No way back from losing London?

by Atul Hatwal

Can you hear it? That creaking, grinding metallic sound, emanating from the capital.

Even faintly in the background?

No? Well, it will get louder in the coming months till it’s deafening.

It is the sound of the clock being turned back twenty years to a time when London was a Tory town.

Labour might have lost the 2010 general election, but London remained a last redoubt in the south. Despite all the troubles, Labour was still the dominant party, winning 36.6% compared to the Tories on 34.5% and the Lib Dems on 22.1%.

In terms of seats, the result was even better with Labour taking 38 seats, the Tories 28 seats and the Lib Dems just 7 seats.

But that was then and a year is an eternity in politics.

2011 could go down as the year in which the Tories turned back a generation of Labour ascendancy in London and pulled decisively ahead.

A new Uncut analysis of YouGov polling shows how a Labour lead of 2% in January had become a deficit of 4% by the start of June.

Polls can be deceptive and there is always a debate to be had about the extent to which they really reflect voting intentions, but two factors make these figures particularly worrying for Labour.

First, these aren’t rogue results or blips. The figures here are monthly averages based on several thousand responses across nearly thirty polls each month. Any random noise or sampling error has been ironed out by the volume of polling that goes into each month’s figures.

Second, these are the London results from polls where the national results have registered a consistent Labour lead of between 2-6 points. There is a long running debate on Uncut about whether this national lead is soft, but even without going into this discussion Labour is already trailing in London.

By any measure, the situation for Labour in London is bad. The consequences for the future could be even worse.

It’s not just about the councils that the Tories will retain in local elections. Or the mayoralty and the sight of Boris lording it at the olympics. Entrenched Tory local and regional government will only be a precursor to the real shift.

If the Tories become the majority party in London, then not only does an overall Parliamentary majority for Labour become even more distant, but something more fundamental also happens to the Tories.

Since 1997 the Tories have been virtually banished from most of Britain’s major cities. They improved in 2010, but didn’t truly break through. If the current polling were replicated at a general election, the Tories could gain upwards of 10 seats in London, taking them to 38 London seats.

10 extra seats might not sound that much, but moving up to almost 40 seats pushes the London Tories towards a tipping point in terms of their power within the Parliamentary Tory party.

These MPs would be beholden to a very different type of electorate compared to many of their colleagues – multicultural, metropolitan, and above all else, potential swing-voters.

They would change the dynamic on the Tory benches at Westminster.

In years after 1997, the Tory rump was safe to indulge its quest for Thatcherite purity through its leadership choices and policies because few of their MPs had to personally face a competitive election. A more mainstream, city Parliamentary bloc would moderate some of their party’s bluer tendencies, providing modernising ballast to anchor the Tories in the centre ground.

And by the same token, a Labour Parliamentary party pushed back to its northern citadels, without these London seats, would be more prone to the same drift and detachment that blighted the Tories for so many years.

It’s this type of change that redefines politics and political parties for a generation.

It’s a grim prospect; and based on Labour’s current approach, the chances of averting the rise of Tory London aren’t promising.

The next major campaign in the capital will be the 2012 mayoral election. If Ken Livingstone acts to type in terms of his electoral strategy, then the results will likely be dire.

Livingstone has one standard electoral play – the rainbow coalition. It’s his big city variant of the core vote strategy.

Step one, construct a coalition of minority interest groups where high turn-out can be assured.

Step two, give each group a clear policy win on a defining issue where most politicians equivocate.

Step three, turn the crank on the interest group get out the vote machine, and hope that when combined with the party’s base vote, Labour gets over the line.

It’s why Ken was happy to glad hand Lutfur Rahman in the Tower Hamlets election, so that he could secure the use of the Rahman electoral machine; and why Ken will pop up endorsing various niche causes and community leaders in the coming year.

What this strategy won’t do is win the argument with Londoners of all faiths and races on the central economic questions which impact us all. To the 60% of Londoners in the latest YouGov poll who think the government’s plans to cut the deficit are necessary, the strategy will be silent.

What the strategy will achieve is to present Labour as party with a menu of fringe causes, lacking mainstream, core beliefs.

For the 43% who believe the cuts are solely the fault of the last Labour government, it will present no compelling counter-argument. And in terms of preparation for the general election, it will do little to turn around Londoners’ current two-to-one preference for David Cameron as PM over Ed Miliband.

