For those of us whose misery quotas had not yet quite been filled by the two-handed combo of January blues and the (figurative and literal) hangover from 2016, the Fabian Society were on hand to throw a massive wet blanket on any remaining optimism about the new year with “Stuck”, a short, but thoroughly damning, report that could more accurately be titled, “F**ked”.
The key findings of the report, while they are likely to be dismissed by those who wish to bury their heads in the sand and pretend we’re fine in spite of all evidence to the contrary, will not be a surprise to most activists who have been out on the doorstep in the last year.
A poll released on the same morning had headline figures that put Labour on just 24% of support, and Jeremy personally on a rating of just 16%. While the usual caveats apply to an individual poll, this is not the first poll to contain these figures and it’s starting to look alarmingly like a trend.
The reasons for such a bleak showing are laid bare in the Fabian report, but while their analysis is correct, their conclusions and prescriptions are in some cases muddled and in some cases wrong. At times, the report skirts into the territory of diagnosing problems without offering any solutions.
There is a number of claims made in the report that I think need unpacking. Let’s dive in.
So, what’s happening with the Labour vote?
We’re haemorrhaging it. If 2015 represented a rump coalition built out of what remained of loyal Labour voters from 2010/2005, plus whatever Lib Dems we could squeeze by slapping pictures of Cameron and Clegg in the rose garden on everything, what we have now is simply a rump of die-hard tribalists roughly half that size.
What little support we have gained since 2015 has been offset by comparative losses as our traditional base has crumbled to UKIP and our liberal / progressive coalition has fragmented towards the resurgent Lib Dems.
What do we do about that?
We need to broaden our appeal, and move beyond just vague aspirations to actual policies and clear, engaging messaging.
Instead of retreating to our comfort zones, where we always poll well (the NHS and railways, for example), or obsessing with issues where those affected / concerned will most likely vote for us anyway (climate change, zero hours contracts, the bedroom tax), or focusing on mobilising an imaginary army of progressive non-voters, we need to find the big, intersectional issues that all people are concerned about whatever their class or location or age or gender or race.
That means listening to people, on the doorstep, in focus groups and yes, through polls, to pick up what their biggest concerns are and address them through clear, simple messages and big, flagship policies.
We did this so well in 1997, with tangible costed pledges – we need to get back to that culture of making offers that are appealing but have an actual, measurable goal, not just waffly aspirations. Our vision must be one of actual concrete things we want to do, underpinned with sound policy. We will restore waiting list targets. We will cut class sizes. We will build more affordable housing. And so on.
How do the boundary changes look for us?
Really bad. We already have the problem hungover from 2015 that by retreating to comfortable messaging and tired, complacent strategy we are stuck in a rut of consolidating votes in existing areas, rather than gaining votes in marginal areas.
The boundary changes will exacerbate this problem and shift the balance of seats in a way that we will need a massive swing to us, and a convincing poll lead, just to cling onto what we have.
That’s extremely unlikely to happen. Improvement isn’t impossible, but it is, looking at the consistency of polling over the last year, improbable.
Any aspirations at the next GE should, in my view, be confined to a strong defensive action of the seats we hold. Unless there are new seats created where the balance is that a gain is possible even in the face of no national swing, our key seat list and strategy should be entirely focused on holding onto what we have and preventing wipe-out. Spreading ourselves thin and shooting for the impossible, as we did in 2015, would be suicidal.
Can we win back Scotland?
That’s the million dollar question, isn’t it? The electoral relevance of Scotland is overstated, however. Electoral reality is that, even had we won every seat in Scotland in 2015, the Tories would still have had a majority, so from a purely strategic point of view, England matters more. That said, we are unlikely to gain any seats in England, so if we are going to try and be bold, try out new and radical ideas and trial pretty much anything, Scotland is where we should do it. We have nothing to lose there.
It’s clear now that the SNP victory was not down to anti-austerity, but in merely shifting support for independence to the ballot box. This is obvious for two reasons. First, because we are now an avowedly anti-austerity party and have done no better, despite the promise we would being a key plank of Jeremy’s 2015 leadership campaign, and second, because we came third last year not only to the SNP, but also to the pro-austerity Tories.
In my view, we need to be tactically aggressive in Scotland and advance the kind of oppositional protest politics that the Lib Dems do so well in local government. We need to demonise the Tories in London through attacking Brexit, demonise the SNP in Scotland by highlighting broken promises (and a long history of broken promises from when they voted with Thatcher onwards) and put at the centre of our agenda a call for the Tories and Westminster to live up to the promises made during the independence referendum.
That way, we can outflank the SNP on nationalism and the Tories on integrity.
The Fabian report mentions a “firebreak”. What’s that?
While painting a picture of the Labour vote dropping like a stone, the report maintains that Labour will not die out as the electoral system works in such a way to leave it as the largest opposition party, that enough votes remain concentrated in enough seats that we will hang on even if we get as low as 20%.
This is in line with something called “Duverger’s Law”, which states a plurality system such as First Past the Post will aggregate votes in a way that solidifies a two-party system and prevents third parties breaking through, as well as providing a rock or floor of support for the parties that cannot be breached.
There is one small problem with this theory: It’s nonsense.
There is no such thing as an electoral firebreak. Throughout the US Presidential election, the same argument was made against a Clinton defeat, that she had a solid firewall of blue states that would uphold her vote even if she tanked elsewhere. We all know what happened next.
The report acknowledges that we are crumbling support even in swing seats and our support is fragmenting in multiple directions. It acknowledges that we are moving towards a multi-party, less stable politics, and it acknowledges that our polling has rarely been this low this early in the electoral cycle. All these things should undermine a claim that there is a floor to Labour support or that the system will save us.
It’s not hard to believe that the Liberals thought the exact same thing in the early 1920s. Such complacency is a luxury we cannot afford.
What’s the social / cultural axis that the Fabians mention?
In short, the reason we are in trouble. The electoral coalition we need to avoid wipe-out is split between socially and culturally liberal remain voters and socially and culturally conservative leave voters, and this division is further exacerbated by the additional differences in class and geography between them. The Fabians suggest pitching at the centre ground between the two, but as I said in my Brexit article, that’s more or less what we are doing at the moment, and it isn’t working.
In my view, we need to relinquish some of the centralised control on messages and campaigns. That just leads to watered-down policies that appeal nobody. We need not just different strategies for England and Scotland, but regions and seats too, with more flexibility for local ground campaigns and a willingness to listen to candidates and teams in seats more when they say something isn’t working or isn’t popular. One size doesn’t fit all.
What do you think of the suggestion of a progressive alliance?
Pretty much the same as Sam Stopp, who laid out the case against it in his article recently. That the other parties aren’t really progressive and that a pact with them would only harm us and benefit them.
What the report also recommends, though, which we should definitely do, is have detailed plans for building a coalition if we get a hung parliament post-election. We cannot afford not to take such talks seriously, or to turn up to them under-prepared.
Is there any good news?
Honestly? No. The best case scenario is that this should act as a wakeup call for the party. It clearly identifies the problems, which is always a first step to solving them. If anything, though, I think the Fabians are optimistic.
We have no divine right to exist as a party. If we are stuck, then we are stuck a rut of our own making. The only way out is if we take notice of findings like these, and respond to them.
Things can only get better if we are willing to acknowledge our failings and address them, but that means being honest with ourselves. If anything or anyone is dragging the party down in the eyes of the electorate, we must have the courage to do something about it.
The first rule of politics is that the electorate is never wrong. You either listen to them, or you lose. That’s something every member of the party who wants a Labour government should always bear in mind.