Wednesday 11 May 2022

Labour's Electoral Discomfort

Last Thursday's local elections were bad for the Conservatives. Very bad. Dropping 500 seats was awful enough, but there's a seldom told story that was lost amongst the spin and is only now coming out. On the BBC's election programming, Yvette Cooper was wheeled out to put a brave face on Labour's modest gains. Gains, in case folks stopped paying attention, that got more modest as the weekend wore on. But on the further advances the Tories made in the so-called red wall, she argued that if you looked at the vote share since 2019, Labour's recovery in many of these places was in fact underway. It's tempting to dismiss this as self-serving spin, but this was a broken clock moment: her claims were fundamentally sound.

Over at Prospect, Stephen Fisher has crunched the numbers. While plenty of people have pointed out Labour hasn't made much progress compared to 2018, the last time these seats were fought under Jeremy Corbyn, that Thursday's results almost put them on a par with four years ago suggests support lost at the general election might be returning. Indeed, Labour was up six points in "Leaveland" versus three points in remain-voting constituencies. Stephen goes on to suggest that the below-the-counter electoral pact between Labour and the Liberal Democrats would actually strengthen Labour's chances in its former strongholds, what with the anti-Tory vote not getting splintered. For example, doing some quick sums from the Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council elections for contests in the constituency boundaries, Gareth Snell found that Labour polled 9,500 votes - a thousand more than the Conservatives while the LibDems managed 1,500. This despite the Tories winning new seats on the council at Labour's expense.

Therefore, the Tories are in a worse position than their apparent consolidation suggests. Except, happily, the news for the Tories is even grimmer than that. As we know, older people are more likely to vote and older people disproportionately favour the Tories. Therefore, as council elections are second order elections this age bias in voting becomes even more attenuated. Last Thursday was said to favour Labour because it was fighting more defences than any other party, but the demographic profile of the average local government election voter leans more toward the Tories and, indeed, helps explain why last year's results were so bad. A shift toward Labour among this constituency spells bad news for the Tories regardless of whether the seats are Labour or Tory leaning. Even worse, in the circumstances of a general election when turn out is up and more working age people go to vote - who in the last decade have had a clear preference for Labour - assuming things stay as they are, the Tories could be in for an even worse pummelling.

But that's the red wall. One cannot get away from the fact that the Liberal Democrats were the runaway winner in England, with the Greens in a very respectable second place in terms of seats won. Why are these parties picking up seats across the south? Why are they proving more potent than Labour in the so-called Blue Wall? Firstly, what it isn't is "Long Corbyn". No one except for those who have an interest pretending otherwise can maintain Labour is unchanged under Starmer. We've gone from a radical, transformative politics to an authoritarian mess in which progressive positions are the exception rather than the norm. And yet Starmer's Labour aren't performing like a viable proposition across the south. Why? Reflecting on his party's drubbing, Damian Green writes that Tory culture war obsessions are turning off swathes of Conservative voters, such as those comfortable with the social liberalism of the coalition government or found Theresa May's (rhetorical) social justice pledges attractive. Johnson isn't interested in conserving anything and he's given the green light to his subordinates to bulldoze their way key British institutions, like broadcasting. And so this electorate rebels by turning to the smaller parties.

Why aren't Labour capitalising on this growing anti-Tory mood in the shires? While the leadership has cosplayed authenticity and patriotism to win back property-holding pensioners in the north, Starmer's straight up refusal to support the right thing unless it's electorally expedient has been noticed. Labour did not make a concerted attack on the government's privatisation of Channel Four. Labour chose to emphasise the cost of transporting refugees to Rwanda rather than taking a values position. He did not jump on the 'one rule for them' bandwagin until the focus groups said it was a good idea, and when it comes to other aspects of what you might loosely term liberal Britain, Starmer is nowhere seen to be defending it. In other words, despite sticking up for the status quo by promising nothing Starmer is as inconsequential to this layer of voters as they have been in his electoral strategy. How this differs from Tony Blair who affected enough liberal hero concerns to be seen as a champion self-defined "progressive" or modern one nation centre right voters could believe in. At least before 1997. The LibDems, now realising there are gains to be made from concentrating their fire on the Tories, are the natural protest repository for this substantial layer of soft Conservative support. It doesn't matter what the actual detail of LibDem policy is, they're known for liking nice causes and a little bit of constitutional radicalism. They want a better, kinder politics, so vote for them instead. It's to the Greens' benefit that they too are carving a similar space out for themselves, but with added environmentalism.

