-conservative Labour-inclined voters who are far more distrustful of politics at large and Labour in particular. For as Burnell warns: ‘I don’t believe politics is about what I like’ and, in the mark of a good strategist, expresses a healthy scepticism towards any theory that seems to satisfy too many of her predilections, preferring to interrogate the data to get at the truth.

I will reply next to Lewis Baston (the true psephological eminence grise of the Labour Party, whose magisterial work Marginal Difference (Baston, 2012) is seldom far from my thinking on 2015), and specifically to his concern that I am ‘a bit too sanguine about keeping the Labour voters of 2010.’ I would accept that the 2010 Labour vote is not automatically won, but I believe that the Ed Miliband who turned the page on New Labour and apologised for the Iraq War can successfully hold onto the middle class progressives who stuck by Gordon Brown. Equally, the blue collar politics necessary for winning non-voters matched to the community organising work of Arnie Graf-style street politics is well suited to turning out Labour’s housing estate-based vote from 2010 again in 2015. In other words, the same tactics and positions that appeal to new Lib Dem joiners, as well as non-voters and a sliver of Conservatives, should actually mesh well with different elements of Labour’s existing 2010 vote.

I read with relief Baston’s confirmation that my ‘assumptions about the 2010 Lib Dem vote seem reasonable.’ This is important, for as he notes ‘recovering these alone would be enough to make forming a non-Labour government impossible.’ Baston endorses my ‘appropriately modest’ target of roughly 300,000 voters to be gained from the Conservatives through candidate-centred activity, in contrast to the complaints of my cult of ’97 critics, such as the writers of Labour Uncut (Atwal, 2013).

On his final point as to the purpose of strategy itself, Baston helpfully distinguishes between the importance of understanding the difference between a case for what should happen and how it could happen and what will actually happen. The 40 per cent strategy is a means of achieving this result if its prescriptions for politics and campaigning are adhered to. It is not a prophecy of inevitable success if they are ignored.

Jeremy Cliffe continues the interrogation of the critics of my strategy (based on non-voter scepticism, fixation with Tory switchers, and inevitability of voter coalition fragmentation) and notes the ‘common flaw’ of their right/left tunnel vision. Cliffe understands ‘the more complicated reality: as the economy, the labour market and society evolve, so multifarious voter types steadily emerge, fluctuate, and dissolve.’ The day of the swing voter as God has passed for now, as a new coalition of voters stands ready to be shaped. Interestingly, my inspiration for this was less the Obama campaign of 2012 and more the Bush campaign of 2004. Matthew Dowd, a senior Republican strategist, gleaned as early as 2001 that the number of true, genuine swing voters was far smaller than previously thought and was probably in the process of shrinking yet smaller. As such, a politics designed to appeal to a larger coalition of non-voting but naturally-inclined supporters could prove more efficacious than one that attempted to appeal to an ever dwindling band of truly undecideds. The ‘Ed Miliband’ coalition of Labour-inclined voters screwed by the crash and betrayed by the Con-Dem coalition is the result of this approach in UK 2015 terms.

In exploring his metaphor of New Labour’s beloved ‘Mondeo Man’ and his changing fortunes as prosperity turned to austerity (‘he cannot afford his petrol bills. These days he rides the bus’), Cliffe demonstrates his understanding of this key change in electoral politics after the economy has changed. In terms of his international comparisons, though, I feel that the Miliband coalition is closer to Merkel’s voter appeal (a middle class that shares the economic insecurities of the working class) than that of Obama’s ‘coalition of the ascendant’ (ethnic minorities, college educated whites, unmarried women, etc.).

I am also grateful to Cliffe for compiling the wannabe truisms that my strategy sought to debunk: ‘do not waste time on non-voters’, ‘Labour wins elections by taking votes from the Tories’, ‘middle-class liberals and blue-collar voters are near-irreconcilable’. These axioms result in a ‘fight the last war’ mindset antithetical to a successful strategy for future elections.

