Labour has lost the last four general elections. From the death throes of New Labour in 2010 to the implosion of Corbynism in 2019 and Ed Miliband in between, the party has been out of power for 11 years now, and it falls to Keir Starmer to try to reverse that trend.
The party has an identity crisis that reflects a changing class composition across demographic and geographic divides. In Scotland, the rise of Scottish nationalism and a Conservative unionist counterweight appears to have closed the door on Labour winning the sort of landslide the party used to take for granted, even in its dismal defeat in 2010. No wing of the party, in Westminster or Holyrood, has yet found an answer to that conundrum. These challenges are significant, but they are not insurmountable. If Labour is to win again, it has to be crystal clear about its potential voters – and the electoral coalition it needs to win.
Electoral strategy is not a value-free science; the political leanings of strategists inevitably influence the kinds of voters they wish to attract. Those who advocate targeting Conservative voters want Labour to be tougher on migration, social security and law and order, while being less bold in spending commitments. We can disagree on the approach to rebuilding the party, but what should be beyond argument is the data.
That’s why a presentation briefed to last weekend’s Observer by Labour’s new strategy director, Deborah Mattinson, is concerning. It allegedly stated that Labour must “lure back millions who defected to the Tories in 2019”. The data about the numbers involved suggests otherwise.
Winning back voters who defected to the Conservatives is necessary but not sufficient, because there simply aren’t “millions” of them. Labour’s internal analysis, based on the British Election Study in the aftermath of the 2019 defeat, showed that Labour lost only 300,000 votes to the Tories. A similar number defected to the Brexit party.
In the same election Labour also lost about 600,000 voters to the Liberal Democrats and Greens. If Labour triangulates too far to Conservative positions, the party’s younger voters could easily fracture to the minor parties, as the May 2021 council elections in Bristol and the London mayoral election showed.
Some have used Labour’s crushing defeat in Hartlepool in May as a vindication of their calls to move to the right: to win back the “red wall”, Labour must appeal to Conservative voters.
But this is a misdiagnosis. Labour’s vote in Hartlepool fell from 15,000 in 2019 to just 8,000 in 2021. The Conservative vote rose by less than 4,000 votes in the same period. The problem for Labour was an intensification of its failure to mobilise and inspire the voters it should attract.
Labour’s post-2019 internal analysis, shared with the new Labour leadership in 2020, showed that about 1.4 million people who voted Labour in 2017 did not vote in 2019. In 2017, Labour had inspired 3.5 million more people to vote Labour, propelling the party to its only electoral gains this century – and its largest increase in its share of the vote since 1945.
Labour lost Hartlepool because, as deputy leader Angela Rayner confessed, “people didn’t know what Keir Starmer stood for”. Activists and MPs who trod the streets in May’s dire elections almost universally complained about the lack of clear, flagship policies on the doorstep. That complaint is recognised in the central thesis of Mattinson’s leaked analysis: that Labour needs “clearer, sharper, more uplifting messaging about the party’s values and Starmer’s vision”.
My former colleague Matt Zarb Cousin is right to argue that Labour’s self-flagellation roadshow – the political equivalent of football fans chanting “we’re shit and we know we are” – is likely to prove self-defeating. Voters know Labour has let them down. They don’t want Labour to passively agree – they want us to actively improve.
It is therefore welcome that Andy McDonald and Angela Rayner have spent the last week setting out exactly the sort of practical policies to improve our working lives: making every worker, whether in the gig economy or in formal employment, eligible for sick pay, parental leave, holiday and the minimum wage as soon as they start work.
In 2017, the day after Theresa May called a snap general election, Labour’s senior staff assembled to discuss election strategy. A paper was put forward outlining the electoral coalition we would seek to build, including converting non-voters from 2015 into Labour voters. “They’re called non-voters for a reason, they don’t vote,” snapped an executive director based in the Labour’s headquarters. That view was confounded when turnout rose, especially among young people, who were inspired to vote for Labour in historically significant numbers.
Those who argue that Conservative voters won’t vote Labour because they’re Tories are equally wrong. People reflect and change their views, their material circumstances change – and political parties can and should seek to convince and persuade.
The reason why Labour should focus on non-voters is pragmatic: there are simply more of them, and 2017 showed they can be inspired to vote Labour. Non-voters are more likely to have at least one of these overlapping characteristics: working class, young or from ethnic minority communities. All three of these cohorts have one thing in common: if they do vote they are more likely to vote Labour. But mobilising them will require the strongest voter registration drive in Labour’s history to overcome the voter suppression tactics that this government has imported from the American Republican right.
Voter registration drives are labour intensive: they require passionate supporters going door to door in the right neighbourhoods with the right message. Social media can do some of the work, but it is no substitute for human engagement in target seats. It’s worrying, therefore, that Labour membership, as reported to last month’s national executive committee, has dived by 116,000 since Starmer became leader.
In contrast, when Labour inspires people to vote for them, it also inspires them to join. Starmer’s Labour must resist a strategy of triangulation based on exaggerated numbers of Labour-Tory switchers, and instead prioritise a strategy of inspiration: only then will it stand any chance of winning the next election.