The following article by Barry Gray, looking at the progressive agenda Labour should set, originally appeared on Left Futures.
Last week’s local and European elections, alongside opinion polls, suggest Labour should win next year’s General Election, but only if the decline in its support since late 2012 is halted at this point.
Labour’s share of the European election vote was 25 per cent and its national equivalent vote (NEV) share of the local election vote (Rallings & Thrasher) was 31 per cent. Both figures put it one per cent ahead of the Tories. Although tiny, if this lead is maintained it would result in Labour becoming the largest party in Parliament next year.
The problem is Labour support is heading downwards and has been since the end of 2012. At the 2012 local elections its NEV share was 39 per cent, whilst for most of that year YouGov registered the support in the range of 41-44 per cent. Last week Labour’s NEV share was down 8 per cent to 31 per cent with YouGov reporting support at around 36 per cent. Labour has shed approximately seven percentage points since 2012 and hit its lowest level since Ed Miliband was elected Leader.
The chart below graphs the moving average of 20 sequential YouGov polls to smooth out short-term fluctuations and indicate the current trend.
Over the period of falling support the Labour leadership has announced or supported a raft of right-wing policies including: accepting the Tories 2015-16 spending plans, ending universal winter fuel payments, capping welfare spending, restricting migrants’ rights and weakening Labour’s union link.
Its fall in support was partially reversed for five months from last September – a period when Labour MPs voted against attacking Syria and plans to freeze energy prices and repeal the Bedroom Tax were announced. But since March this year support has sharply fallen again, during which time Labour MPs backed the Tories’ welfare cap and the failed to challenge the Tories’ and UKIP’s anti-immigrant scape-goating agenda.
Making further concessions to the right on immigration, as is being urged by some, will not help Labour.
The coalition, with its anti-immigration legislation and ‘Go Home’ vans is the most extreme government in attacking migrants since the 1930’s. Its policies need to be opposed not supplemented by a Labour ‘get tough’ agenda – the framework of the recent leaflet attacking UKIP. This toxic path, proposed by Blue Labour, cannot win votes for Labour, it only drives support away.
In the real world the way political parties discuss immigration is not separate from issues of race. Voters understand this. It is because UKIP has made anti-immigration, rather than Europe, its cutting edge campaign that voters widely regarded it as racist.
For Labour, concessions to this by constant apologies that the last government got it ‘wrong’ on immigration or saying there are ‘legitimate concerns’ on immigration are seen in the same way and risk repelling significant sections of the electorate, especially among those Labour needs to win over or persuade to turn out – notably 2010 Liberal Democrats and ethnic minority voters. Moreover, reinforcing the argument that migrants are the problem legitimises the politics of the right-wing parties who propose to be really ‘tough’ on these issues and builds their vote, not Labour’s.
UKIP’s break-through is a major development in British politics, but as May 2015 approaches this poses a far greater electoral threat to the Tories than Labour. Polling evidence consistently confirms that in recent elections the largest part of UKIP support is coming from former Tory voters. Lord Ashcroft’s poll of UKIP voters in last week’s European election found just over half had supported the Tories at the 2010 election. One in seven had voted Labour and a fifth had supported the Liberal Democrats. For next year’s general election, only half of them expect to vote UKIP, one fifth say they will vote Tory and one in ten will vote Labour.
Effectively since 2010 a bloc of approximately 10 per cent of the electorate has defected from the Tories further right. As Phil Burton-Cartledge points out on his blog, UKIP’s current campaign in Labour heartlands is predominantly winning over 2010 Tory working class voters, with 2010 Labour voters proving more resilient. The government’s austerity policies are dividing the former Tory vote. No doubt should a Labour government pursue similar policies its vote would also divide.
To win office next year Labour needs to rebuild its lost support and assemble a sufficient coalition of voters to win. That is best done by Labour setting its own agenda on alternative terrain from the Tories. People need to be given hope that austerity will end, more housing will be built, schools improved and a quality NHS will be restored.
Labour’s energy price freeze, rent controls, guaranteed doctor appointments within 48 hours, lower university fees and a minimum wage linked to average earnings are all part of that agenda. But as was pointed out in last summer’s Labour pamphlet on living standards, the scale of the problem to be tackled is huge. The fall of average annual earnings (after inflation) by £1,350 since 2010 is just the beginning of what voters want to see addressed – and that requires radical policies. Government investment is necessary if austerity is to be ended, plus the state should build houses and re-nationalise the over-charging utilities and rail.
In last week’s European elections in many countries the parties that actually oppose austerity performed well – in Greece, in Ireland. Or indeed in Germany where Merkel supports austerity for the rest of Europe but does not implement it at home. In contrast, in France where the French Socialist Party is implementing harsher austerity than Sarkozy, its vote collapsed to 14 per cent – 11 per cent behind the National Front.
The scape-goating agenda of the Tories and UKIP is not terrain on which Labour should pick its fight. Instead it should bend its efforts to destroying their arguments and developing an alternative narrative. That requires the type of intelligent methodical taking apart of their comments on migrants and race that LBC host James O’Brien recently achieved. UKIP can be made to pay a political price for its racism. Labour should stick to the facts on immigration; that it overall contributes to raising living standards and point out the Tories and UKIP whip up scape-goating to distract attention from those responsible for cost of living crisis – the banks and government.
Above all, the priority for Labour must remain setting out its own agenda focussed on raising living standards, solving the housing shortage and improving public services.
This article originally appeared at Left Futures.