 

The future of the 40 per cent strategy

So where does the end of 2013 see the 40 per cent strategy? Of Labour’s three general election campaign chiefs only Michael Dugher has explicitly endorsed the community organising tactics of Arnie Graf and called for Labour to pursue ‘a 106-seat strategy and… you need in excess of 40 per cent’ (Angell and Philpot, 2013). Campaign Director Spencer Livermore’s position is opaque, but his data-driven reputation gives me reason to hope for the adoption of a truly numbers-oriented approach. But the challenge for Campaign Strategy chief Douglas Alexander is to shape strategy for the election of 2015 not 2005, with a changed message, policy agenda, and organisational approach. For just as New Labour moved on from the failure of 1979 and the success of 1974, so One Nation Labour must move on from 2010 and 2005 to embrace a scale of electoral change as big as that achieved by Mandelson, Gould, McDonagh, et al.

Beyond the personalities, though, I do worry about the scale of Labour’s policy ambitions and the extent to which there is a mismatch between the diagnosis of the problems besting the British economy and the scale of the solutions offered. Whilst the Cruddas policy review is exploring big ideas like changing public spending from problem mitigation to problem prevention, the propensity of small-bore policy offers on a transactional basis, while good for political sugar highs, won’t fuel the movement politics the 40 per cent strategy needs.

Big majorities need big movements and small offers do not deliver volunteers in the numbers needed to speak to voters in the quantity needed to win in scores of seats. Intellectually, too, there is a danger that Labour is offering what might be considered ‘hundred pound solutions to thousand pound problems’. If the solution to spiralling costs is to cap those costs from rising, but not actually to force their decline, then the problem of too high costs essentially remains. A truly radical left wing supply-side politics, with big changes to the means of delivering change as well as to the purpose of spending itself, is essential to Miliband proving himself worthy of these voters’ trust.

And that’s why this matters electorally: because one more organisational effort embracing everything from big data analytics to community campaigning on issues like the living wage may well bring non-voting blue collar citizens out for a last vote on trust for Labour, but they will not re-elect an Ed Miliband government unless that government actually tackles the root causes of their problems with a radical policy agenda capable of delivering on their concerns about immigration, welfare, and public spending, as well as schools, hospitals, and fairness. Simply put, superior strategy and organisation can get Miliband to Downing Street, but only a radical politics can keep him there.

 

References

Angell, R. and Philpot, R. (2013) ‘The 35 per cent strategy is a myth’, Progress 27.11.2013.

Baston, L. (2012) Marginal Difference: Who Labour Needs to Win and Where, London, Progress.

Clarke, H. et al. (2011) ‘Valence politics and electoral choice in Britain, 2010’, Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties, 21 (2): 237-53.

Crewe, I. (1981) ‘Why the Conservatives won’, in Penniman, H. (ed.) Britain at the Polls, 1979: A Study of the General Election, Washington, American Enterprise Institute.

Devine, F. and Savage, M. (2013) ‘The great British class survey – results’, BBC Science, Knowledge and Learning 3.4.2013.

Hansard Society (2013) Audit of Political Engagement 10, London, Hansard Society.

Hatwal, A. (2013) ‘40 per cent strategy? Nope. Fabian analysis suggests Labour’s current ceiling is actually 32 per cent’, Labour Uncut 14.10.2013.

Jefferys, P. (2013) ‘Do “Mondeo Man” and “Worcester Woman” now rent?’, Shelter Policy Blog 11.12.2012.

Judis, J. and Teixeira, R. (2002) The Emerging Democratic Majority, New York, Scribner.

Mortimer, R. and Worcester, R. (1999) Explaining Labour’s Landslide: How Tony Blair Swept to Victory, London, Politico’s.

Painter, A. (2013) ‘Memo to Labour and the Tories: centrism hasn’t been replaced – it’s just been suspended’, New Statesman 30.9.2013.

Roberts, M. (2013) Labour’s Next Majority: The 40 Per Cent Strategy, London, Fabian Society.

Sen, H. (2013) ‘Labour’s next majority: but why not hegemony?’, Hopi Sen: A Blog from the Backroom 31.10.2013.

Yale University Institution for Social and Policy Studies (2013) Get Out the Vote, Yale University.

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