These are desperate times in London and for the party nationally. While voters recoil from a Labour party that doesn’t seem to have learnt any lessons from its general election, the leadership seem to be entirely preoccupied.

They are busy working through blue Labour’s agitational dialogue on relational state power and rolling on with their 27 different policy reviews. Leadership strategy briefings to the media are all about patience and developing a longer term narrative, moving beyond past paradigms, developing a new way of doing things.

For the more prosaic amongst us, one question recurs time and time again – “what does any of this mean”?

The gap between Labour’s leaders and its former voters couldn’t be wider.

And in the middle, between disillusioned voters and leaders locked in a sociology seminar, sits the membership of the Labour party.

Its abiding instincts are loyalty, not to rock the boat and trust in those at the top. But in the last few months, despite members’ default impulses, something has started to happen.

Slowly, the reality of Labour’s political situation is dawning.

It began as muttering and worrying, but has now broken out into meetings and general discussions. Across members from all sections of the party, for the past few weeks it’s been a major topic of discussion whenever two or three sit down together.

The conversation always starts the same way – “So what do you think”? It’s punctuated by baffled shrugs, rueful smiles and shaking heads and for most, ends in the same conclusion – it just feels like this is all slipping away from us.

In the coming months this nascent muttering will become a murmur and then more. Unless the leadership can do something sufficiently striking that changes the political weather in the next two months, then a stormy conference season awaits.

And this will be just a prelude.

Underpinning all these conversations is an unspoken assumption – that the party cannot and will not simply spend the next four years treading water like this.

London 2012 will be the crossroads.

A loss in London’s mayoral election next year would light the touch paper. A win would demonstrate how things have improved compared to where we are today.

Either way, within the next twelve months, something has got to give.

Atul Hatwal is associate editor of Labour Uncut.

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18 Responses to “No way back from losing London?”

  1. Dan McCurry says:

    A couple of striking remarks made by Deborah Mattinson at the Progress conference:

    “People see politics through symbols rather than complex narrative and Cameron does it well.”

    “People need to be told what are our core aims and values. If we don’t explain this soon, then there is a real risk that people will form a settled view that Labour is irrelevant”.

  2. Mike Harris says:

    I agree with every word of this piece. Excellent stuff.

  3. Lucien says:

    I think the situation in Brent is bad for Labour. Despite winning a landslide in the borough in May, the Liberal support in East Brent -once a Labour stronghold- has solidified in the last couple of elections.

    One answer is to focus on those who don’t currently vote. They aren’t disinterested, they just feel they have nobody they want to see in office.

  4. Rob Marchant says:

    Great piece Atul. One thing you might also add is that in building the rainbow coalition of left- and far left-leaning caucuses, Ken has also alienated not only the moderate centrists of the pre-2010 national coalition of voters but there are also ethnic groups, such as London’s Jews, which he has alienated by his flirtations with unpleasant Islamists. More in my piece on UCU here, and also in these excellent linked pieces by Ben Gidley and David Hirsh.

    The latter homes in on the “Livingstone Formulation”, deriving from a comment he made back in 2005 – fascinating reading.

  5. BenM says:

    A bit of a premature panic here methinks. A lead of a couple of points flips to a deficit of a couple of points. At a time when overall, the Tories have caught up a little in the UK wide polls.

    I’m suspicious of polls stating how vast the majority is in favour of cuts.

    There are economic dynamics going on because of Osborne’s foolishness that will quickly see this reversed. Labour needs to beef up its rhetoric and we don’t hear enough of Balls hammering home the conditions the Tories have unleashed on the ordinary people of this country. But still, the economy is likely to sink the Tories by 2015.

    Calm down.

  6. John P Reid says:

    Labour did fairly good in London at the 2010 election due to, LAobur had done badly in bothe the 2005 gen electiona dn the 2006 council elections, LAobur plowing resources into Dagenham ANd Braking/Ilford etc, Reember apart form Bromley ,Livingstone actually got more votes in 2008 election when he lost than in 2005 When He won.

  7. jim brady says:

    Labour’s problem is the Media. Labour have very few friends these days, and the media, doing its job for big business, seeks to make Labour electorily irrelevant. And to aid this strategy, the smokescreen continues for the Government to do largely whatever it likes – without question – with sights still firmly fixed on Labour. This always makes Labour appear to be on the back foot, defending rather than attacking – whilst the Tories continue their trajectory unscrutinised. A Tory hegemony then. This is the problem, and it is sad that Labour people beat themselves up in self-analysis when it is the media which is causing the problem. They need some of Cameron’s snakeoil salesman platitudes – it worked for him. Unfortunately – its not going to change.

