With an unpopular Tory government in the last year of its mandate, the opposition Labour Party should be riding high. However, there is no mood of eager expectation in Labour ranks as the May 8, 2015, election date draws closer: indeed there is some apprehension. The reasons for this subdued atmosphere explain a lot about the state of British politics today. For most of 2014, Labour has headed the polls by three to four percentage points, but this may be too little for victory.
Neither the Scottish elections in 2013, nor the European elections in the spring of 2014, nor the Scottish independence referendum in September brought Labour much comfort. In 2013 the Scottish National Party, which like the Parti Québécois projects itself as a broadly left-of-centre party, won an absolute majority in the Holyrood parliament, quite an accomplishment under a proportional electoral system. Labour, Scotland’s traditional premier party, lagged well behind. In the elections to the Strasbourg parliament , the anti-EU United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) triumphed, with Labour a disappointing second (the Tories came third). The upsurge in the UKIP vote to 27.5 per cent sent shock waves through the political system. Since, UKIP has managed since to hold fast at around 15 per cent in the polls – way ahead of the Tories’ coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats.
The European elections were soon overshadowed by the battle over the Scottish independence referendum. Over the summer the margin of a No victory narrowed sharply. In the event, No won quite comfortably (55 to 45 per cent) on an extremely high turnover of 85 per cent – the highest ever recorded in U.K. electoral history. If the vote had gone otherwise, the implications for Labour would have been dire. Of the 58 Scottish seats, Labour holds 40, the Lib Dems 11, the SNP six and the Tories one. Deprived of its Scottish seats, Labour would have struggled mightily to win a majority in 2015. This cloud has now been lifted.
But for Labour there remain other worrying clouds. The race over independence tightened largely because working-class voters in traditional Labour strongholds drifted to the Yes camp. Its great bailiwick, Glasgow, voted Yes and it was estimated that around 40 per cent of those who voted Labour in the 2010 Westminster elections opted for independence. Some of its seats are expected to fall to the SNP next May.
The plain fact is that Labour has struggled since 2010. There are many reasons but here I focus on the most pressing, what I call Ed Miliband’s four predicaments: leadership, economic competence, immigration and social welfare. Then I turn to some considerations – stagnant living standards, fears over the National Health Service (NHS) and the operations of the party and electoral systems, which may ease Labour to the winning post even on a modest share of the vote.
Predicament no. 1: The question of leadership
The age of fixed and predictable party allegiances has vanished. Politics is fluid, the voters are fickle and the best-laid plans can easily be disrupted by capricious events. The act of voting is no longer the expression of preexisting loyalties, as it was once for many, but an actual choice. But how, in the ever-changing and often bewildering world of politics and policies, do voters actually choose? The theory favoured by many political commentators, that voters engage in some process of rational and deliberative decision-making, lacks evidence and plausibility. One alternative explanation of electoral behaviour is valence theory.
Valence theory holds that most voters agree on the ends of political action, such as price stability, rising living standards and domestic security, and what matters is which party is judged best able to realize them. Since most people are disinclined to invest time and effort in assessing the merits of differing policies, valence theory maintains that they rely on cognitive shortcuts.
The most important of these is evaluation of party leaders. Unlike issues and policies, which are complex and often abstract, party leaders are highly visible embodiments of their parties.1 The leader who scores higher on such attributes as perceived competence, likeability and trustworthiness is assumed more likely to deliver desired policy outcomes. This is more an affective than a reasoned judgment – how people feel about leaders, whether they like or dislike them, whether or not they find them congenial and attractive. Miliband scores poorly (though not as poorly as Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg). David Cameron is not particularly popular, but he comes over as competent, slick and self-assured, and Labour’s leader has consistently and by a wide margin trailed behind him. In September 2014 the polling organization YouGov reported that:
- 15 per cent of people think that Ed Miliband has provided an effective opposition to the government, 68 per cent that he has not;
- 20 per cent think Miliband has made it clear what he stands for, 64 per cent that he has not;
- 18 per cent think he would be up to the job of prime minister, 63 per cent that he would not.2
Miliband is widely seen as “geeky,” inexperienced, lacking leadership skills and “uncharismatic.” Why so many voters have a negative image of him – aside from the fact that unlike Tony Blair he is no media natural – is something of a mystery. Certainly four years of negative anonymous briefings by assorted Blairites’ portraying him as “laughable” and “abysmal” have not helped.3 With so much of the press unremittingly hostile, he lacks the means to radically alter public perceptions of himself.
