Labour’s voters aren’t coming back – why would they?

by Peter Pannier

18 May 2015

credit Facundo Arrizabalaga EPA Time labelled for noncommercial reuse via google

In the run up to the recent general election, the consensus seemed to be that the only means by which the Tories could return to government was via conniving an unconstitutional arrangement. Numerous column inches were devoted to the intricacies of the UK constitution, with Owen Jones warning us to “get ready for a Very British Coup”, and Adam Ramsay arguing that “The Conservative press are lining up to push Cameron into Downing Street even if most of the UK has just voted to sack him”. Yet astonishingly, more than half a million more people voted Conservative in 2015 than in 2010.

Nonetheless, for all the comparisons with John Major’s previous shock victory, the number of Tory voters is actually down 2.76m on 1992. Five years after ‘Cleggmania’ resulted in the Lib Dems winning 6.8m votes, 64% of these people – 4.4 million voters – abandoned the party. So how could Labour lose?

John McTernan, once political secretary to Tony Blair, and most recently Chief of Staff to Scottish Labour Leader Jim Murphy, wrote in August 2013:

Labour’s dominance is secure. Why am I so certain? As soon as [Miliband] was elected Labour leader, the party’s support in the polls consolidated at 38 per cent. This is significant because it marks the return of the ‘Iraq War refugees’ – they were parked with the Lib Dems until Labour’s regime change. With a new generation in charge, they came back home. And Nick Clegg’s decision to go into coalition with the Conservatives – a decision no other post-war Liberal leader could or would have made – has cemented these ‘refugees’ to Miliband.”

As stunningly offensive as this terminology is, the analysis was also profoundly wrong. Either few of these 2010 Lib Dem voters opted for Labour, and/or a similar number of Labour voters moved away as well. In fact, the total number of votes cast for Labour in 2015 (9,347,326) was – despite a higher population – lower than in 2005 (9,552,436). Since 1979, only in 1983 and 2010 did Labour garner fewer votes.

1979 - 2015 total votes
(Votes Cast in UK General Elections, 1979-2015, by party)

After five brutal years of Coalition government, how is this possible? In 1983, the Social Democratic split was the excuse – the combined vote of Labour and the SDP in 1983 was higher than that for Labour in any year other than 1997. What is the excuse in 2015?

The SNP won 1.4m votes – nearly a million more than in 2010. The Green Party, 1.1m – more than four times the 2010 total of 265,000. But the rise of these parties is recent – Labour’s problem has a far longer history. For millions, electorally victorious Labour did not match pre-1997 dreams. The drift began before the Iraq War, indeed before Blair began cosying up to Bush; it is observable in the 2001 election result, let alone in 2005. This reveals something undiscussed by mainstream commentators. The problem Labour faces is not so much an unattractive leader, nor the struggle to present both a neoliberal policy platform attractive to donors and the media while also sufficiently different to the Tories to qualify as ‘the lesser of two evils’, but the fact that people lived under a Labour government from 1997 to 2010.

Many of those people haven’t forgotten that they struggled to make ends meet under that government. A significant number came of political age fighting it. In recent years, many have lived with Labour as the party controlling the local council, if not Labour as the party of national government. Perhaps most importantly, the Global Financial Crisis and ensuing recession happened under a Labour government, as did the response. Regardless of your view of the party’s contribution to this crisis and the UK’s vulnerability to it, the response was not one which could allow Labour to present themselves as an anti-establishment party riding the crest of a social movement against austerity in the 2015 general election – even if their policies and rhetoric had been closer to that of the SNP, Green Party, or TUSC. Would people have trusted these claims? Who would have believed in them enough to not only vote Labour, but to enthusiastically encourage others to do the same? This is why only one in five registered voters voted Labour.

There are, once again, suggestions that the party can be made electable if people join Labour to pull it to the left. Noises from several members of the party hierarchy, not to mention decades of experience, suggest shifting the party is close to – if not actually – impossible. The idea Labour would win national elections as a left party seems unlikely without an emboldened, effective and more social labour movement than can be said to currently exist beneath it. As cuts, privatisation and racist policies continue to cause misery, throwing energy into party-building seems a strange prioritisation.

Yet, even for those of us who prioritise non-electoral projects, the 2015 general election represents an unequivocal failure. Those of us blaming a capitalist crisis rather than scapegoating migrants and claimants are failing to persuade millions of people. Ukip, a party that won just 105,722 votes in 1997, hit 3.8m in 2015. The 529,000 increase in the Conservative vote from 2010 to 2015 approximately matches the difference between Ukip’s 2015 vote and the 4.3m votes the party polled in the 2014 European election. Although it is clear a strategy of appeasing Ukip in the belief it would take more votes from the Tories enabled both parties to benefit as debate shifted rightward, 15.2m people voting Ukip or Tory cannot be blamed entirely on Labour.

So it’s important to recognise confirmation bias and take this opportunity to think about how to do things differently. Nonetheless, looking optimistically at the political involvement of those abandoning Labour, there is inspiration in some of the community and workplace activity taking place around housing, migration, unemployment, and the NHS. As an excellent blog by the Sweets Way housing campaign (North London residents opposing social cleansing by Annington Homes and Barnet Homes of an estate in Barnet) puts it: “We have been creating our own power at Sweets Way and it is not a power that was phased, one way or the other by the election results. It is a power that has emerged in spite of politicians, and which will continue to grow without them.”

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