It has become received wisdom that Labour’s 2017 general election manifesto was immensely popular and changed the fate of the campaign. This document, apparently leaked days before its official publication in a masterstroke of media management, set the election alight. It contrasted vividly with the Tories’ own vague, inward-looking document.
Compare the reaction among party members and the general public to this year’s manifesto with the shrug which greeted Ed Miliband’s “manifesto for working people.” What people tend to remember most of all about Labour from that bleak campaign was the surreal silliness of Ed Miliband standing in front of Labour’s six key pledges, which had been carved into stone with the intent of enshrining them in the back garden of Number 10 Downing Street.
However, a more analytical reading of the voting patterns at this year’s general election suggests that Labour’s next manifesto needs to be far braver and more radical if it is to appeal to Labour’s core working-class support. Ironically, it seems that much of Labour’s gains among middle class voters came because Labour didn’t pursue a sectarian, hard-left agenda and instead sought to offer vague consensus around issues such as Brexit and education.
This article from “an extremist, not a fanatic”, sheds a great deal of light on the reality of June’s result. The writer begins by making the following point, which is slowly being accepted by the political commentariat, about the changing nature of the voting divide in Britain:
Social class has become less important as an influence upon voting behaviour. This is one under-appreciated feature of last week’s election.
Lord Ashcroft’s polls show that the social class AB split 43%-34% between the Tories and Labour. That meant Corbyn’s Labour got a higher share of the well-off’s vote than Blair’s Labour got in 1997, when it got 31%. Labour’s wins in Kensington and Canterbury are the most spectacular manifestations of this.
The difference between Blair and Corbyn is that Blair did far better than Corbyn among the working class. The DE group split 59-21 for Labour in 1997 but only 45-33 in 2017.
This seems to conflict with decades of conventional wisdom. A so-called “hard left” Labour leader has had support from a wider class base than a so-called “modernizer” who consciously tried for such classless support.
Consider the full implications of this. It was long claimed by many inside and outside of the Labour Party that, in order to recapture the working-class votes it lost between 1997 and 2010, Labour would need to “go back to its roots” and once again become an unashamedly left-wing party of the working class.
It seems, however, that the last two years have done nothing to reverse the trend of working-class voters leaving Labour. On the contrary, we seem to have doubled-down on the problem. Of course, Labour significantly increased its share of the vote between 2015 and 2017. So, how did the party do this if it continued to lose working-class votes?
How can this be? I’d suggest three reasons.
One is Brexit. The ABs voted 57-43 for Remain, whereas the DEs went 64-36 for Leave. May’s hard Brexit thus alienated some ABs, and made Labour’s softer stand on Brexit more attractive.
Secondly, Corbyn’s domestic policy was one of universalism more than sectarian class war. His offer of free childcare and the abolition of university fees appealed to many ABs. By contrast, his failure to promise to raise working tax credits meant he was offering relatively little to the DEs. John Rentoul has a point that Corbyn was insufficiently radical – but therein perhaps lay some of his appeal.
Thirdly, Corbyn’s promise to tax the very rich appealed to those ABs (the majority) earning less than £80,000. Reference group theory implies that people compare themselves with those like themselves. So, someone on say £50,000 a year might ask: “why is that idiot earning twice as much as me when he’s no smarter?” Many ABs, I suspect, are more aware than the DEs that many of the very rich are incompetent rent-seekers rather than the “wealth creators” of Tory myth. A DE voter, on the other hand, has almost no contact with the rich but is instead irritated by benefit claimants.
Does any of this matter? After all, winning elections is a numbers game. It’s about reaching out to more people than the other side. This is what New Labour taught us again and again. So, should it matter that our votes are coming from different social classes than they used to?
Yes, for two reasons. The first is that Labour’s explicit mission is to represent the labour interest in the face of capitalism. It is about securing reciprocity for the working class so as to achieve a more equal society. It is not principally meant to exist in order to ease the worries of the moneyed classes. Yes, Labour needs to appeal to both the working and middle classes, but its primary purpose should be to advance the labour interest.
Second, it should worry us greatly that we are continuing to lose those voters who have made up the core of our electoral support for over a century. Such support is hard-won and even harder to win back once lost. Brexit is a moment of great drama in our history. The kaleidoscope has been shaken and politics is in flux. Once the drama is over, Labour will still need its core vote, as history shows that it cannot depend on the middle classes to vote for it in the sort of numbers that were seen in places like Canterbury this June.
If Labour is serious about securing a more progressive future for the many, not the few, then at the next election we must offer left-behind Britain a more radical vision. Constructive ambiguity about Brexit will be impossible at the next election. Meanwhile, policies like simply scrapping Tuition Fees, while well-meaning, offer far more to middle-class youngsters than they do to their working-class equivalents.
Labour must offer radical policies to provide jobs and housing to DEs and those immediately around them or even continuing gains among the middle classes will count for nothing.