Labour’s not a naked emperor – it’s a girl in a too-short skirt.

by Rob Marchant

With his LSE lecture, David Miliband is back. We should be delighted: not, one would hope, because there are too many partisan squabblers who wanted him to lead the party and can’t accept that he lost, but because we are all grown-ups and he is a huge talent which we cannot afford to waste. But some of his speech is both disturbing, and remarkable, nonetheless.

First, it is disturbing because you realise how constrained he is by the awful combination of filial loyalty and media scrutiny. So, whatever he says needs to be said in a code so opaque that it seems asking the impossible for any speech to break new ground. As Sunder Katwala points out, when talking about British politics he is carefully higlighting points of convergence with his brother, determined not to provide a credit-card-breadth of difference between them.

But these contortions ultimately twist his message. For example, one of the other points of convergence seems to be on the befuddled topic of community organising, which even the more committed members of David’s own campaign team thought its weak point. Much as we try to think otherwise, it is painful to watch David attempt to locate and reinforce these points of brotherly convergence. The ultimate conclusion of all of this must be the obvious one: that it cannot be good for Labour for one of its true remaining heavyweight talents to be thus hobbled; to be neither in the shadow cabinet nor truly enjoying the freedom of the back benches.

Perhaps more remarkable is his quoting of Anthony Painter’s and Nick Lowles’ fascinating searchlight report, “Fear and Hope – the new politics of identity”.  In the key passage, he notes the danger of assuming a natural centre-left majority when values issues cut across political divides in a fundamental way”.

Or rather, he says that we should not assume a progressive majority – in specific cases: note the caveat. Report co-author Anthony Painter goes further in his own summary article – tellingly, with no caveats– simply: there is no progressive majority in English politics.  But essentially they are saying the same thing. And Painter’s comment is not ten-a-penny political commentary, but good research based on the attitudes of real people (for the record, back in January and based on no research whatsoever, we wrote here those same words: “there is no progressive majority”).

Now, the purpose of this piece is not to try and dissect the speech for differences between the Milibands, an exercise we can happily leave to the more hostile media. But, on this one point, let us try and be honest and clear on David’s speech: it is difficult not to feel that the catch-all caveat when values issues cut across political divides in a fundamental way can be made to mean, er, whatever we need it to mean. Perhaps this is just in case someone concluded that he did not sign up to the progressive majority espoused by his brother. Or indeed, perhaps he truly believes the two are aligned on this (at any rate, we can certainly understand his reasons for wanting it to seem so). But neither does he thoroughly convince that he does not, too, reject the progressive majority.

Ed Miliband wrote unequivocally in the Guardian on 14 January: “there is a progressive majority”. But where is it? Where are these elusive progressives, who so happily elected a right-wing government? The answer is, it seems, that they are everywhere, except in the square on the ballot paper marked “Labour”.

In British left-wing politics today, it appears there are many gifted tailors – let’s call them the Neal Lawsons of this world – who will tell us of the fine properties of this cloth or that, of this left-leaning demographic or that which will cover Labour electorally. And the fact is that, unlike Hans Christian Andersen’s Emperor, we are not naked. It’s worse: we are partially-clothed. It’s a borderline case, a skirt which is only just too short. Our friends are all torn on the thorny issue and no-one will tell us the truth, that our fine clothes don’t reach down far enough.

But, you say, hang on: isn’t this an old concept, didn’t even Tony Blair in 1997 think there was a progressive majority in Britain that we should target? Well, yes and no: George Orwell wanted to ban the word “progressive” for the very good reason that it is too subjective. Blair had a very different idea of what “progressive” meant, including bringing in all of the Liberal supporter space – a feat clearly no longer possible, now that it is split – and more.

Right now, we reach out to leftish Liberals with mixed success and they are small in number. Rightist liberals are out of reach, locked grimly into the coalition. Resurgent nationalists have already eaten into our “progressive” vote in Scotland. But what we don’t do effectively is to reach out to disaffected Tories, or those unaligned centrists simply fed up with politics. We seem just not to understand broad church politics any more.  Cameron does.

