DID PLAID, SNP AND GREENS’ VOTE SHARE COST LABOUR A VICTORY?
JACK KIFFIN crunches the numbers and finds the range of alternative left parties damaged Labour’s chances, with even worse due in 2020 unless it can turn back the tide
AS THE Labour leadership debate heats up, the calls are mounting for the party to “remember the lessons of 1997” and “speak to aspiration.” Yet the newly restyled Blairites who are making this first demand are forgetting these lessons themselves. More importantly, those of all shades who are fuelling the debate on whether to re-embrace aspiration are simply damaging Labour.
The lessons of 1997, according to those advocating for their revival, were that the Labour party need only to reach out to the electoral middle ground, appeal to middle England, to be assured of victory. By adding centrist voters to its traditional left-leaning block, the party can establish a “mainstream majority” with an almost mathematical certainty of winning.
This strategy has an immediate appeal to a party that has just suffered a sobering defeat. However, it is wrong.
The Labour Party lost the election two weeks ago, and clearly must change to win in five years time. However the real lesson of ’97 was that the party must aim to appeal to a majority of today’s voters, and not derive its position from old certainties or past electoral success.
The “mainstream majority” built in 1997 was of its time. “Worcester Woman” and “Essex man” could be won over without electoral cost to New Labour because the voters who had remained with Labour through the 1980s had nowhere else to go. Moving to the centre simply brought more voters into the Labour fold. It was cynical but it was better than the Tories.
But while the seats may not reflect it, the votes show that Britain has become a multi-party system. Simply aping the past will fail to deliver the same results.
Whether you view the SNP, Plaid, the Greens etc as left of Labour (or even left at all), at the last election they all articulated a clear anti-austerity, pro-state spending policy agenda — and won over 2.8 million votes. Most of these votes came from former Labour voters. In Scotland this resulted in a redrawing of the political map, but even leaving Scotland aside (a luxury that no Labour leader will have in 2020), the impact was significant.
There were 26 seats across England and Wales where the coalition parties won by less than, or close to, the same number of votes that the anti-austerity parties won. Looking at the constituency breakdown, there were:
– 18 seats where Labour would have comfortably won with the additional anti-austerity votes, including Derby North, Brighton Kemptown and Morley and Outwood.
– Two seats where we would have been within 200 votes and where turnout was low compared to the national average (and we know that Labour voters are harder to turn out).
– A further six seats that would have been too close to call, including Sheffield Hallam.
This totals 26 seats, of which 23 went Tory, three went Lib Dem and absolutely none went to the anti-austerity parties or Labour.
Speculating on what-ifs may be slightly crude, but there is an argument to be made. That argument is that, had Labour articulated a message that both appealed to those who voted for it and those who voted for an end to austerity, it could have taken all of these seats.
If we add in the new seats the SNP won (50), we see 76 seats, 23 of which went Tory, that could have gone Labour. Had this happened, the new Parliament in Westminster would have 308 Conservatives and 308 Labour MPs.
308 each is, obviously, not a defeat. Following this argument, Labour could be said to have lost in 2015 for not being left-wing enough.
To be clear, I am not arguing that the anti-austerity parties “stole” Labour’s voters, I am simply pointing out that in 1997 these voters would have had no visible choice but to vote Labour. In 2015, and certainly in 2020, they do.
Conversations about “what Labour must do to win” must acknowledge this fact. Whatever else New Labour got wrong, what they got right was fighting the 1997 election on the basis of the 1997 electorate. Fighting the 2020 election on the basis of the 1997 electorate will be as successful as fighting the 1992 election on the basis of the 1974 electorate.
But what should concern us more is this. At every election since 1997, the anti-austerity parties’ vote share has grown exponentially. At the next election, should the Labour Party shroud itself once more in the language of Thatcherism and austerity, those seeking a “left-wing” alternative will certainly have somewhere else to go.
If the anti-austerity parties only grow their vote share in each seat by the same amount in 2020 as they did in 2015 (actually slower than trend) and if other factors stay the same, the Labour Party will stand to lose many more seats.
Specifically they will:
-Comfortably lose 10 seats across England and Wales.
-Almost certainly lose another two where no anti-austerity party stood in 2015 and the majority was at less than 500.
-See a further 13 seats become extremely marginal and too close to call.
-Lose the last Labour seat in Scotland.
This totals 26 seats, of which 21 would go Tory, one Lib Dem and only three to the anti-austerity parties. Most troublingly, one would go to Ukip.
Were the Labour Party to lose all of these seats, and other votes remain constant, then the 2020 Parliament would contain 206 Labour and 352 Conservative MPs. This would be Labour’s lowest return since 1935 and potentially the end of the labour movement.
Historically, as has been said, anti-austerity parties have grown exponentially at every election since the adoption of the New Labour centrist agenda in 1997, and as Scotland shows us, they are potentially capable of much faster vote growth.
Were the Labour Party to further symbolically reject the left, the results above would be a conservative estimation based on trend.
If the Labour Party must change and cannot move to the centre, the obvious strategy is to move to the left, a call that has also been heard, in smaller numbers, in the wake of the 2015 defeat. This too has an obvious ideological appeal, and this too is wrong.
Shouting our principles louder will not bring over the voters who ignored Labour and the anti-austerity parties, and a 308-seat draw does not allow Labour to run the country.
Labour undoubtedly lost votes to the anti-austerity parties, and thus seats to the Tories, for being perceived as too New Labour. However there are also many voters, many more voters, for whom the New Labour project was a positive. Arguing that Labour needs to “move back to the left” is to argue that what Labour has achieved since 1997, much of which was built on socialist principles, was somehow not of the left.
This abandons much of the work since 1997, and gifts many of the truly socialist values that were part of New Labour, to the Conservatives. To distance Labour from the New Labour period not only makes the party appear insincere, but declares that the more popular parts of New Labour actually belong to the Tories.
This brings us back to speaking to aspiration. To argue from either wing of the party that Labour has a choice between re-embracing the centrist value of aspiration or remaining truly left is to refute that socialism is about aspiration and that Labour has always been the party of aspiration. This hands a powerful political principle to the Tories. Aspiration so defined is either something Labour is trying to copy, or something Labour actively opposes.
As well as being unhelpful, this is also untrue. Aspiration is not simply allowing the fortunate to keep as much of their wealth as they can, but about job security, wages and affordable homes.
The policies that are being portrayed as anti-aspirational, such as the mansion tax, are designed to level the playing field precisely so the vast majority of people can aspire. In central London, people who live alongside the Tories’ ultimate version of aspiration recognise the value of Labour’s version. The mansion tax did not stop Labour winning Hampstead and Kilburn. If Labour declares that the Tories were right, and that aspiration is indeed about mansions, we abandon many of our principles to be bastardised by the Conservatives.
What the Labour Party lacked in 2015 was not more right-wing or left-wing policy, but coherent policy. Labour accepted the narrative that it crashed the economy with government spending, but attacked the Tories for cuts.
For the sake of simplicity Labour sacrificed credibility. Labour must not now allow the right or left to paint aspiration as a Tory value that we could either move away from or embrace. We need to show how socialism and trade unionism stand for the aspirations of all and always have done, not cede that the Tories are the party of aspiration and we need to copy them or reject it.
The Labour Party must learn the lessons of 1997 and speak to aspiration, but these must be the real lessons of 1997 and a genuine Labour understanding of aspiration. A symbolic rejection of either the centre or the left would be disastrous.
Only by proudly and coherently articulating all of Labour’s values can we hope to win in 2020.