  8. The Future says:

    Oh come on.

    The ‘David Miliband should have been leader fraction’ are seriously starting to over play their hand here. Everyday another even more pessimistic article appears. Constructive criticism is fine but the unwillingness of the editors of this site to offer any positives, nay seek out anything that can be span as bad news, serves only to alienate the vast majority of the party.

    Here’s a tip for you all. Stop blaming the electorate for what happened and actually start trying to engage with them.

    You are doing exactly what Tony used to warn against. Talking only amongst yourselves and not to the wider party membership. And just as old Labour became convinced of certain “truths” you are developing your own “truths” which are just as inaccurate.

    The membership wants unity. And it will punish in future those who harm our electoral chances by not demonstrating that now.

    If you really think the party membership wants or will want rid of Ed you are so far mistaken it’s comical. In fact, most members are already rather sick of the lack of loyalty being displayed by a certain wing of the party, especially after years of preaching the virtues of unity and support for the leadership as well!

    Rather than winning people round in the party you are alienating them. You are damaging future Blairite candidates and you are, by not focusing on where the rest of the party is, turning yourself into an irrelevance.

    The conversation is elsewhere and not where you are. Be part of it, not carping on the sidelines only to yourselves.

  9. Sunny H says:

    Livingstone has one standard electoral play – the rainbow coalition. It’s his big city variant of the core vote strategy.

    See, this is just lazy. If you pay attention to Ken’s campaign, the focus has entirely been on economic issues than the so-called “rainbow coalition”.

    So what if Ken’s supporters come from a wider ethnic range than Boris? That doesn’t mean the former has to actively alienate them. But Ken has done little to pander to minorities this time either.

    so please stop trying to paint the campaign strategy as something it’s not.

  10. Henrik says:

    @The Future: As a non-Labour supporter, your post makes me rub my hands with glee, I can’t *imagine* a more amusing spectator sport than observing yet another Labour civil war.

    As a democrat, I’m infinitely depressed. For the love of God, comrades, can you please stop being all Congress of People’s Deputies 1922 and actually get on with agreeing some sort of vision of the country as it might be under your leadership and making sure it’s the sort of thing that normal folk might be interested in experiencing? You know, being HM Opposition?

    As to whether this site is pro- or anti-Ed, I can’t say, not my business. It strikes me as being pretty even-handedly run and does give a broad range of rather interesting opinions a place to interact with one another.

  11. donpaskini says:

    “First, these aren’t rogue results or blips. The figures here are monthly averages based on several thousand responses across nearly thirty polls each month. Any random noise or sampling error has been ironed out by the volume of polling that goes into each month’s figures.”

    YouGov don’t weight their regional samples by gender, age, voting intention or social grade. So there’s no reason to believe that your monthly averages are based on a representative sample of Londoners (as opposed to an increased number of Tories from London filling in their surveys in May compared to January).

    For example, you’ve got the February average in London as a 2% lead for Labour, based on aggregating the relevant bits of their national polls. But YouGov did one poll of Londoners in February which was properly weighted and with a sample size of 1,259, and Labour had a 16% lead (their national poll on the same day found a 3% Tory lead in London).

    Now it is possible that the properly weighted poll is the outlier and the aggregate of unweighted surveys which is correct, but worth acknowledging the limitations of your approach before wailing about how we’re all doomed?

  12. CS Clark says:

    @The Future “Constructive criticism is fine but the unwillingness of the editors of this site to offer any positives, nay seek out anything that can be span as bad news, serves only to alienate the vast majority of the party.”

    To be fair, if you scare people enough, by the time you reveal your own ideas they won’t dare question them, just grab on to them like a drowning man being thrown a lifebelt. It’s the dynamic double whammy that made the Cameron/Osborne team so utterly dominant in politics today!

    @donpaskini – oh get away with you and your statistics. Don’t you know that any time two or three Labour party members get together they’re shaking their heads and doing that indrawn whistle thing? That’s the sort of evidence you can take to the bank. Any experiences you have had to the contrary are just anecdotal.