In short: the evidence against the progressive majority is quietly stacking up, if we choose to hear it. At some point the voices of those who honestly think we are mistaken in sustaining its existence will get louder. Perhaps eventually they will reach a deafening roar; or, alternatively, perhaps they will be drowned out by the well-intentioned but wrong-headed idealism which keeps this myth alive.

But – let’s be clear – the Emperor in this case is not Ed Miliband, nor Neal Lawson, nor Neil Kinnock, nor anybody else. It is, simply, all and any of us who opt to sit here with our fingers in our ears.

Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour party manager who blogs at The Centre Left.

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9 Responses to “Labour’s not a naked emperor – it’s a girl in a too-short skirt.”

  1. Tacitus says:

    You know, I was walking along the road today and saw two young Muslim women walking in the opposite diredtion in full traditional garb. On seeing a working class elderly man walking the opposite way, they pushed their prams in single file as they passed. Once they were in the distance, the odler man was heard to say “…. arrogant *******!” Is this the progressive majority we keep hearing about?

    In the next few days I will campaign around a large social housing estate and the comments I will hear will, once again, make my hair stand on end. But nonetheless they will vote Labour – even though my political stance is diametrically opposite to theirs. Why? Well partly tradition and patrly because they hate the Tories.

    Our job must be to educate this silent, but essentially right-wing majority, whilst retaining our left-wing supporters. A tightrope walk by any standards, but since when has Labour had it easy.

    At our philosphical heart we cannot afford to renege on our socialist values, even though they are no longer popular – it is incumbent upon us to carry the struggle forward, just as weh ahve been doing for years.

  2. Edward Carlsson Browne says:

    This seems to elide the non-existence of a progressive majority – which is pretty clear and unanswerable, at least for any notion of a ‘progressive majority’ that means anything – and the notion that we shouldn’t appeal to the progressive minority. This seems odd to me, as whilst that’s not a majority of the electorate it is a significant proportion of the votes Labour can plausibly win but didn’t in 2010.

    Which is why we are reaching out to leftish Liberals – and quite effectively if local by-election results are anything to go by – as whilst they’re a comparatively small segment of the population nationally, they’re quite prominent in a lot of the seats we need to win back in the south, especially in the areas with a poor base vote.

    And as for the disaffected Tories or centrists fed up with politics, I’d argue that we are appealing to them using issues like VAT and the cost of fuel. What more would you want done? And please do bear in mind that Broad Church politics cuts both ways – Labour began to fail on that when it drove away some voters on the left, with most of our losses on the right only coming a few years later.

  3. Rob Marchant says:

    @Tacitus: I don’t know about educating the silent majority, but certainly engaging with them would be a start.

    @Edward: your first comment is a bit of a non-sequitur. Just because we have to reach out to the centre, no-one is saying we have to ignore the progressive minority: just not to make them the main focus of our approach. Re seats we need to win back in the South, er, no. Our principal lost constituency in Middle England is Tory-Labour swing voters, not leftish liberals.

    Labour did not fail electorally because of loss of voters on the left. I don’t know if you are familiar with the standard statistical “bell curve”, but it stands to reason that the number of voters in the centre is going to be larger than at the two extremes. You also imply that this loss of votes on the left was somehow a causal factor in, or at least a precursor of, later losing voters on the right, but I really can’t see how you get to this conclusion. What’s the evidence?

  4. Edward Carlsson Browne says:

    Actually, I think you’ll find the reason for our losses was desertions from both the right and left, and I believe I can prove it.

