During the first leadership contest in 2015, one of the most pressing questions to all candidates was ‘how will you ensure a Labour victory at the next election?’ It was clear that none of the candidates had a ready answer. However, two competing narratives soon became fairly obvious; Labour could win power, not by going after Tory votes, but by A. securing the votes of those who didn’t vote and B. Wining back votes Labour lost to the SNP, UKIP, the Greens and even picking up a few Liberal Democrats along the way.
All through the campaign and in the subsequent 18 months, this has been a rallying cry especially for many Jeremy Corny supporters, that winning over those voters (and non-voters) is enough to secure a majority and that going after those who voted conservative is a non-starter, both practically and principally: Labour after all can’t afford to appear ‘Tory-lite. ‘
The purpose of this article is not to critique the idea of winning over non-voters. This has been debunked elsewhere by other people. The idea of there being latent support for socialism amongst the non-voting electorate is simplistic at best. The aim is to look at the second argument: wining over voters of other parties is sufficient for victory.
Let’s look at this argument: firstly, this implies that many of the people who voted for UKIP, The SNP, Greens and Lib Dems are all comprised of voters who would have liked to have voted for us, but felt they couldn’t, the main reason made is that we were too similar to the Conservatives on austerity.
Firstly, the argument that Labour was not left wing enough is debunked by statistical data form the British Election Survey (BES). It asked respondents to place Labour on a left-right-wing axis, with 0 being very left wing and 10 being very right wing. Their findings show Labour sat fairly firmly on the left of centre of the spectrum around 3. Indeed, the BES survey showed that there was little statistical change in voting labour if the party was very left wing (0) or slightly left of centre (4). It only really begins to tale of when the party moves to around the (5) mark on the scale. Therefore, once again, the idea of latent support for radical left politics amongst voters for minor parties is, again, misleading.
This leads us onto the next point: that these minor parties primarily drew their support from Labour and that winning it back will help us. In regards to the Lib Dems, this is automatically nullified by the fact that they lost around 2/3rds of their votes from 2010. As the below graph from Electoral Calculus shows, Labour made deep inroads into the Lib Dem vote in 2015, with some 30% of their 2010 voters defecting. Labours task therefore needs to be retaining these voters, as the remaining Lib Dem voters are likely to be the dedicated supporters, whilst their floating voters may well stick with other parties.
This leads us nicely onto the Greens. An argument even more commonly associated with the Greens is that they took many left-wing voters who disliked our stance on the economy and Trident. This also is very simplistic and is not reflective on the data. The House of Commons briefing paper on the 2015 general election shows Green support was disproportionality located in the South and in central London.
Marginal seats in the Midlands and across the north saw minimal green presence. As the below flow chart shows, a disproportionate number of Green voters came from the liberal Democrats. This can also be reflected in the fact that In University towns across the country, the Green vote surged at the expense of the Lib Dems, largely down of Nick Clegg’s broken promise on tuition fees.
However, whilst the case for trying to win over left-wing greens is more plausible, there are two things to bear in mind. Firstly, as noted, the green vote came in either very strong tory areas, or in areas where the labour vote was fairly secure, such as Oxford east, Cambridge etc. Pilling up voters in safe seats is not helpful in our FPTP system.
Secondly, relating to this, examining current polling on Britain elects shows that support for the Greens remains stubbornly persistent at around 4%. There has therefore been no collapse in the Green vote. There could be several explanations for this, but one is that many of the former Liberals who defected in 2015 have now set up home, especially as the Greens are a very liberal, very pro-EU party and the Lib Dems remain tarnished by the legacy of coalition. It is therefore not Labour that needs to court Greens; that is Tim Farron’s job if he hopes to rebuild the Lib Dems coalition.
Let’s talk about UKIP. This is very good ground for myself as I’m writing my dissertation on them. Put simply, the idea that UKIP is comprised of, and houses, a reservoir of support for Labour is not accurate. Mathew Goodwin and Rob Ford, in their excellent (and highly recommended book) Revolt on the Right (2014) make the case that UKIP is a long term threat to Labour voters because of its appeal to the working class. The evidence from 2015 shows that this is not the case. Firstly, referring back to the flow chart above, UKIP took most of their new votes from the Conservatives, with labour loosing less votes to UKIP than it did to the Tories.
A YouGov poll conducted a few weeks before polling day showed that around 40% of people intending to vote UIP were Tory voters in 2010, with around equal numbers for the Lib Dems, Labour, 2010 UKIP voters and the BNP. As the House of Commons briefing paper shows, UKIP did the best in Conservative areas whilst doing weakest in areas where the greens were strongest. In marginal constituencies, the Tories recorded big swings amongst voters who defected to UKIP in the 2014 EU Parliament Election, but came back to the fold in 2015.
Post-2015, and once again by looking at average polling, UKIP appears to have lost a significant chunk of its vote to the Conservatives. The recent bye elections in Stoke and Copeland have shown that the ‘Nuttal plan’ of targeting labour voters could well be dead in the water. Whilst Labour should breathe a sigh of relief that its northern heartlands won’t be overrun with purple any time soon, trying to win back the slither of voter from UKIP in order to win a general election is not sufficient on its own.
Finally, the SNP. Here, Labour’s Scottish vote collapsed on a Lib Dem style scale and indeed, winning Scotland back will be important for us to secure a general election victory. However, winning Scotland back was not enough for a victory in 2015, let alone in the future. However, 2 years on from 2015, Labour’s position in Scotland looks nothing short of terrible. Our leader has the lowest approval ratings and we are 14 points behind the Tories on average polling. Labours challenge now appears to be one of survival as opposed to regaining lost ground.
Again, many Labourites have said ‘if only we adopted a more left wing position, we could have beaten the SNP! This, however, does not take into account the the fact that the SNP’s appeal is one based on nationalism, rather than socialism, an appeal only strengthened by the 2014 referendum and, most likely now, by another one in the next few years. In short, winning back Scotland is a very distant prospect, let alone being the key for electoral victory.
Labour’s path back to power cannot be by simply relying on non-voters or the voters of minor parties to push us to victory. Non-voters are unlikely to vote for us, whilst the voters of minor parties didn’t vote for us any way, are geographically in the wrong place and, in the case of Scotland, being swept up in nationalist tide.
We made virtually no inroad in the Conservative vote at the last election, whilst we lost more votes than we gained. If we are to win in crucial marginal eats, we must crack open the Tory voting base. Now how Labour does this is not the focus of this article, but hopefully his has shed some light on the false argument that Labour does not need Tory voters to win; frankly, it needs them more than many might care to admit.
Robert Ford & Mathew Goodwin (2014) Revolt on the Right