Although there is overwhelming media backing for David Cameron, one thing is clear: the Tories are not seen as a convincing alternative to Labour. The next general election is still Labour’s to win. Despite the backdrop of a serious economic downturn, the Tories have continued to poll at levels below those reached by John Major. Major achieved 41.9 per cent in the 1992 general election, while the average of all the polls taken in 2009 put Cameron on 40.6 per cent. So far this year, it has appeared that the Tories’ support is falling even below these levels. The Tories know they are vulnerable – hence their nods and winks to the Liberal Democrats about the potential of a coalition government and their reported secret meetings with the Unionist parties in Northern Ireland. As the ComRes pollster recently explained: “David Cameron has failed to seal the deal with the voters, who think the Tories are not an appealing alternative to Labour and would represent the interests of the better off if they win power”. The same poll stated that amongst the social groups that make up around three quarters of the population – the so called C1s, C2s and DEs – more people see the Tories as unappealing than appealing.
So how should Labour take advantage of this to win the election? We have heard much from certain senior members of the Government about not resorting to a “core vote” election strategy which would destroy Labour’s chances by turning our back on the rest of British voters. Yet this is a false caricature of what progressives in the party have been arguing. What we need are policies that mobilise the pool of millions of voters who still identify with Labour. It is a great advantage to Labour that it still has an overall lead over the Tories when pollsters ask with which party people most closely identify. There are more Labour identifiers than Tory among social groups C1, C2 and DE. Labour’s problem is that we are not convincing those who already identify with our party and our fundamental values that they should get out and vote. Policies are needed that can mobilise these Labour identifiers – the bedrock on which Labour won the 1997 election. Rebuilding this coalition must be Labour’s priority if it is to stop the Tories.
Given that this coalition has been eroded by the policies most closely identified with the Blairite agenda, including the Iraq war and the extension of the market into public services, the starting point must be to revert from the policy direction that saw Labour lose more than four million votes between the 1997 and 2005 general elections. Yet some in the party still cling on to the idea of “triangulation” – that we must meet the Conservatives half way or we will lose the mythical “aspirational” swing voter to the Tories. The pressure from ultra-Blairites to give greater emphasis to how Labour would engage in cuts is a central example. The evidence suggests otherwise. A ComRes poll in late January showed that of those people likely to vote and who generally identify with Labour, only 7 per cent are considering voting Tory, UK Independence Party or for the British National Party; 9 per cent Lib Dem or Green, while 9 per cent are yet to make up their minds. There is no electoral gain to be had by Labour bending to a right-wing led agenda.
This is nothing new. As the “Labour’s Lost Millions” analysis undertaken by Hemsworth Labour MP Jon Trickett following the 2005 election demonstrated, a wide range of social groups across Labour’s coalition of supporters had decided not to vote Labour even though they continued to regard themselves as Labour identifiers. These lost voters did not move to parties on the right. As leading pollster Peter Kellner explained in analysing the 2005 election: “Labour had angered many of the people who still thought themselves as supporters of the party”. The same phenomenon continues to this day. It is simply wrong to argue that, unless Labour tacks to the right, we will see mass defections of Labour voters. Millions of voters who see themselves as Labour need to be given a reason to vote for the party. With the economy set to dominate politics in the run-up to the election, Labour needs to take advantage of the Tories’ failure to convince in this area. As The Times reported earlier this month: “The most worrying finding for the Tories is that David Cameron is seen to be on the side of the rich over ordinary people, by 50 per cent to 42 per cent. By contrast, Gordon Brown is seen as 64 per cent for ordinary people and 26 per cent for the rich.” Other polls have revealed a similar trend.
In contrast, the more progressive measures announced by the Labour in the Pre-Budget Report were backed by large majorities, with two-thirds supporting the statement: “The Government’s plans for heavier taxes on people with high incomes are fair” and eight in ten Labour identifiers backing it. This is no surprise, given half of full-time workers earn £23,200 or less and 90 per cent earn less than £46,000. There is no basis for the claim that claim Labour would be unable to build a winning electoral coalition if it was to adopt more progressive economic measures for those in the top 1 per cent lucky enough to earn more than £100,000 a year. On the contrary, Peter Mandelson’s recent call for the 50p tax rate on high earners to have a short shelf life and Labour’s simultaneously ceding ground to the right’s argument that cuts are necessary in the next parliament give the impression that Labour is primarily concerned with the interests of a tiny minority of wealthy people. It has been addressed how Labour’s increasing ceding to the Tory cuts agenda is economically illiterate. Its political unpopularity is also clear. Despite the clamour for cuts to public services from all the main parties, the public are still not persuaded. That is why the Tories are backtracking on how they present their cuts agenda.
Left out of most coverage of the recent Social Attitudes Survey was that 50 per cent believe spending and taxation levels should stay as they are, support increased taxes and spending on health and education, but the proportion willing to say that taxes and spending on health and education should be cut is just 8 per cent. Labour can win back millions of voters and win the next election by openly breaking with the Blairite neo-liberal agenda that has dominated the party in the past decade and by defending the economic interests of the vast majority of working people – both middle class and working class. Highlighting the right-wing agenda proposed by the Tories and offering a radically different policy alternative is the way to winning the next election.
A blog for the socially and politically conscious, written by a young, gay activist who strongly believes in equality and justice.