It's foolish for Labour to think that the voters have turned left

 

Share
Related Topics

The results of last Thursday’s council elections confirm Labour's modest but steady progress since its historic general election defeat in 2010. Labour made significant advances, even though many seats being fought were in hostile territory. New leadership has begun to reinvigorate the party, and a wide-ranging policy review is underway. The Tory-led Coalition appears increasingly accident prone, and is being dragged to the right by an insurgent Ukip threat, crushing David Cameron's hopes of establishing a new brand of centrist conservatism.

But it is clear that Labour still faces an uphill task if it is to win a governing majority in 2015 able to sustain the party in what everyone recognises will be challenging circumstances. The truth is that Labour is still not doing well enough to be confident of victory. It is an inescapable fact that if the party is to win the next election, it has to do much better in southern England. The sheer number of seats in these areas makes them key to a successful electoral strategy: in the South East alone outside London, there are 114 seats. South of the line from the Wash to the Bristol Channel, there are 302 parliamentary constituencies. Labour will not win an electoral majority by amassing more votes in the northern and Celtic heartlands.

The challenge for the party is re-establish the electoral coalition that brought it three consecutive victories, while recognising that it cannot just re-use the electoral play-book that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown fashioned in the 1990s. Ed Miliband is right to argue that the public have moved on from New Labour. For one, there is visceral anger at the lack of accountability among Britain's political and economic elite, manifested in the parliamentary expenses scandal and the outcry over banker's bonuses. British politics today feels more fluid and unpredictable: we have entered a phase of multi-party politics in an age when politics itself has never been held in greater disrepute. In appealing to voters in the southern seats it has to win, Labour must avoid the comforting but fundamentally illusory belief that the British people have shifted irrevocably to the left. Instead they have moved against the British political establishment, which, like it or not, includes Labour.

Labour enjoys a four-point lead over the Conservatives in the national projected vote share – a considerable improvement on 2009 when these seats were last fought, but this hardly indicates a decisive shift back towards power. In the Kent marginals that tend to determine which party can secure a parliamentary majority at Westminster, Labour’s progress was patchy. The party gained seats but its progress was halted by the Ukip surge. In bellwether constituencies such as Gravesham and Dartford, Labour gained several wards but the Conservatives were able to hold on to many of their councillors. In the Essex new towns, Labour made progress by winning nine wards across the county. However in 1997, Labour had won 23 out of 79 seats here. The swing towards Labour across the South was, more often than not, underwhelming.    

We have entered a phase of multi-party politics in an age when politics itself has never been held in greater disrepute. In appealing to voters in the southern seats it has to win, Labour must avoid the comforting but fundamentally illusory belief that the British people have shifted irrevocably to the left. Instead they have moved against the British political establishment -- which, like it or not, includes Labour.

Moreover, people no longer see policy issues in conventional 'left'/'right' terms. Indeed, they are increasingly uncomfortable with the false choices implied by what passes for political debate at Westminster. On the economy, many voters are desperate for a stimulus programme that revitalises Britain's infrastructure and housing stock, and gets the young unemployed back to work. But they fear that too much profligacy and an increase in public debt will endanger economic stability. They want to see vital investment in schools and the NHS, but they also demand greater value for money and an end to waste. Voters recognise that it is necessary for the rich to pay a higher share of tax in an era of austerity, but those on average incomes feel squeezed, and want government to recognise that the burden is already high enough for them.

Above all, Labour has to win the battle of ideas. The lesson of history is that Labour triumphs when, as in 1945, 1964, and 1997, it is seen as a party capable of uniting a broad spectrum of constituencies and classes. This means reaching out beyond narrow, partisan and tribal lines, demonstrating that Labour is a national party capable of governing in the national interest.  Winning voters trust to manage the economy competently, spend responsibly, and tax fairly need not be achieved at the expense of improving conditions for those most in need, tackling inequalities of income and wealth. In challenging times, Labour must be a party capable of offering a hand up to those who want to get on, as well as a helping hand to those in trouble.

Patrick Diamond is a former Downing Street   policy adviser to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Hydrographic Survey Manager

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Structural Engineer

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Structural Engineer Job...

Generalist HR Administrator, Tunbridge Wells, Kent - £28,000.

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Generalist HR Administrator - Tunbri...

Head of IT (Not-for-Profit sector) - East Sussex

£45000 - £50000 per annum + 5 weeks holiday & benefits: Ashdown Group: Head of...

Day In a Page

Read Next
James Foley was captured in November 2012 by Isis militants  

Voices in Danger: Syria is the most dangerous country in the world for journalists

Anne Mortensen
Texas Gov. Rick Perry might try to run for president again in 2016  

Rick Perry could end up in jail for the rest of his life — so why does he look so smug?

David Usborne
Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape