The future of the left since 1884

How Labour can win again

In 2020, after a decade of Tory rule, Britain will be desperate for something else; Labour will be something else and so Britons will be desperate for Labour. Or perhaps not. To succeed Labour needs to rely on more than a...


In 2020, after a decade of Tory rule, Britain will be desperate for something else; Labour will be something else and so Britons will be desperate for Labour. Or perhaps not.

To succeed Labour needs to rely on more than a flawed syllogism; it needs to ensure Britain does really want change, it needs to be seen as capable of delivering change and it needs to offer the kind of change people want.

One of Labour’s problems in the 1980s is that it failed on the first of these criteria. Labour’s attacks focused on the un-fairnesses of Thatcherism, but ultimately that only motivated people who personally lost out. The winners, and those who hoped to win, were not motivated to want change at all. This time Labour needs to make a very different sort of attack, establishing in the minds of the mainstream that Tory government isn’t just bad for other people, it’s bad for them. It is only if people see Tory government as a personal risk that they will be in the market for change at all.

The second, harder, task is to establish Labour as capable of delivering the kind of change voters want. This is particularly tough in opposition because you cannot demonstrate competence by delivering. You cannot point to a school you built or a tax you cut or a nurse you hired and say ‘we did that’. So competence has to be established by proxy. This is in part about the nature of the things you say you would do if in power, but it is also about the way you conduct yourself – organized, composed, robust, guided by consistent and clear principles, focused on what matters. Local government also has a role to play, showing Labour can govern effectively.

Establishing credibility is particularly important if Labour wants to go into the next election arguing for higher spending. Simply persuading voters of the need for additional investment will not be enough. Labour also needs to establish that it can be trusted with the cash. The folk memory is of a Labour party that saw every problem as a reason to increase spending. Labour needs to shift that reputation and establish that it will make savings where they can be made. Labour needs to look tight if it wants to be trusted to spend more.

The third element of an effective strategy is to offer voters the kind of change they want.

When constructing this offer, it is important to consider not just how popular an idea is, but also how much people care about it. Take, for example, the two issues of rail ownership and immigration. The good news is that on rail, Labour’s new policy is popular. The bad news is that almost no-one cares.  While voters support nationalization by a margin of 58 to 17, just one in twenty-five say it is one of the most important issues facing the country. In contrast, Labour’s perceived approach to immigration is deeply unpopular. Seventy-three per cent of voters think it is essential to reduce the level of immigration in Britain, including 58% of BAME voters (15% disagree) and 54% of 18-24 year olds (18% disagree). Half the country say it is one of the most important issues Britain faces. Across these two policy areas, Labour has one popular policy, one unpopular policy; but it is only the unpopular policy that matters. Labour’s change would be for the worse as far as most voters are concerned.

It is vital that the offer Labour ends up with adds up to more than the sum of its parts. There are very few policies that can, in and of themselves, swing votes. The party needs a coherent approach to the future, not an Argos catalogue of stuff it wants to do. The role for most policy development is to show you can be trusted and indicate the direction of travel. The issue, for example, with the rail policy is that it potentially looks utopian rather than practical even to voters who support it. Similarly, while most voters support ending immigration for two years, a party that adopted that position would not benefit at all – it is obviously implausible.

Each step of this approach depends on getting a message across to the public. That means finding a simple, comprehensible, relevant theme and sticking to it. It is not Tory-lite to want voters to know what Labour’s message is. At the moment, voters simply do not know what Labour is offering. Two thirds of people simply don’t know what Labour’s message is, and the remaining third divide over a broad range of topics. That has to change.

The other thing Labour needs is to deal with its past. Labour wants the 2020 election to be about the future, but unless it resolves the issue of its own past, it won’t be. Just as the Winter of Discontent was a factor in 1992 and Black Wednesday a crutch for Labour in 2005, so the opposition party’s record would again be at the heart of the debate. Voters think government is responsible for what happens, whether they cause it or not. When you preside over the deepest recession since World War II, a failed war and an unexpected surge in immigration, you have some big failures to answer for.

There are some fundamental differences of opinion about how to resolve this issue. At the Fabian conference, we heard Miliband advisor Tom Baldwin argue that Labour’s self-criticism made as much sense as Ford trying to persuade people to buy their cars by saying their previous models were crap. On the other hand, Deborah Mattinson’s conclusion based on the focus groups she did for the Beckett report is that Labour needs to  “atone for its past”.

Former campaign chief, Spencer Livermore says one of the big mistakes of the Miliband years was the effort to ‘define against the last government’. Lynton Crosby’s analysis is the precise opposite – a key reason Labour lost was that it didn’t accept voters’ verdict on its record.

Crosby’s analysis is particularly telling, because he notes that voters do not think spending caused the crash. All the Labour efforts to deny that spending caused the crash are therefore missing the point. The problem is perceived profligacy and under-regulation of banks.

Reconciling these views is as much a question of psychology as psephology. The Labour party from top to bottom is rightly proud of much that was achieved in the Blair/Brown years. Many seem scarred by the lack of recognition those successes earn. They want to defend their record, as much as Labour’s. This psychological anchor helps explain why opposition parties often need new generations of politicians to come through before they can properly move on. Politicians like Tony Blair.

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