  13. william says:

    The problem is the left handed muslim vote. On course for a landslide 1983 result next time,all down to the media,and poor old Ken and his reminiscences with the Militant Tendency.

  14. hometruths says:

    Absolutely right, Don Paskini. Anthony Wells at UK Polling Report would completely demolish this shoddy twisting of the polling data.

    The sad truth is, unless the Tories completley cock things up, Labour can’t expect to win the next election having just been turfed out after 13 years in power. That how the British electorate work these days – they give the govt a good run at it unless they make a complete mess of it.

    So Labour is right to take their time, start with a blank sheet and plan for the long term. Figure out what the nation is really like now and what the party can offer them – no leader was likely to win the next election so you may as well have a really good think. Ed, David, Andy, Chukka or even Tony – it wouldn’t make any difference.

    It took the Tories about a decade after 1997 to figure that one out. I fear the ‘Hodges et al’ wing of the party is making the same mistake.

  15. Atul Hatwal says:

    Don – its true those figures are unweighted, but I’d make five points:

    (a) there are 19 individual sub-breaks in the YouGov polls that are interlocked. The numbers for individual categories within social demographic, age, 2010 vote, voting intention, gender and region are all inter-related which means a detailed cross-section of Londoners were sampled in each poll.

    (b) The large volume of responses, over a period of months, for this detailed cross-section of London society will give a robust view of opinion unless, and this is key, there is a systematic flaw in the way YouGov sample in London that means each poll is skewed in the same way. Based on their technique I don’t think that’s the case.

    (c) The YouGov sampling technique, whatever your opinion of it, is consistent across the time period covered so come what may, the facts remain that Labour had a lead, we’ve lost it and the trend line points to a widening deficit.

    (d) Unweighted figures do have the merit of being actual responses to actual questions rather than the pollster adding a bit here, subtracting a bit there.

    (e) I note that the large London poll in Feb did find a large Labour lead as you say, but it also had Boris beating Ken in a two-way race 45-42. For what its worth, those 1259 responses were included in Feb’s total.

    Sunny – Ken might be talking economics at the moment, but his defining moves will be built around the rainbow strategy. Like I say in the piece, that’s why he was out with Lutfur Rahman. Ken isn’t some freewheeling fool who just went down the wrong road and ended up in a photo opp with Rahman. Neither is he a man who sticks his neck out for every cause that comes knocking at his door. It was a calculated move that is part of a larger approach.

    Rob – Thanks for those links, very interesting!

    The Future – I have to say I’m not one of those wishing for reheat of the last days of New Labour or waiting for the elder brother over the water. What I am is frustrated that the basics of how to be an opposition seem to have been junked. There is a difference between New Labour’s approach to winning elections and being in government. I’m concerned with the former.



  16. Tom Miller says:

    Uncut seems to just be a factional discontent sheet against the leadership and anything it needs to happen.

    Mad, self-destructive politics.

    We have elections to win.

    I’m not saying any website should always be on message, but this isn’t even pluralist. Just one big long embittered winge.

    Get a grip. You’re looking like the 80s hard left but without the earnestness.

  17. Alun says:

    Impressive abuse of polling statistics. The most important point has been made already, but deserves to be repeated: subsamples from polls are simply not trustworthy. Your arguments to the contrary are just ridiculous and show all the signs of someone searching for facts in order to back up their argument, rather than the alternative.

    There may be more. Polling regions often don’t match up to the ones used for statistical (and in the case of London, governmental) purposes. I don’t know how YouGov does these things so this may not be an issue, but it’s not uncommon for polling companies to include large swathes of Home Counties suburbia in their ‘London’ breakdowns. At the very least you should check to make sure that that isn’t the case. There’s also the issue of your little graph; it makes relatively minor shifts in the figures look massive and substantial, when they are anything but.

    But all of these are relatively minor issues compared with the great sin of this article. You are using polling figures as though they represent objective truths in the way that election results do. This is not the 1950s! There is simply no excuse for such a willfully naive approach to polling data (let alone subsample data), and when this is combined with the ghastly logic at work when your analysis of trend-lines is concerned, and, frankly, things start to look almost pathetic. Ultimately, you cannot expect your other arguments to be taken at all seriously if you commit gross errors of that sort.

  18. Simon says:

    Just to say for the record: Yougov have done another properly weighted London poll and the results are Lab 51 Con 32 LD 8.

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