Ahead of Sunday’s Labour Party Conference Fabian Question Time ‘The Challenge for Labour’ Andrew Harrop, the society’s new General Secretary argues that the party needs to reach out to three distinct electoral groups. To win again it needs a strategy based on rupture with the past, credibility in the present, and ambition for the future.
No one should underestimate the challenge ahead in returning Labour to majority government. Although the party only lost one million votes between 2005 and 2010, the electoral maths suggests its needs two million more voters to be confident of winning next time. Since 1997 our support ebbed away, not just to the Tories, but also to smaller parties, principally the Liberal Democrats, and to people not voting at all. The latter two causes together count for three-quarters of Labour’s lost support so it would be folly to focus exclusively on Tory-Labour swing voters.
Labour’s aim must be to steadily build long-term support from all three camps. First, the party must give people turned-off politics a reason to vote. Some of this group may respond to the communitarianism of Blue Labour, but it seems unlikely that an appeal based on locality and tradition will work for the millions of young people disconnected from politics. Then there are the centrists who started 2011 well-disposed towards Cameron but still sceptical about his party. They will look for leadership they can trust, respect and feel is on their side. This is the group where Ed must compete head-to-head with Cameron. Finally, there are the millions of voters who have supported progressive parties, but favoured Lib Dems, Nationalists and others over Labour. This group will be particularly important because of the boundary changes, since the overall number of non-Tory seats is falling but the distribution is hard to call. To win we will need to convince the anti-Tory majority, and particularly disaffected Lib Dem voters, that Labour offers a home of principle not just convenience. To brew this electoral cocktail, Labour’s pitch must reference past, present and future.
Past: Ed Miliband sees just how toxic the new Labour brand of the Blair-Brown past had become. His game-changing decision to distance himself from much of our recent legacy has already proved a huge asset on phone hacking and will again in future on other issues, like student funding. But it is the broader impression of contrition and renewal that really matters, if Labour is to re-earn permission to be heard by the millions we turned-off when we were in power.
Present: The here-and-now matters too. Although the last few months have gone better, Labour’s frontbench still needs to master the slow attritional war of Opposition. The twin aims must be to discredit the Government and prove that we offer a strong, trustworthy alternative. It may be true that ‘governments lose elections, oppositions don’t win them’ but dogged and creative opposition is needed to show up the Coalition’s failings, exploit crises when they do emerge and win the public round to the idea of Ed Miliband as a credible Prime Minister-in-Waiting; someone who understands people’s lives and can be trusted to be strong on tough decisions. This battle will fundamentally be about the economy, whether we face a ‘double dip’ recession, a Japanese lost decade, or an over-cooked 80s-style pre-election boom. The two Eds need to nail Cameron, as well as Osborne, for sucking money out of the economy and anaemic private sector growth. The goal is not to be right for its own sake, but to win public confidence as trusted, in-touch stewards of the economy.
Future: Labour will only ‘seal the deal’, however, by looking forward and setting out positive reasons to vote Labour. We need to appeal to the heart, to remake the emotional bonds we slowly broke after 1997. This is not just an electoral scheme to hoover-up disaffected progressive voters. Ambition and radicalism are essential to avoid always singing to someone else’s tune. After a decade in Government we were still a party on the defensive, fighting against the prevailing currents of right wing economic doctrine, institutional interests and media power.
Labour needs to re-make an aspirational, confident case for social democratic values in a way that speaks to a broad electoral base not just to ourselves. We need to be become the standard bearer of the centre-left British mainstream, against the powerful minorities on the Right. The Fabian intellectual tradition can make a vital contribution to this optimistic future vision, notwithstanding the criticism we have received from within the left of late. For to fight on the front-foot in 2015 Labour must reinvent and set out afresh the two most enduring Fabian principles: the case for equality and the case for state action.