But this is only part of Labour's woes in the south. While the old and retired turned out disproportionately for these elections, so did the comparatively smaller politically-engaged working age population. And it's a concern that these, by and large, kept their distance from Labour in the south. It's almost as if they reached for whatever tool was at hand to bash the Tories about with, and in many cases decided the LibDems and Greens were better placed to do it. Nor is it difficult to fathom why. Despite Labour enjoying polling leads among working age people, it has done nothing to maintain this advantage. It goes out of its way to present itself as socially conservative, just as those values are shrivelling up and dying off. It makes a virtue of not highlighting anything that responds to their interests, such as deaing with the housing crisis, crap wages, lack of opportunities, and so leaves the field wide open for others. Political science ain't rocket science. For obvious historical reasons this layer, particularly the younger workers, aren't going to find the LibDem pitch too attractive apart from their not being the Tories, but the Greens are different. Their raison d'etre is the climate crisis, which the other parties only pay lip service to. You don't need me to tell you why this matters more the younger one is, and so from the off they enjoy an association with tackling an existential crisis that can only get worse. Second, while the Greens oscillate between the centre and the radical left, formally speaking its values impeccably line up with that of the rising generation. And for those who look a bit further, its policy platform is more robust in addressing the interests of working class people than Labour's. Is it any wonder they were the go to in parts of the south instead of the party supposedly rooted in the labour movement?

This matters. Contrary to the impression Labour's vote is unified in the "recovering" red wall, the Greens in particular pose it some real difficulties. If Starmer carries on as he does, and he will, what we've seen in the south we could see elsewhere. Local elections come up, and Labour is blunted by a bleed to the Greens and LibDems. If any lessons have been learned from the UKIP surge, it's that protest votes can firm up into general election votes, or offer a gateway to the Tories. Contrary to the dim bulb analysis clung to by the Labour leadership, the red wall is a demographically complex place. Among other things, because Starmer is offering our class nothing, particularly the young, then it's quite likely that enough of this vote could be peeled away by the Greens and LibDems in the Tory-held seats Labour needs to win back. In other words, the Tories aren't the only ones suffering southern discomfiture. The local election results could show Labour a future where challenging the Tories is hopelessly split because of the political cowardice of its leadership.


simon reynell said...

Very good, balanced piece. One other thing that I suspect is that our hi-tech world is making it easier for those with only a passing interest in politics to make more informed (and therefore more effective) tactical voting decisions. So if the general feeling in the country is that 'we want this lot out', each of us can just glance at our phone on the way to the polling booth to find out which is the most likely anti-Tory winner in our particular ward or constituency. I suspect that cumulatively this is a making a difference.

Robert Dyson said...

Good comment from Simon Reyell. I too am a tactical voter: always vote against the worst (Tories in effect). Also, we have been moving away from the two major Party model for many years, and this seems to me the continuation of the trend. I want PR because people will come to know that their vote makes a difference, and that will lead to more awareness and critique of policy and its implementation.

Blissex said...

«make more informed (and therefore more effective) tactical voting decisions. So if the general feeling in the country is that 'we want this lot out', each of us can just glance at our phone on the way to the polling booth to find out which is the most likely anti-Tory winner in our particular ward or constituency.»

That to me seems the usual wishful thinking, there is a much better explanation:

* Tory voters don't want out the Conservatives, because they are delivering successfully huge property based upward redistribution.

* Tory voters though want to express being annoyed even if they don't want the Conservatives out.

* So many tory voters switch their vote to the no-hope LibDems in elections that don't matter as to economic policy. In a general election many of them would abstain instead.

Tory voters have done that some times in the past when they wanted to make a protest vote but without risking any substantial change in a government that was making them so much richer at the expense of the lower classes.

Zoltan Jorovic said...

@Blissex, both views could be true. On the one hand people with an interest to defend (i.e. property / wealth) vote in protest when they believe their interests are not at stake. On the other, certain groups vote tactically and this is aided by technology and instant access to information.

Rather than always trying to find one explanation to rule them all, why not accept that there are a variety of different voting groups which conflicting, competing and diverse interests? This is what Phil is saying and has been saying for years. The appeal the parties have varies between these groups, but also varies depending on key issues of the particular time and place the vote happens, and the policies, and importantly, values the parties are perceived to hold.

At the moment, both Tory and Labour seem to be targeting the same voting groups. These groups are unequally distributed geographically, and are declining in some former Tory heartlands, such as parts of the SE.

The Labour approach seems to be to ignore the young and what can loosely be termed the "progressive", and focus on older, what we might call regressive voters. They seem to believe that the former groups will have no option but to vote for them in a GE. But, by actively rejecting the values these groups hold, they are testing this belief to the limit. Not only does this risk (and we are seeing) significant vote swing to the LDs and Greens, it also undermines faith in the system further, at a time when it is under unprecedented strain.

Playwright said...

Don't you think the success of LibDems and Greens also has something to do with the vast numbers of principled ex-Labour members who will now vote for anything but Starmer's Labour? I've seen so many posts saying they will switch to Green, and if only they can hold their nerve, the next GE might actually see more Green MPs. If they were in a king-making position to go into coalition with LibDems, the kind of transfomrtive government we dreamed of with Corbyn could sort of take shape?