    Here are the seats we’ve lost in East Anglia since 1997 (I won’t do the rest of the southern ones, since I can’t be bothered digging them up right now) and the changes seen in the support of the three main parties in each of them:

    Thurrock: L -26.7, C +10.0, LD +2.4
    Castle Point: L -29.7, C +3.9, LD +0.2 (popular independent candidacy in 2010)
    South Basildon and East Thurrock (successor to Basildon, moderate and unfavourable changes): L -24.8, C +13.1, LD +4.7
    Harlow: L -20.4, C +12.8, LD +4.2
    Braintree (unfavourable changes since 1997): L -22.8, C +12.5, LD +7.2
    Clacton (successor to Harwich, heavy and unfavourable changes): L -13.7, C +16.5, LD +4.4
    Ipswich: L -18.0, C +8.0, LD +6.0
    Waveney: L -17.3, C +5.7, LD +4.3
    Great Yarmouth: L -20.2, C +8.5, LD +3.4
    Norwich North: L -18.3, C +8.1, LD +5.7
    Norwich South: L -23.0, C -0.8, LD +10.8
    North West Norfolk (the Manish Sood disaster makes this unrepresentative): L -30.5, C +12.7, LD +13.6
    Peterborough: L -20.8, C +5.1, LD +8.9
    Cambridge: L -29.1, C -0.3, LD +23.0
    Bedford: L -14.7, C +5.2, LD +7.6
    Hemel Hempstead: L -24.9, C +10.9, LD +10.6
    Welwyn Hatfield: L -25.7, C +20.5, LD +2.9
    Watford: L -18.6, C +0.1, LD +15.6
    Stevenage: L -22.0, C +8.6, LD +7.7
    St Alban’s: L -24.4, C +7.6, LD +15.4

    The trends here are fairly clear. The Lib Dem advance is less noticeable in South Essex and the East Anglian coastal towns, but it’s visible everywhere. Labour are down by around 20 points more or less everywhere but this is not reflected in a commensurate Tory rise.

    Whilst we can accept that the electorate changed a fair bit in thirteen years, it’s clear that Labour lost votes about as much to the Lib Dems (or minor parties in South Essex and the East Anglian coastal towns) as to the Tories. And this is especially true in Hertfordshire and the larger and more dynamic towns, which are much more representative of the nation as a whole than somewhere like Great Yarmouth is.

    It’s worth noting that in East Anglia, unlike (I’m told) the south-west, the Lib Dems do not generally run to the right.

    So yes, we need to win back left-liberals as well as Tory-switchers. We did not fail solely due to losing voters to the left, but your half-remembered GCSE statistics seems a lot less convincing to me than the raw vote numbers. If this is Middle England (a phrase I think we should ban, as it’s every bit as meaningless as ‘progressive majority’), its political leanings are a lot more complex than popular wisdom would suggest.

    For the record, I don’t think losing voters on the left caused the loss of voters on the right. I was just making the point that later-stage New Labour managed to piss off just about everybody in the electorate, and that an unquestioning return to that playbook might not be terribly well-received amongst our target audience.

  5. Rob Marchant says:

    @Edward: a good effort, and interesting – always like to see hard numbers – but I’m not sure this proves what you think it does. It shows that we lost to the Liberals, to the Tories and to people staying at home. Which I would agree with (I won’t quibble that you seem to equate “Liberal” with being to the left of Labour, whereas actually they are both left and right).

    Edward, I am glad you agree that the progressive majority is largely ambiguous to start with and I don’t think we really disagree that much anyway, we are both saying we need to win back left-liberals, right liberals and Tories where we can. My concern is merely that our current strategy has its centre of gravity in the wrong place, that’s all. We are currently reaching out only to – to use another banned phrase – the low-hanging fruit.

    Again you draw inferences which are not there: no-one is suggesting an “unquestioning return to that playbook” – your words, not mine. But perhaps we could learn from an era, when we won three elections on the trot, just what we did right with the demographics.

    I’d agree that Middle England is of course complex, but we’re talking at high level here. PS for the record, my stats was at grad and postgrad level, but what the hey.

  6. Edward Carlsson Browne says:

    Yes, Liberal is to the left and right of Labour, but polling suggested 2010 Lib Dems would have broken about 2-1 for Labour. Given that they tend to lean further right in the south-west, northern Scotland and rural Wales, it’s likely that in the east (and the south-east?) that ratio is probably more like 3-1. Certainly most of the Lib Dem campaigns in urban areas in the region that I was aware of marketed themselves (not generally honestly, but there you go) as to Labour’s left, whilst in rural areas we haven’t stood many local candidates recently and they tend to hover up the entire anti-Tory vote.

    But I agree that’s detail. We’re both agreed that we do have to get those who left from all the sides of the broad church. And I’m glad you mentioned those who didn’t turn out, because that’s probably as important as either of them in a lot of southern areas, because we had big problems with our core vote hollowing out.

    However, I do think that whilst left-liberals are ‘low-hanging fruit’ (yes, not a good phrase) they’re not secure supporters of us yet. Plenty of them still hate 2003 variety Labour and we could easily drive them away again. I actually think our focus there has to be on locking them into our coalition – because if we do it, they’ll be reliable votes come 2015.

    I’ll agree I’ve been arguing somewhat beyond you’ve actually said. To try to avoid doing that again, let me just ask a question: what specifically do you think we did right with the demographics? My memory is a lot better for the second half of our governing period, when we started to drive away people at the edges of our support, but any lessons you think are particularly useful from whichever period seem fruitful to discuss.

    I’ll take the point about the stats, but what was I supposed to assume when you suggested something like political behaviour could be unproblematically modelled as a normal distribution?

  7. james says:

    Rob, you’ll know I don’t have much time for right and left as euphemisms for (variously) labour and capital, radical change and moderate change – and I can tell you I don’t have much interest in “progressive” talk, it just distracts from the issues at hand.

    For Cameron, Philip Blond’s Red Tory shtick helped decontaminate the brand before election day, and for Miliband, the Blue Labour of Glasman/Cruddas, Progress’ the Labour South Front blog, can focus activists on winning in the parts of the country we need it most

  8. Rob Marchant says:

    @James: I have to say I am so far unconvinced by the Glasman thing, but hey, I may be converted in the future. We actually have a pretty good election-winning infrastructure (certainly compared with what it was when I started to work for the party in 1998, even on much less money than the Tories), and I think the Southern Front blog an excellent idea.

    Where we may differ is that while these things are important, at the moment I believe we have chiefly political, rather than organisational issues to sort out, such as (a) developing some (at least high-level) policy (b) economic credibility (c) what Peter Watt accurate calls “toxicity of the brand”. In the early 1990s we still had serious organisational problems, but we fixed them well and leapt ahead of the Tories in the late 1990s. Don’t reckon we are far behind them now, if at all, in terms of pure infrastructure.

  9. Rob Marchant says:

    @Edward: should just note that I’ve seen Liberals in rural areas be rather fluffy and leftish, while some in urban areas (e.g. Islington) quite nasty right-wingers. But not necessarily always honestly, as you say.

    What did we do right with the demographics? Well, you need to go back to 1992 (when we scared off the centrists, with higher taxes among other things), and between then and 1997 we managed to get them back into the fold so convincingly that we not only won a landslide but had stellar approval ratings well into the second term. Geographically we focused on the England that was neither urban nor rural (that’s what I would really call Middle England). Anyway the key point to all of this is that a large part of the above demographic is *not* what you would call progressive. “Normal” people who were fed up with the Tories and thought we deserved a chance.

    I am not saying we need to return to New Labour politically – we have all moved on – but we certainly need to return to that centrist demographic (or, if you prefer, centrist Tories, Liberals and undecideds). This is not new, it’s the same demographic we have always needed to win, go back to Wilson or further, although it becomes more important as time goes on (see my recent LFF post on this as to why). I’d say that if we focus on late New Labour (2003-) you miss all the good electoral strategy (2005 was an ok campaign, which I was involved in at HQ, and 2010 was a disaster. 1997 and 2001 were, in contrast, electoral masterclasses).

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