Predicament no. 2: Running the economy
A second shortcut to simplify voter choice is perceptions of the relative economic credibility of the various parties. A reputation for economic competence is usually seen as a key to electoral success. Here too Labour has consistently lagged behind the Tories. When invited to consider whom they most trust to run the economy, voters opt for Cameron and Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne over Miliband and shadow chancellor Ed Balls by a wide margin.
Labour was in office in 2008 when the financial crash occurred, and inevitably bore some of the blame. It compounded its problem by not seriously contesting the Tories’ relentless spin that this was “Labour’s recession.” As a result, many accepted the idea that responsibility for the global recession was to be attributed to former Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s mismanagement of the economy and his government’s “profligate” spending. Labour did increase spending over the last decade on public services, but many came to believe, despite evidence to the contrary, that no discernible improvement took place. In a nutshell, the Tories “successfully defined Labour as the party of economic incompetence, financial profligacy and recession.”4
Since 2010 there has been no consensus within Labour’s ranks on how to regain the voters’ trust on running the economy. For the Blairite right wing, Labour must demonstrate “fiscal responsibility,” committing itself to tough fiscal targets on tax, spending and borrowing and to a balanced budget. Labour should acknowledge the constraints of the global economic order and confine itself to accommodative measures such as improving the supply side of the economy by upgrading “human capital” and infrastructure investment.5 In essence it should accept economic orthodoxy, avoiding tax-and-spend commitments that might frighten the voters. Equally, it should shy away from “corporate greed” or “predatory capitalism” rhetoric that might alienate business. For Chuka Umunna, the shadow business secretary and a rising star in the party, “the bottom line is this: to be pro-jobs you have to be pro the people who create them.”6
More radical voices within Miliband’s inner circle, backed by the left and the affiliated trade unions, argue that the party can only rebuild its economic credibility by advancing a plausible critique of the existing economic model. In outline, this critique runs as follows. The falling wages of both lower-income groups and the “squeezed” middle have depressed demand in the economy and generated a skewed recovery fuelled by high debt and a housing bubble. Falling wages are the outcome of a low-skill, low-wage model of competitiveness manifest in the “cost of living crisis.” The benefits of the belated economic recovery have accrued solely to “a privileged few.” “Predatory capitalism,” the reasoning continues, should be replaced by a high-skill, high-wage model of “responsible capitalism” entailing a fairer tax system, increases in the minimum wage, a freeze on energy prices, banking reform, enhanced vocational training and a major house-building program.7
Miliband has oscillated between his radical instincts, shared by the party’s policy review head Jon Cruddas and his intellectual allies, and the more fiscally conservative and pro-business preferences of shadow chancellor Ed Balls, elections coordinator Douglas Alexander and other senior figures on the party right. As top trade union leader Len McCluskie sums up, “There is an argument going on between those who want a transformative programme and those who want to ‘shrink the offer.’”8
Inevitably, what has emerged is a compromise – with the balance of advantage tending toward the right. In 2013 Miliband announced that a future Labour government would impose a cap on most welfare spending, would adhere to (very tight) coalition spending plans for its first year in office and would support the introduction of more means-testing of benefits. A year later Ed Balls, in his speech to the party’s conference, reiterated that a Labour government would give absolute priority to narrowing the deficit, exercise tight control over spending and on fiscal matters pursue a pro-business policy.9
Radical elements survive. For example, in his 2014 conference speech Miliband pledged significant increases in National Health Service spending and the minimum wage, more house building and measures to help the young unemployed. To offset these expenditures, Labour would introduce a “mansion tax” on owners of houses worth more than £2 million, higher taxes on tobacco firms and a freeze on universal child benefits. Further, the party pointed out that not only was its timescale for deficit reduction more flexible than the government’s, but it rejected outright the Tories’ package of stringent welfare spending cuts and tax cuts for the affluent.
The net result is that the shift to “fiscal discipline” seems to have had little effect, for Labour’s economic credibility remains weak. As Polly Toynbee, one of the left’s most influential columnists, observed in July 2014, “Labour is still blamed for the crash, still labelled as a reckless spender and high taxer, so even a hint of spending still saps at its credibility.”10 By not combatting the government’s diagnosis of the economic crisis and in conceding the indispensability of austerity, albeit with a human face, Labour has in effect opted to fight the next election on the Tories’ chosen ground.
