Don't count on an easy ride, Mr Smith: In an open letter to the Labour leader, Ivor Crewe tells him 10 things he may not wish to know

Click to follow
The Independent Online
HEREWITH my frank and confidential appraisal of Labour's electoral situation: first, a progress report since your defeat a year ago; then an assessment of the task ahead.

1. Don't be fooled by the current polls. True, in the latest Gallup 9000 poll Labour is 15 per cent ahead and you lead John Major by 32 per cent to 25 per cent as 'best prime minister'. But as a clue to the next election result these results are meaningless. Remember, in spring 1990, when the poll-tax furore reached its crescendo, Labour was as much as 24 per cent ahead and Neil Kinnock was further ahead of Margaret Thatcher than you are of Mr Major. But you lost the election two years later.

You should in fact be concerned that Labour's lead is not greater. The Government is even more unpopular now than during the poll-tax protests, yet Labour's lead is smaller. In other words, the Government's unpopularity is not being fully converted into committed Labour votes.

2. Don't get smug about your own ratings. Compared with Mr Kinnock, you are an electoral asset - or, to be frank, less of a liability. Your Gallup 'approval index' is a healthy if unspectacular 15-16 point surplus, but at around 45 per cent it is only a few percentage points better than Kinnock's and well below Harold Wilson's scores before he won in 1964. Last month's Gallup reports that overwhelming numbers regard you as 'caring', 'likeable' and 'competent', but much smaller numbers as 'effective', 'tough' and 'firmly in charge'. They are still not convinced you have leadership qualities. You do not frighten the horses, as Mr Kinnock did. But you do not particularly attract them either.

3. Don't underestimate the task ahead.

The Conservatives' majority of 21 is more secure than it looks. In the popular vote a year ago, they were still eight points ahead - your third worst defeat since 1935. Moreover, the new boundaries on which the next election will be fought will switch 15 seats from the Labour to Conservative column. For a bare overall majority you have to gain 70 Conservative seats, requiring a swing of about 6 per cent - about double your best performance at any election since 1945. Ignore the siren chants of 'one more heave'. You need another 1945 earthquake - and the geology is unfavourable.

4. Demographic trends are against you.

Britain is a rapidly ageing society. By 1996-7, the number of 18- to 21-year- olds will have fallen to a new low, while the number of pensioners will continue to soar. Electorally, this is bad news. In the past, what Labour lost from the drift of middle-aged supporters to the right it made up with new voters and the death of elderly Conservatives. By the next election the high-turnout, 'grey' vote will count for far more than the declining, low-turnout, young vote.

5. Social trends are against you, too.

Practically every Labour-voting group is contracting, practically every Conservative-voting group is expanding. When you last won, in 1974, the 'working class' made up 52 per cent of voters, trade union members 39 per cent and council tenants 33 per cent. Best estimates for 1996-97 are: working class 33 per cent, trade unionists 22 per cent, council tenants 20 per cent. More voters will own share certificates than union cards.

6. Even geography is not on your side. Voters will continue to move from north to south, thanks to '1992' and the Channel tunnel. In theory, this should turn southern Conservative marginals into southern Labour marginals. In practice, it turns northern Labour voters into southern Conservative voters. Recent research shows that there is something about living in the South - the visible evidence of prosperity perhaps, or the absence of a strong trade-union tradition - that turns working-class voters away from the Labour Party. Don't be deceived by Labour's halting 'recovery' in the South. London aside, Labour gained a mere six seats despite the recession. You are a very long way from conquering the South.

7. Folk memories of Labour are no longer favourable. When you last won, every voter over 45 - half the electorate - could remember the great reforming Labour government of 1945-50, and most working-class voters knew about the misery of illness or unemployment before the welfare state. By the next election, the only voters with any recollection of the Attlee government will be in their late sixties. Voters now take welfare services wholly for granted and know little about Labour's historic role in setting them up. What they associate with Labour governments will be the inflation and strikes of the 1974-79 Wilson/Callaghan administration, a memory regularly rekindled by the Tory press.

8. Recognise how deep-seated Labour's problems are. Election results are a product of each party's 'natural' vote, plus or minus the small swing arising from short-term factors. I estimate that Labour's natural vote is about 34 per cent, and slipping; the Conservatives', about 41 per cent, and edging up. Allowing a maximum of plus or minus 5 per cent for short-term factors, even the most favourable circumstances would put Labour ahead of the Conservatives by no more than 39 per cent to 36 per cent, hardly sufficient for a majority.

The swing of the pendulum will not be enough. Labour needs to transform itself. There are essentially only two strategies: either mobilise your traditional base much more effectively (the traditionalists' line), or extend it significantly (the modernists' line). You cannot do both and neither is easy. Two hard truths:

9. You are losing touch with your natural supporters. Last year you took barely half the vote of blue-collar trade unionists, council tenants or the unemployed. The biggest swing to Labour was among the professional and managerial classes; the smallest - a tiny 0.5 per cent - among the semi- and unskilled. Turnout among council tenants and the DE social classes was below the national average.

The problem is not wrong policies, but the atrophying of Labour's lines of communication to its working- class base. The communities that sustained Labour in the past have fragmented, and Labour's local activists live in the suburbs. Constituency parties, especially in working-class areas, are often paper organisations; there is no youth or student movement to speak of; trade unions, in decline themselves, rarely engage in political education; and the majority of working-class voters read Conservative newspapers. (And if the Mirror group abandons Labour, virtually the entire working class will be cut off from popular radicalism.)

10. You cannot broaden your appeal without producing conflicts of interest.

The changing social structure may provide new electoral opportunities - but also policy dilemmas between collective provision and individual choice. Take working women, for example. Women will make up 90 per cent of the projected growth in the labour force between now and 1997. Labour should be able to exploit the demand for childcare facilities; but in practice, what working-class mothers need - freely and widely available local authority nurseries and good public transport - conflicts with what professional and white-collar women want: cheap private transport, a childcare tax allowance and freedom to choose.

Or consider the issue of transport and the environment. Your middle- class activists, who will increasingly dominate the party conference, will be tempted to go green, embracing carbon taxes, road pricing and other restrictions on cars. Do not fall into the trap of underestimating voters' attachment to the private car in the Nineties in the way you underestimated their attachment to private housing in the Eighties. For the middle mass of C1s and C2s on whom you depend, driving the family down on jam-free roads to Euro Disney will be the meaning of freedom, prosperity and 'Europe'. Labour has yet to persuade them that it realises this, let alone that it can provide it.

As I say, it will not be easy.

Ivor Crewe is professor of government at the University of Essex.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments