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Is Labour Doing Well Enough?

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Andrew Harrop at the Fabian Society produced a good and cautiously positive analysis of Labour's electoral prospects at the weekend. Based on a specially commissioned YouGov poll, it concluded that Labour's support has been boosted since 2010 by the addition of 2.3 million Liberal Democrat defectors, 1.4 million people who didn't vote and 400,000 Conservatives.

This last finding led the Observer to report that "Ed Miliband is failing to repeat Tony Blair's success in winning over former Tory voters", a familiar argument of those who question whether Labour is doing well enough to stand a chance of winning the next election. They argue that Labour's 10% poll lead is soft because non-voters are unreliable, and as for Lib Dems - well, we don't like them, so their votes don't really count. It is only by copying the New Labour playbook and tacking right in a single-minded effort to win over Conservative voters that Labour can hope to govern again. Anything else is a foolish distraction.

There are a number of reasons why this doesn't stack up as an argument and why Ed Miliband deserves much more credit for the progress he has made so far in putting Labour back in contention. Let's start by challenging some of the faulty assumptions about New Labour and the 1997 election that tend to skew this debate.

First, Labour won in 1997 by adding 1.96 million votes to its 1992 tally, yet the Conservative vote fell by 4.4 million. Most Conservative defectors therefore either stopped voting or went to third parties (the Referendum Party and Ukip polled 917,571 between them as new parties). When you consider that the Liberal Democrat vote also went down by 756,659 and the Green vote fell by 108,316 (most of which undoubtedly went to Labour, tactically or otherwise), plus the natural turnover of voters leaving and joining the electoral roll, Blair probably won the votes of around a million Conservatives in 1997. That was a major achievement, but a more modest one than most people seem to remember.

Second, the Conservatives won 14 million votes in 1992 and only 10.7 million in 2010. The simple fact is that there far fewer Conservative voters for Miliband to target today than Blair had in 1997 - 3.3 million fewer of them to be exact. We can also plausibly assume that they are less soft in their support for the Conservatives. By extension, there are more Liberal Democrats (836,642 extra) and many more non-voters (almost four million extra) to target compared with 1992-97. Then there's the bit no one likes to talk about - the additional half a million plus votes for the BNP since 1992. The fragmented character of the modern political landscape makes the task of putting together a winning electoral coalition much more complex and difficult for Miliband than it was for Blair.

Third, Blair had a crucial and often forgotten ally in the shape of good old Father Time. After eighteen years of Conservative government, enough people had forgotten how badly Labour fumbled in the 1970s, while the Conservatives had made enough mistakes of their own to transform perceptions of competence. Eventually, two recessions, the poll tax, Black Wednesday, Back to Basics and turmoil over Europe came to overshadow the IMF crisis and the Winter of Discontent. Miliband is fighting with Labour's mistakes still fresh in the memory against a Conservative government that continues to get some benefit of the doubt.

Against this very challenging background, a gain of 400,000 Conservative votes at the next election would bear favourable comparison with the one million Blair gained in 1997. So would a win among former non-voters. Remember, one common criticism of the 'Five Million Votes' approach of targeting those who stopped voting as well as those who deserted Labour for other parties is that non-voters are often more similar to Conservative voters in their views on issues like welfare, immigration and the economy than they are to Labour loyalists. There is some truth in this, so if Miliband is leading among former non-voters in general - a much broader group that includes people who previously supported the Conservatives - this would obviously disprove the suggestion that he is failing to reach beyond Labour's core support.

I wouldn't pretend for a minute that everything is perfect or that Labour is anywhere close to being a sure bet at the next election. The party's lead in the polls is tentative and provisional, of course it is. How could it be otherwise given the drubbing it took less than three years ago? What amazes me most about the self-styled "realist wing" of the Labour Party is how hopelessly unrealistic most of their expectations are about what can be achieved and how to achieve it. It assumes that a majority would be Labour's for the taking if only the party's leadership would adopt the correct tactical positioning: "support Tory spending plans"; "be tougher on welfare"; "hug a banker". But the idea that we can treat the next election like a replay of 1997 is frankly delusional.

Labour can only win by going where the votes are, and they are not in the same place that they were in 1992-97. There are far fewer Conservatives, quite a few more Liberal Democrats and BNP supporters, and many more non-voters. The implications of this are being explored in the work being done by the Fabian Society and in an eminently sensible and balanced report written by Lewis Baston for Progress last Autumn ('Marginal Difference: Who Labour Needs to Win and Where'). It eschews the simplistic answers proffered by Labour "realists" as well as the narrow advocates of a "progressive majority" and sets out the choices and challenges for Labour in putting together the kind of diverse electoral coalition required to win.

How can Labour appeal to disillusioned Liberal Democrats and leftish non-voters concerned about social division and the hollowing out of public services while at the same time reaching out to voters who have deserted Labour because of concerns about immigration and public finances? It is difficult, but not impossible. After all, the Thatcherite revolution was carried through with the support of just such an implausible alliance of economic liberals and social conservatives, of blue collar workers and bankers. By setting out a One Nation vision that fuses egalitarian concerns with an ethic of patriotic endeavour, I believe that Ed Miliband has given Labour a chance to achieve something similar. There is a long way to go, for sure, but the evidence suggests that he is making good progress. Labour should build on it instead of dwelling on past glories.

The post originally appeared at Shifting Grounds.