Sunday 31 May 2015
Labour’s Way Back to Power is an Electoral Rubik’s Cube Without a Change of Electoral System
As the Labour party ponders electing its new leader from the thoroughly uninspiring choice of Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, Liz Kendall or Mary Creagh, the challenge of winning power again is more complicated than ever before.
When Tony Blair et al plotted the new Labour takeover of the party in the 1990s the plan was pretty straightforward. Move the party to the right and steal the Tories clothes, whilst being confident that voters on the left had ‘nowhere else to go’. They were aided in this by an exhausted and divided Tory party grown arrogant through 18 years in power. Essentially though, the plan worked in 1997 returning Labour with a landslide majority in the House of Commons, but even then there were signs of the backlash that would eventually lead to their sorry position of today.
Turn out in the 1997 general election was 71%, which in today’s terms looks pretty decent, but this represented a drop in turn out of 7% from 1992. By the general election of 2001, the warning lights were flashing with a record low turn out of only 59%. I remember Jack Straw, then Labour Home Secretary saying that this represented the ‘politics of contentment’. That really must win the prize for most complacent political analysis of all time. Turn out was lowest in Labour held constituencies, with some inner city areas in the low 30s%.
Turn out recovered a little in 2005 to the mid 60s% in the wake of the Iraq war, but Labour lost a million votes to the Lib Dems, a trend which continued in the 2010 general election when they were ejected from government.
What had gradually happened was Labour voters increasingly did not bother to turn out at elections and others started to vote for other parties, most notably the Lib Dems. But by the 2015 general election, the Lib Dems discredited by coalition with the Tories, did not benefit. The Green party quadrupled our vote, mostly at the expense of Labour (and former Labour, Lib Dems) in England and the SNP in Scotland did. Meanwhile, UKIP made inroads into the Labour vote in parts of England and Wales.
These new UKIP voters do have concerns about immigration but I think this is just a lightening-rod issue. What really has turned them off Labour is that stagnation in living standards where wages have fallen since 2003 and public services were not invested in to cope with the extra demand on them from immigration. I expect Labour will come up with some anti-immigrant policies though, rather than address the real issues at the heart of these people’s discontent.
The problem with this though, is that it is likely to drive even more left voters to the Greens, Lib Dems and SNP. Labour may decide that Scotland is pretty much lost for a generation at least anyway and they need to concentrate on gaining votes in southern England. But this may cost them votes in London too, one of Labour’s few strongholds left, because London is an immigrant city, and by and large has done well out of immigration.
This is how complicated it is for Labour to bring a coalition of voters together, large enough to win power at Westminster and I have not heard a convincing argument from the prospective candidates for leader of the party, or indeed from the party generally, of how to do this.
I think it is in Labour’s interests therefore, to support a campaign for a change in the electoral system, to a more proportional one.
A report to be released tomorrow, written by the Electoral Reform Society on the unfairness and total unsuitability for the multi-party politics of the UK today, should be digested by Labour. If they embrace it, they may be able to build an alliance that will get the Tories out. But I expect they will just tack to right, and wait for people to get fed up with the Tories, but this is high risk strategy, and could lead to the disappearance of Labour as a major party. We will see.