Labour's lost votes

Millions of people turned away from Labour during its 13 years in power. There’s only one way it can win them back
October 17, 2012

A builder reads the Sun on 30th September 2009, when the newspaper dropped its support for the Labour party after 12 years

A single, stark statistic ricocheted round Labour’s annual conference this autumn: that during the party’s 13 years in power it lost five million votes. In the Blair landslide of 1997, 13.5m people voted Labour. By 2010 the figure was down to 8.6m.

The challenge now is to win the defectors back. How can this be done? Labour-supporting blogs offer different ideas. A new pressure group, “Five Million Votes,” was set up in July. A growing number of activists are joining the debate. All of them face the same problem. They have no firm evidence on which to base their plans. Has Labour lost votes by diluting its progressive ideals? Or has it not done enough to secure the centre ground from David Cameron’s assaults? Has the party suffered from too much New Labour thinking—or too little? Has the time come to bury the politics of triangulation or to revive it? The argument rages, but the data has been absent.

Until now. At YouGov, we have set out to fill the gaping empirical gap. In recent weeks we have been asking tens of thousands of our panel members how they voted in 1997. We have matched their answers to their vote in 2010 and current party support, alongside their attitudes to a range of political issues. This has allowed us to provide the fullest analysis yet of Labour’s lost voters—who they are and what they really think.

First, though, a word of warning. Memory and mortality impose limits on even the most rigorous inquiry. Not everyone remembers accurately what they did 15 years ago, and not even YouGov is able to poll the great suburbs in the sky. However, I’m confident that had we managed to keep tabs on every Labour voter from 1997—who had lived and who had died; who had stayed loyal and who had switched sides—the data would be similar, and the conclusions identical.

Let’s start with the basic numbers. It is far too simple to say that in 2010 there were 8.6m Labour loyalists and 4.9m defectors. For one thing, around 3.5m people who voted Labour in 1997 had died 13 years later. Of the ten million Blair-voters who were still alive, 5.5m were loyalists and 4.5m defectors. Of that 4.5m, almost half voted Liberal Democrat in 2010, while just over one in four voted Conservative. A further 600,000 voted for a minor party—Green, Nationalist, the UK Independence Party, Respect or the British Nationalist Party—while a similar number didn’t vote at all or, in a few cases, can’t remember.

These numbers suggest that many defectors, though not a majority, opted for a left-of-centre alternative to Labour. However, Labour has already won most of these back. This autumn, the number of people who backed Labour 15 years ago but would vote Lib Dem today has slumped from two million to just 300,000. The vast majority who defected to the Liberal Democrats in 2010 have returned to Labour. The party now needs to hold onto them, but the initial reconversion has already taken place.

Nevertheless, the total number of remaining defectors stands at three million. That’s still a large group; indeed, it’s ten per cent of the 30m people who are likely to vote at the next election. If Labour can win even half of them back, it will give the party a cushion against any revival of fortunes for the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.

So, who are they? Demographically these defectors are similar to Labour loyalists. Their profile by age, gender, education and social class is much the same. However there is a real, if modest, difference in terms of housing and employment. As the chart (left) shows, defectors are less likely than loyalists to live in social housing, work in the public sector or belong to a trade union.

Some other analyses paint a different picture. They suggest a marked decline in Labour’s working-class support. This leads many to argue that New Labour alienated many of the party’s core supporters.

They are wrong. The real reason for this decline is that Britain’s economy and society have continued to evolve. Half a century ago, two-thirds of voters were working class. In 1997, they still outnumbered middle-class electors by two million. Today, Britain has six million more middle-class than working-class electors. Of course the profile of Labour support has become more upmarket since 1997. That’s because Britain’s economic structure has changed, not because a disproportionate number of the party’s historic core voters have rebelled against the policies of the Blair/Brown years.

The real differences between defectors and loyalists start to emerge when we compare the papers they read and where they place themselves on the left-right scale. Loyalists divide fairly evenly between right-wing and left-of-centre papers. Readers of the Mirror or the Guardian account for 31 per cent of loyalists, while 29 per cent read the Mail, Sun, Star, Express or Telegraph. The reading habits of the three million defectors that Labour would like to win back are very different. For every Guardian or Mirror reader there are four who read a right-wing paper.

As for ideology, 60 per cent of loyalists describe themselves as left-of-centre and only 23 per cent as centre or right-of-centre. Among defectors, on the other hand, 36 per cent describe themselves as left and 48 per cent as centre or right. If we convert each person’s answer into an index number, from minus 100 for very left-wing, via 0 for centre, to plus 100 for very right-wing, then the average location of the loyalists is minus 35, while that of defectors is minus six.

These are big differences that cannot be wished away. The pool of left-wing defectors is just 400,000. They are outnumbered by more than six-to-one by the 2.6m defectors who do not place themselves to the left.

What, then, are the messages that chime with the majority of defectors? Redistribution won’t do it. Just 21 per cent want the government to “do far more to help the poor,” while 27 per cent, would prefer the opposite—cutting welfare payments “because the poor should take more responsibility for themselves.” Loyalists prefer redistribution to welfare cuts by two-to-one.

There is one radical policy that most defectors support. A law limiting maximum pay to £1m a year is supported by 58 per cent. But two right-wing policies are at least as popular: 59 per cent of defectors want Britain to leave the EU, and a huge 78 per cent want “net immigration reduced to zero”.

Equally, though, activists who reassure themselves that Labour’s core supporters reject such views should think again. As many as 41 per cent of loyalists also want Britain out of the EU, and two-thirds of them back zero net immigration. One of the key findings from this analysis is that Labour defectors generally hold more right-wing views than many party activists like to think—but so do millions of Labour loyalists.

Where the biggest differences show up are in attitudes to the Labour party itself. When asked which party’s view of the “good society” most closely matches their own, 79 per cent of loyalists pick Labour. Among defectors the figure tumbles to 14 per cent. One defector in three chooses the Conservatives or Lib Dems, but more than half say “none of them” or “don’t know.” This suggests that only a minority of defectors’ votes are locked up by Labour’s opponents. A fair number are open to persuasion.

The same is true of attitudes to leadership. When asked which party “is led by people of real ability,” loyalists divide evenly between Labour and “none” or “don’t know.” In contrast, only three per cent of defectors say Labour. But, once again, few have been won over by David Cameron’s charm or Nick Clegg’s nation-before-party appeal. The overwhelming majority, 79 per cent, say “none of them” or “don’t know.”

So the people who are debating the “five million” issue may need to update their numbers, but they have identified a promising target group. What are the practical lessons to be learned? The most obvious is that an explicit shift to the left would win back only a small minority—and may well deter the vast majority of defectors.

Beyond that, two large truths emerge from YouGov’s analysis. The first is that the political classes are far more divided than the electorate. The figures in our chart show some significant differences between Labour loyalists and defectors, but also the fact that their attitudes overlap to a large degree. It is only in their views on the political parties that they divide into two completely different tribes. They are more like supporters of rival football teams than inhabitants of warring nations. They sport different colours with great passion, but they live in similar homes, have similar jobs, watch similar TV shows and drive similar cars.

This is true even if we extend the analysis to include Tory loyalists. Their attitudes to economic and social issues are modestly—and only modestly—different from those of Labour loyalists. Now that the 20th-century contest between the rival ideologies of capitalism and socialism is over, British politics has become largely consensual. On any given issue, individual voters will hold widely different views; but overall, the range of opinions held by Labour, Tory and Lib Dem voters is far more similar than the parties, and their media cheerleaders, generally acknowledge.

The second large truth is that, in as far as Labour loyalists and defectors do differ, it is defectors who look more normal. That is, whether you compare them by housing tenure, newspaper readership, trade union membership, ideology or attitudes to particular issues, defectors more closely represent the electorate as a whole. Labour strategists must resist the temptation to think of defectors as curious folk, not like the rest of us. Rather, it is Labour loyalists who comprise the more aberrant group.