Predicament no. 3: The politics of immigration and the rise of UKIP
Immigration and race relations have bedevilled Labour’s relationship with the electorate for decades. Its broadly liberal stance is not shared by many of its working-class supporters. Labour’s electoral vulnerability has intensified in the last decade as the rapid expansion of immigration (mainly from inside the European Union) has propelled the issue to the top of the political agenda. Particularly among the less educated, resentment of immigrants – a term loosely used to encompass asylum-seekers, EU migrants and, often, members of ethnic minorities born in the U.K. – has sharpened. In a survey of more than 20,000 people, Lord Ashcroft found that 60 per cent thought immigration had a negative impact on the country with only 17 per cent believing the opposite. The consistent complaints, often with little empirical support, are that immigrants have taken jobs away from British workers, are claiming too many benefits, are lowering wages and are putting an unfair burden on hospitals and schools.11
UKIP first emerged as an anti-EU party, but the EU is not a high-salience issue. In contrast, many see immigration as the biggest threat facing the U.K. and this fear – stoked up by the tabloid press – is proving by far the most effective recruiting sergeant for UKIP. Initially Labour reassured itself that UKIP, whose leading cadres are almost exclusively former Conservatives, would split the right-wing vote, and this may yet prove to be the case. But in addition to being a home for disaffected Tories, UKIP has attracted support across the social spectrum.
Any lingering complacency in Labour ranks was dispelled by a shock byelection result in October. Labour won Heywood and Middleton, formerly a stronghold in Greater Manchester, by a mere 617 votes. In a simultaneous byelection in Essex, the Tory MP who had switched to UKIP retained the seat for his new party by a handsome majority.
The main explanation for these results seems to be immigration. Resentment toward immigrants tends to be most pronounced among working-class and lower-income groups that, in general, are more likely to back Labour. There is a palpable sense among these groups that the party is not voicing their concerns. One survey, for example, found that 50 per cent of voters regard it as putting the interests of immigrants ahead of those born in Britain. For many of its former supporters, Labour is no longer a party “for people like us.”12
The rising salience of immigration appears to reflect some deep-seated changes in political culture. While the capacity of class to shape political alignments has diminished, other forms of social identity have not. Recent years have witnessed the rise throughout western Europe of a muscular new politics of social identity rooted in ethnic and national allegiances.
The increasing use in the U.K. of the term white working class is of interest. Whereas the term working class is associated with class solidarity, left political leanings, trade union membership and voting for Labour, white working class generally connotes authoritarian political values, anti-immigrant sentiment, hostility to the EU and, most notably, ethnic identity. Research tells us that social identities contribute to how people orient themselves to the political world. They function as interpretive frameworks that organize political perceptions and attitudes.13
The growing prominence of ethnicity as a source of social identity has been fed by factors extending beyond the perceived impact of immigration on jobs, wage levels and welfare availability. There is also a fear that immigrants threaten cherished values, symbols of national belonging and customary ways of life. This interpretive frame deflects anger at stagnant living standards, job insecurity and shortage of housing onto “outsiders,” those who are not “properly British.” UKIP, with its highly nationalistic posture, anti-immigrant rhetoric and, at times, xenophobia, has given vent to this widespread mood. In Heywood and Middleton, where the party knew it faced a serious challenge from UKIP, Labour pivoted its campaign almost exclusively to defence of the NHS, and depicted UKIP as neo-Thatcherites determined to dismantle public services. This plainly failed to resonate and the party is still seeking ways of meeting the UKIP challenge.
Some want Labour to exhibit a more sympathetic attitude to what underlies support for UKIP. The party has toughened its position on immigration and migration flows from the EU, but short of adopting UKIP’s draconian policies, it is unclear precisely what more Miliband can do. Under strong pressure after the byelection shock, he responded by calling for tougher benefit rules for migrants. But as a man of some integrity and the son of Jewish wartime refugees, he is clearly unwilling to make the policy concessions or use the unsavoury rhetoric needed to lure back UKIP deserters. As one influential Labour blogger commented, “Immigration is one of those issues on which it’s hard-wired into the public imagination that we are ‘soft’ on immigration. And no amount of tough-talking rhetoric … has helped our case a jot.”14 There is no easy solution to Labour’s predicament on immigration.
