Labour are in trouble. The wave of post-Budget polls spelled bad news for the party, revealing its lead over the Conservatives to have tumbled to a single percentage point from a high of nine in early March.
Naturally, it is unwise to read too much in a single cohort of polling data. As if to emphasise this point, the YouGov/Sunday Times weekly poll for 30 March– the first following the post-Budget rush– showed the Labour lead had rebounded to seven points. As the experts will tell you, it’s the underlying trend that counts, not the momentary snapshot.
But the historic precedents offer cold comfort to those who believe Labour’s 2015 election chances are already on the wane. Looking at ICM/Guardian polling from the last six elections, Labour has dropped an average of 3.3% in the 13 months prior to a General Election. The Conservatives, meanwhile, scored an average 2.9% gain over the same period.
Small wonder, then, that the latest round of polls have served to widen a fissure that has been growing within the party since Labour first unveiled its election strategy. On one side stand the so-called ‘majoritarians’; on the other, the ‘thirty-five percenters’. Both labels entered the popular lexicon thanks to Andrew Rawnsley’s article in The Observer on March 31.
To sum up Rawnsley’s nifty categorisation, the majoritarians want Labour to cast their electoral net as wide as possible to capture the most votes and secure a landslide election victory of 1997 proportions. Their model is New Labour and the ‘big tent’ strategy perfected by Tony Blair over three subsequent election victories.
Conversely, the thirty-five percenters are focused on winning back just enough former Labour voters and disaffected Liberal Democrats to put Ed Miliband in Number 10. They do not care about the size of Labour’s majority in 2015, just so long as it is large enough for the party to govern.
Does it matter who wins the battle for Labour’s election strategy? Yes and no. Yes because the type of voters the party targets will determine the manifesto Labour puts together for 2015. If the majoritarians get their way, Labour’s manifesto will incline to the centrist, catch-all policies most likely to win over Tory voters. A Conservative-lite package may mimic the strategy of New Labour, but is unlikely to duplicate its success, especially since many voters still do not trust Labour with the economy. It’s also likely to agitate Labour’s base, which is hungry for a radical anti-austerity message to take to the electorate.
If the thirty-five percenters carry the day, the manifesto’s appeal can be narrower and therefore more daring. Cheerleaders for this strategy claim that a radical manifesto and a workable majority will allow Ed Miliband to implement the change he wants to see in the UK, instead of diluting his ambitions under majoritarian pressures.
On the other hand, when it comes to the mathematics of a General Election, the importance of the overarching strategy pales against the tactical need for Labour to win over one particular class of voters. These are the skilled manual workers – known as the C2 group in pollsters’ parlance – who make up around 21% of the population, according to Ipsos-Mori.
Both Labour and the Conservatives are making a determined pitch to win over ‘hardworking people’, and it seems they have the C2s in mind as they do so. They have good reason to as well, since in the nine elections since October 1974, the winning party has triumphed only once without a lead in the C2 category – in 1992, when the Conservatives trailed Labour by 1%.
Carrying one social class does not an election victory make, but since the Conservatives hold a lock over middle- and upper-class workers, and Labour over the semi- and unskilled working classes, the C2s represent the only electoral battleground where substantial shifts in voter preference can take place.
In light of this, the factional infighting within Labour should focus less on whether we want to be populists or radicals, and more on how we win over these ‘hardworking people’.