This weekend, pollster Peter Kellner said that Labour should have cancelled this year’s conference: that “they should go away in private and think about what they want to say and do.” Unsurprisingly, the conference is going ahead, but the party would do well to heed Kellner’s criticism. Ed Miliband’s speech this afternoon must set out clear priorities if the party is to be electable in 2015. Labour had its second worst result since 1918 in last year’s election. The party polled more in the calamitous election of 1931—and was only less popular once, in 1983.
What went so wrong? A big factor in Labour’s defeat last year was their failure to win over aspirational working-class, or “C2”, voters—the “Mondeo man” so skilfully targeted by Tony Blair. In 2010, “Mondeo men” deserted Labour in droves: Blair gained 50 per cent of the C2 vote in 1997 and maintained 40 per cent of that vote in 2005; in 2010, Labour’s C2 vote plummeted to 29 per cent. This was, by some distance, the party’s worst performance amongst the skilled working class since 1945. Even in 1983, the party’s electoral nadir, Michael Foot gained 32 per cent of the C2 vote.
Regaining the votes of the aspirational working class must be central to any strategy that Labour develops for 2015. Ed Miliband has shown that he is beginning to understand the importance of this, with his talk of the “squeezed middle.” He also stressed the importance of aspiration in a pre-conference interview with Progress, insisting that it is “pro-aspiration” to criticise the “people at the top” when they act irresponsibly.
This rhetoric may help Miliband at a time when many are unhappy with our political, financial, legal and media institutions. But, to make a genuine political breakthrough, Miliband needs to move from rhetoric to reality, setting out a policy platform that reconnects with aspirational voters. Labour has to cater to skilled working-class people who are worried about their jobs, concerned about paying their bills and mortgages, but who also remain aspirational for themselves and their families. Policy needs to be geared to both economic security and economic aspiration.
This means concrete economic measures to create jobs and tackle the deficit. Measures to tackle rising energy bills, for example, would speak to those skilled…