Predicament no. 4: The spectre of the “welfare scrounger”
Labour’s fourth vulnerability is social welfare. The party remains instinctively committed to helping those whose standard of living has been most battered by Conservative austerity measures. The problem for Labour is that Tory reductions or caps on sickness, housing, disability and unemployment benefits have been popular with voters of all social classes. Underpinning this attitude is the perception that many welfare beneficiaries do not deserve them. Research conducted in April 2014 uncovered a widespread belief in rampant “scrounging” and social security fraud – even among the poor and welfare recipients themselves. Despite a surge in inequality and poverty, belief in the state’s responsibility to care for the disadvantaged has dwindled.15 Even though Labour tightened eligibility for social benefits when it was in power, it is identified in the public eye with the socially disadvantaged and marginalized. As a result many manual and clerical workers feel that it no longer has their interests at heart, that it is the party of the “underserving” poor and has “little to offer ordinary, ‘hard-working’ families.”16
For the Blairite right, Labour must accept that it has lost touch with mainstream opinion. Blairite frontbencher Liam Byrne reported that “many people on the doorstep at the last election, felt that too often we were for shirkers not workers. We’ve got to deal with that if we want to get re-elected.”17 The Blairite recommendation is to stiffen the party’s stance on social benefits.
The problem for anyone seeking to design evidence-based welfare policies in line with the party’s values is the sharp disparity between mass attitudes and social realities. As a report commissioned by an alliance of U.K. churches disclosed, there is a very large gap between popular belief about welfare and facts on the ground.18 For example, the scale of fraudulent claims was far smaller than most people believed and the ease with which social benefits could be accessed was grossly exaggerated.
On the other hand, the unions have staunchly defended the welfare system and called for more generous social spending. To others on the left, antipathy toward welfare recipients (and immigrants) is a projection on out-groups of the resentment and anger caused by deteriorating material conditions.19
Faced with rival prescriptions, the Labour leadership has equivocated, its responses often hesitant and uncertain. However, it has drifted, unsteadily, to a sterner line on welfare. Polly Toynbee caustically noted that the party was “transfixed by dire polls showing voters see them as soft on welfare” even though the last Labour government was a regime in which the “conditions for getting benefits were among the EU’s toughest, and benefits among the meanest.”20 The problem for Labour is that it can never outbid the Tories and UKIP in the toughness stakes.
And yet Labour may still pull through
Under Ed Miliband Labour is defined by ideological ambiguity. It is no longer in thrall to the “third way” doctrine of New Labour but has yet to settle on an alternative. Miliband has been pushed hither and thither by contending forces. The Blairite right of the party is pro-business, pro-market and fiscally conservative.21 The unions, the left and some of Miliband’s closest advisers see this as electorally unproductive and economically shortsighted; they call for a new model of “responsible capitalism.”
The key motif in Miliband’s 2014 Labour Conference speech was “together,” but it sounded, dull, uninspiring and banal. Too often the party’s message seems tepid and evasive. Many within Labour’s inner circle seem fixated with the transient – catchy sound-bites to win headlines, clever invective and adept political manoeuvres. As Stuart Hall and his colleagues concluded, “Labour is not yet winning hearts and minds. It shuttles between conflicting ways forward … It makes effective tactical interventions but appears tongue-tied when invited to enunciate an alternative set of principles, to outline a strategic political approach or to sketch out a compelling alternative vision.”22
Labour’s four vulnerabilities appear to indicate that Labour cannot secure more than about 35 per cent of the vote. Paradoxically, it may still win, or at least emerge as the largest party in Parliament, in 2015. There are four reasons: living standards, the NHS, fragmentation of the electorate, and the electoral system.
The Tories have not yet benefited from a year that has seen steady economic growth, price stability and rapidly falling unemployment. A key reason may be what Labour calls “the cost of living crisis.” For a large majority of the population, living standards have been falling for years and continue to do so. The economy may be reviving, but most have yet to feel any benefits. Wage trends appear to bear out Labour’s critique of the existing low-wage, low-skill economic model. Party campaigners can be expected to hammer away remorselessly on this point.
The NHS remains an immensely popular institution – the nearest thing, one Tory MP once said, the British have to a religion. Labour will always be far more trusted on defending the NHS than the Tories. The Tory–Lib Dem coalition has squandered large sums of money on a major reorganization of the health service, which has been wasteful, damaging and much resented. “Saving the NHS” as a campaign slogan should resonate.
