Labour’s offer must have as much appeal in Stoke as in Stoke Newingtonby Olivia Bailey / September 23, 2018 / Leave a comment
Labour conference gathers today in the wake of a miserable summer. The anti-semitism crisis has brought shame on the party, and members and elected representatives remain divided.
But for all this, Labour’s fundamental position is unchanged since its strong election performance at the 2017 election. There is still every chance it will form the next government.
Labour only needs to gain 68 seats at the next election to win a majority of one, many fewer to be the largest party—and it faces a weak and divided government.
To secure that victory, however, Labour must hold on to its diverse coalition of supporters.
The challenge ahead
New Fabian Society research published today reveals just how fragile Labour’s electoral coalition has become over the last decade and more.
While Labour’s support has been rising for years in big cities, our analysis of parliamentary seats in England and Wales reveals the party’s backing has dropped in the most working-class seats.
The study proves that the most strongly working-class constituencies are no longer the Labour party’s ‘heartlands’ in terms of votes cast.
It also reveals that the seats with the highest proportion of people in professional occupations are—remarkably—now more Labour-leaning than the national average.
A diverse base
To understand the implications of these dramatic shifts in Labour’s support, last autumn I spent six days with six different Labour voters.
David, Devon, George, Mary, Michael and Yasmin were selected to represent the diverse components of Labour’s support base: the young, remain supporters, professionals, black and minority ethnic voters, the working class and city dwellers.
The most striking revelation from spending time with each of them was just how different Labour voters are from one another. Some voted to leave the EU and some to remain. Some value community and tradition and some actively seek to change it. Some are conﬁdent and wealthy and some are afraid and insecure.
These differences have led to active hostility between Labour voters. Yasmin, a teacher from Manchester, spoke of the “average Joe and Joan Bloggs … who see asylum seekers coming over here, who don’t see the bigger picture, who just see things very blinkered.”
George, a student, was disparaging about any concerns about immigration and the loss of community assets: “Having that as a reason to vote Leave is rubbish … they are in a changing community … that’s just what happens over the passage of time.”
The interviews also underline the shifting nature of loyalty to the Labour party. Labour’s newer voters, represented by student George and city lawyer David, do not demonstrate any particular emotional connection to Labour itself but instead see the party as just one way they can express their values and secure the outcomes they desire.
Mary and Michael, who represent Labour’s traditional working-class supporters, seemed only still to be voting Labour because they have a deep emotional and cultural connection to the Labour party—the party of the working class.
What they all share
There are a few important similarities between Labour voters, and these should be the focus of Labour’s political strategy. The most significant is a shared commitment to two values: fairness and compassion.
These were the primary drivers for all six voters’ electoral choice, despite placing different emphasis on other values, like respect and community.
All six voters were also clearly driven by the difference that the Labour party has made to them and their families, or the damage the Tories have done.
For example, David could never imagine voting Conservative because of the party’s historic attitude to the Irish state, and Mary spoke powerfully about what the NHS has done for her family.
Instead of being ashamed of its history and record, there is a clear advantage for the Labour party in promoting and being proud of its past achievements.
Making a case
Unless Labour acts it will continue to become a party of big cities and professionals. This is electorally unsustainable, because Labour needs all parts of its base to win a majority.
But it is also a betrayal of the party’s founding purpose; to provide a voice for working people all over the country in parliament.
Labour must, of course, build on its progress in affluent and big city seats, which long predates the Brexit vote. But it must also take urgent action to arrest its decline in working class areas.
As they wrangle over rule changes in Liverpool this week, Labour activists must remember that any electoral strategy that pits remain voters against leave voters, young against old, or “the haves” versus “the have nots” will fail.
Hostility, in language or policy, will only tear apart Labour’s delicate coalition. Labour’s offer must have as much appeal in Stoke as in Stoke Newington, and speak to the values that Labour voters share.
The party must also learn to be proud of its own record—because this pride is felt by millions of its supporters.
This article brings together extracts from new Fabian Society report ‘For the Many?’ by Olivia Bailey and Lewis Baston. The full report can be read online here.