By Nicky Dempsey and Jane West
It is little more than a year and a half until the next general election and already the main issues in each party’s campaign are being delineated.
Labour is still virtually certain to be the largest party after the next election as the long-term decline in the Tory vote will be further depressed by five years of austerity. Electorally the main question is whether Labour wins a majority – and of what size – or whether it is forced into coalition with the Lib Dems.
Whatever the fluctuations in the polls for Labour – and since committing to continue Tory spending limits and attacking the union link these fluctuations are mainly downwards – it remains the case that the Tory vote is not recovering nearly enough to put it ahead in seats. Therefore Labour remains on track to be the largest party. But its lead depends on what policies it pursues.
This is confirmed by the Tories’ own recent polling in marginal seats. Lord Ashcroft consistently provides the largest polls in Britain. His latest poll of 13,000 people in the 40 most marginal Tory-held seats makes grim reading for the Conservatives. The overall figures are 43 per cent for Labour, 29 for Tories, 8 for Lib Dems and 11 for UKIP. If repeated nationally this would be a Labour landslide of 100-plus seats! A smaller poll conducted simultaneously for Mumsnet revealed similar results among women.
The shifts in support since the 2010 General Election are very straightforward – as the Ashcroft polling demonstrates. The Tory vote has suffered a fracture to its right, which has gone to UKIP (which has also absorbed the BNP vote). The collapse of the Lib Dem vote is overwhelmingly due to defection to Labour. In stark terms, one in six Tory voters in 2010 now say they will vote UKIP and one in three Lib Dem voters now say they will vote Labour.
These two trends will determine how the 2015 election campaign will be fought. And this has begun. This round of Party conferences is the effective starting gun for 2015 as already indicated by Clegg turning the Lib Dem conference around an appeal for a new Coalition as the best outcome.
For the Tories the main issue will be to recapture Tory votes from UKIP. This will include the most reactionary campaigns by a Tory leadership in living memory, with recent ad vans demonising immigrants and attacks on the niqab just a foretaste of what is to come.
While the establishment has largely accepted that the Tories cannot win, and that Labour will be the largest Party, their preference is strongly for Labour to be as constrained as possible. It therefore favours a coalition and so supports attempts to rebuild the Lib Dem vote. This already includes gentle puff pieces on the BBC in favour of Nick Clegg and the wholly unsubstantiated assertion that the Lib Dems are recovering.
Ashcroft’s poll also reveals important political issues for Labour. The poll shows that the economy and the NHS are the two most important issues identified by voters and that Labour leads on these by 11 per cent and a massive 31 per cent respectively. Clearly Labour should focus on making these the central issues of the election.
Among the other issues identified as important by voters, however, are two where the Tories have a strong lead: ‘controlling immigration’ is third and ‘cutting welfare dependency’ is sixth. On these the Tory advantage mirrors Labour with leads of 21 per cent and 31 per cent respectively.
This also has an important consequence for Labour’s campaign. An election campaign focused on immigration and benefit ‘scroungers’ is in the interests of the Tories and therefore, encouraged by Lynton Crosby and his dog-whistle tactics, they will focus on these type of reactionary issues. For Labour to capitulate to this and follow suit with its own concessions to this offensive agenda would simply build the Tory advantage (and UKIP) and disadvantage Labour.
Instead Labour’s leadership needs to focus on the two most important issues for voters which also happen to be ones where Labour leads in the polls: the economy and the NHS (plus education which is regarded as the fourth most important issue and where Labour has an 8-point lead).
This would be assisted by Labour spelling out an economic plan to end austerity, which continues despite the much-vaunted ‘recovery’. It needs a plan to show how it would fund a revival of the NHS and end its creeping privatisation. In addition to attacking Michael Gove, Labour should commit to ending Free Schools, bring them under local authority control and resuming the schools building programme to meet the crisis in primary school provision.
Sadly, as yet, there is no indication that this will happen. After the election defeat in 2010 it was senior Labour figures who tried to mount an argument that it was their policies on immigration, not the economic crisis that had lost the election. And on the economy, the Labour leadership capitulated to the claim that it was the failure of Brown to adopt a ‘deficit reduction’ (i.e. austerity) programme more quickly that had undermined it politically, when in fact Brown’s mini-stimulus staved off recession for two years.
Every time Labour has been goaded by the Tory media it has turned rightwards. It adopted a public sector pay freeze, commitments to Tory spending plans and attacked the union link. The Labour front bench has been silent so far on the Tories’ campaign to whip up opposition to the Muslim veil.
Clegg’s recent announcement on a limited reintroduction of free school meals for all under-8s rather than being welcomed has been met by Labour complaints that this means ‘deficit-reduction’ is being abandoned! In fact if the Coalition itself is no longer sticking to its own spending limits, it means if Labour continues to champion them it will find itself attacking both the Lib Dems and the Tories from the right.
The sad truth is that the Labour leadership has no plan to resolve the current crisis or to break with austerity. As continuing austerity policies will further crush living standard, it is also cutting Labour support even before the election in 2015. And in government, without a change of policy, its support will fall away even more dramatically than it has from the Tories – a Lib Dem scale of collapse is quite possible.
For all these eventualities – including the remote one that Labour stupidity on policy means it hands the advantage back to the Tories – the crucial step is to build the broadest possible movement around an agenda of opposing austerity and against scapegoating.
This is both the best defence against Tory attacks and the greatest pressure that can be applied to Labour to turn it to focusing on an alternative to austerity, rebuilding the NHS and solving the crisis in education would boost Labour’s prospects in 2015. It also prepares for the battles ahead if Labour forms a pro-austerity government after the general election.