Britain now has a four-party system – perhaps even five-party if we count the Greens notching up to about 5 per cent. The two major imponderables are the collapse of the Lib Dem vote and the rise of UKIP. At present, the polls indicate the Lib Dem vote at a third of its 2010 score. A quarter or more Lib Dem supporters shifted almost immediately to Labour after 2010. How the rest will vote and whether the party can regain some ground in 2015 is unknown. An even bigger imponderable, however, is the UKIP vote. In a first-past-the post system the geographical distribution of votes is all-important, and it appears likely the rise of UKIP will harm the Tories more than Labour in marginal ridings.
The final point is electoral boundaries. As a result of a dispute between the coalition partners, boundary redistribution has been delayed, which means that Labour retains an in-built advantage in the relationship between votes and seats.
For these four reasons, 35 per cent may be enough. We should not forget that Labour won the 2005 election with a comfortable majority of almost 70 – on a 36 per cent share of the vote.
1H.D. Clarke, D. Sanders, M. Stewart and P. Whitely, Political Choice in Britain (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 29.
2 YouGov Daily Briefing, September 23, 2014.
3 As reported by Peter Wilby in the New Statesman, October 10, 2014.
4 Patrick Diamond and Giles Radice, Southern Discomfort One Year On (London: Policy Network, 2011), p. 10.
5 Ibid., pp. 19, 30; G. Cooke, A. Lent, A. Painter and H. Sen, In the Black Labour: Why Fiscal Conservatism and Social Justice Go Hand-in-Hand (London: Policy Network, 2011), p. 4.
6 Financial Times, September 22, 2014.
7 See, e.g., Lord (Stewart) Wood, “We Need to Talk about the ‘Middle,’“ openDemocracy, February 15, 2013, retrieved here (Lord Wood is one of Miliband’s closest advisers).
8 Financial Times, April 2, 2014.
9 Financial Times, September 22, 2014.
10 Guardian, July 22, 2014.
11 R. Ford, G. Morrell and A. Heath, “’Fewer but Better’? Public Views about Immigration,” in A. Park, E. Clery, J. Curtice, M. Phillips, and D. Utting, eds., British Social Attitudes: The 29th Report (London: NatCen Social Research, 2012), p. 31, retrieved from http:www.bsa-29.natcen.ac.uk; Lord Ashcroft, Small Island: Public Opinion and the Politics of Immigration (London: Author, 2011), p. 5, retrieved here.
12 Ford, Morrell and Heath, “’Fewer but Better’?,” p. 33; Diamond and Radice, Southern Discomfort One Year On, p. 19; Matthew Goodwin and Caitlin Milazzo in the Guardian, June 24, 2014.
13 Vincent Price, “Social Identification and Public Opinion: Effects of Communicating Group Conflict,” Public Opinion Quarterly, Vol. 53, No. 2 (Summer 1989), pp. 197–224.
14 Mark Ferguson, Labour List, November 13, 2013.
15 “Benefits Crackdown Leads to Divide and Rule Within Poor Communities,” Guardian, April 30, 2014; Peter Taylor-Gooby, “Why Do People Stigmatise the Poor at a Time of Rapidly Increasing Inequality, and What Can Be Done About It?,” Political Quarterly, Vol. 84, No. 1 (January–March 2013), pp. 31–42; Elizabeth Clery, Lucy Lee and Sarah Kunz, Public Attitudes to Poverty and Welfare, 1983–2011 (London: NatCen Social Research for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2013; see summary here.)
16 Diamond and Radice, Southern Discomfort One Year On, p. 9.
17 Daily Telegraph, September 26, 2011.
18 Baptist Union of Great Britain, Methodist Church, Church of Scotland and United Reformed Church, The Lies We Tell Ourselves: Ending Comfortable Myths about Poverty (London: Joint Public Issues Team, 2013), retrieved here.
19 Jonathan Rutherford, “The Future is Conservative,” in Maurice Glasman, Jonathan Rutherford, Marc Stears and Stewart White, eds., The Labour Tradition and the Politics of Paradox: The Oxford London Seminars 2010–11, e-book (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 2011), pp. 88–105, retrieved here.
20 Guardian, January 6, 2012.
21 G. Cooke, “Political Strategy for a New Economy,” Renewal, Vol. 20, No. 1 (2012), p. 43.
22 Stuart Hall, Doreen Massey and Michael Rustin, “After Neoliberalism: Analysing the Present,” Soundings, Isssue 53 (Spring 2013), p. 20, retrieved here.