Labour’s real challenge is to reassemble the Blairite coalition that swept the party to power in 1997. That coalition included people from across Britain’s economic and social spectrum. The party reached parts of the electorate that had seemed out of bounds. To take just one example, Hertfordshire was a Labour-free zone before 1997. That year the party won five of the county’s eleven seats. By 2010 it had lost all of them. Similar stories can be told about other parts of southern England. YouGov’s data explains England’s evolving political geography: a large number of normal, moderate, not very political, Sun and Mail-reading, middle income, non-union voters liked Labour in 1997 and had been turned off by 2010.

To reassemble an election-winning coalition of voters next time, these are the people Labour must win back. This means rejecting the language of ideology, class and social division, and reviving the appeal of national purpose. If that is a bitter pill for some party activists to swallow, it comes with a coating of sugar: done successfully, the politics of national purpose stand a chance of reaching beyond the ranks of the post-1997 defectors, and winning over at least some people who did not vote Labour even in 1997—not to mention a large slice of those who weren’t old enough to vote at all when Blair first led his party to victory.

However, that does not mean doing everything the same way as Tony Blair. One of his most successful techniques was triangulation. He set out what was wrong with both state socialism and laissez-faire capitalism, and promised that his government would avoid the errors of both. Those who say Ed Miliband should eschew the politics of triangulation are right, but not always for the right reason.

What they often mean, but do not always say, is that they want to revive politics as a great struggle between left and right, with Labour standing firmly on the left. From YouGov’s data, it is clear this would be fatal. Nevertheless, some tactics that made sense in the 1990s may no longer work. This is because the world has moved on. Back then, memories were fresh of the two competing ideologies. One was represented by Margaret Thatcher’s programme of lower taxes, privatisation and weaker trade unions; the other by the supporters of Tony Benn, Arthur Scargill and a variety of left-wing groups that wanted to bring capitalism to its knees.

The real reason for abandoning triangulation is that the twin demons it set out to squash have lost their sting. True, there are still people who think markets should never be contained or, alternatively, should never be allowed. But these days they inhabit the small, outer islands of Britain’s political archipelago. On the mainland, where the great majority live, the debate is about how to make both markets and the state work better.

It’s not just the ideological divide that has melted away. So, to a large extent, has the cultural divide that used to separate working-class from middle-class voters. The range of shared experiences is far greater than it was in the heyday of class voting. Apart from some of the very richest and the very poorest, we enjoy or endure in much the same way a wide range of institutions, such as supermarkets, the NHS, internet service providers, the BBC, high street banks, state schools and mobile phones. Class-specific institutions, such as working-men’s clubs, industrial trade union branches and council homes are far rarer than they were.

Of course individual lives vary widely; but compared with the 1940s or 50s, we look for much the same things from those who are supposed to serve our needs, whether in the private or public sector. This was the crucial insight that Blair offered in the 1990s, when his ambition for New Labour was to be “the political arm of the British people.” He was right; and his insight is no less relevant today, even if triangulation is no longer the best tactic and Iraq is deemed to be an indelible stain on his record.

This does not mean that Labour should abandon its quest for a fairer society. During the Blair/Brown years, YouGov repeatedly found that the minimum wage was its most popular achievement, with winter fuel allowance and more generous state pensions not far behind. Their popularity was rooted in support from millions of people who didn’t personally gain from them. They were emblems of the kind of society most of us wanted to live in.

Ed Miliband is therefore right to rebrand his party as “one nation Labour.” However, rebranding cannot produce lasting results through a label alone, however often it is repeated. “New Labour” produced electoral dividends not because of the name but because it reflected a real change in the party’s direction. What matters now is how Miliband follows through. Every Labour policy between now and 2015 must pass the “one nation” test. Any whiff of the politics of social contest—pitching “our” people against “their” people—would do immense harm.

That is not all. Given the role the unions played in his election as party leader, Miliband still has much to do. He must convince voters that he would be his own man, and also tough and competent enough to keep his promises, if he did become prime minister.

Meanwhile, YouGov’s data suggests that those who would abandon this strategy, “return to Labour’s roots” and pull the party to the left are not simply on the wrong side. They are fighting the wrong battle.

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