Labour’s swing voter problem

by Atul Hatwal

Over the past 2 years a myth has taken hold within the Labour party: the fable of the lost 4 million working class votes. Votes that Tony Blair secured in 1997 which Labour had lost by 2010. The Unite political strategy mentions it and this factoid has been a staple at the union conferences this summer.

The implication being  that Labour needs to recast its platform to attract these missing supporters rather than chase after pesky, centrist swing voters. It is the core vote strategy, reborn.

For those that can remember Labour in the early 1980s it is all eerily familiar, right down to the same wilful ignorance on the evidence.

At the last election, YouGov’s eve of vote poll – which successfully predicted Labour and Tory vote share to within 1% – identified the Tories as the most popular party among working class voters: 32% of the social demographic C2DE backed the Tories, 31% Labour and 26% Lib Dem.

Given that the Tories were the preference for working class voters, it seems fantastical to believe that moving further to the left will magically win a majority of this group.

But evidence and logic do not seem to be highly regarded qualities among Labour’s myth-makers. The story has taken hold and the absence of voices challenging such nonsense is tantamount to intellectual self-harm.

The renewed emphasis on the core vote seems to be driving a decidedly half-hearted attitude to swing voters for Labour. The mood music from the party’s leaders continually reiterates the desire to move on from triangulation, emphasis on the centre ground and New Labour’s campaigning approach.

It might sound good at the podium, and even feel good in the warmth of the applause. But outside of Labour audiences, in the real world of voters, the electoral damage is already becoming evident.  It might seem strange to say this given the polls, but when looking at actual votes in real elections the danger signs are already apparent. The recent London elections shine a light on Labour’s lack of progress in winning back territory held by the Tories.

London provides a unique electoral laboratory because it held local elections on the same day as the general election in 2010, and then mayoral and assembly elections this year. In both cases, the ward level data is available which enables a unique comparison of how millions of voters have shifted their views over the past two years based on real elections rather than snapshot polls.

Labour’s current lead in the opinion polls is stable at almost 10% and the party needs a swing from the Tories of roughly 5% to form a government.

For Labour to be on track to move into government, in the London election, the party should have won a comfortable clean sweep of Tory wards where a swing of 5% was required. Ideally Labour would have won wards requiring a swing of upto 8% to come near to the current poll lead and ensure a solid working majority.

But it didn’t.

In London, research by Uncut reveals that there were 61 wards held by the Tories vulnerable to a Labour swing of 5%. Taking the assembly elections as the best comparator to 2010 (rather than the mayoral election which was more driven by the personalities of the candidates), Labour managed to win in 31 wards.

This means that Labour failed to take 49% of the marginal wards it should have.

Granted, London does not define the position around the country, and there are specific regional factors, but this result does provide an indication of what is likely to be happening elsewhere.

Despite the government’s omnishambles, Leveson, the recession and the budget, Labour missed out on half of its ward targets against the Tories.

In comparison, in wards already held by Labour, the party went from strength to strength. The average increase in Labour vote in Labour wards was 13%. Lots of votes there.  Shame none of them are worth much under first past the post.

If anything comparable were replicated at a general election, despite the current poll lead, Labour would fall substantially short of government.

This is the true result of the myth that has taken hold in the Labour party. Large national poll leads and an incompetent government cosset the party and keep us happy in our comfort zone. But when voters go to the polls in real elections, swing voters aren’t swinging.

The base is motivated. It’s turning out and small Labour majorities are becoming landslide leads. But marginal Tory wards are staying just that. Tory.

Atul Hatwal is editor at Uncut

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12 Responses to “Labour’s swing voter problem”

  1. Anon E Mouse says:

    The major problem is that the Labour leadership since Tony Blair left has been truly unattractive and will not win the trust of the electorate.

    For Ed Balls to have actually taken personal polling to only then realise just how much the electorate dislikes him speaks volumes. How could he not realise that already?

    The main problem is Labour will just not say sorry for the mess it left this country in. And that means that all the great achievements of the party – big stuff – is forgotten as we watch shadow minister after shadow minister squirm and fail to answer any question directly.

    For Rachael Reeves on the Sunday Politics to just not say she agreed that Bob Diamond should be sacked speaks volumes and all it will do is damage any future leadership prospects. She looked shifty and dishonest.

    If Labour want to win over working class voters they need to start acting their behalf and spend less time sucking up to the likes of Polly Toynbee, The Guardian newspaper and Newsnight.

    Not one of those publications is consumed by the working classes but then if Labour actually got it then it would know that….

  2. swatantra says:

    2 years is not enough time for the electorate to ‘forgive’ Labour for some of the things it failed to do and which it was possible to do during time in Govt.
    But Atul makes an important point, we have to win back the Tory marginals, or as most likely think along a stratgy of forming a coalition Govt in 2015. Its unlikely we’ll ever form a majority Govt again, neither will the Tories, but its small comfort.
    In 2010 Labour didn’t really understand what ‘coalition govts’ meant. In 1997 there was talk about it and Blair even invited Paddy Ashdown into Govt. But what was the point then with a thumping Labour majority, even though only 2/5 of voters voted for us? Coalitions basically mean consensus, not compromise. The electorate are ready to go along with consensus politics rather than politics of the extreme, And you get a broader bottomed representation, so most people are accomodated.

  3. Felix says:

    “identified the Tories as the most popular party among working class voters: 32% of the social demographic C2DE backed the Tories, 31% Labour and 26% Lib Dem.”

    Your interpretation of this factoid is crap because you wilfully ignore the 11% of others. Don’t you think it’s worth winning them over. That is the points of elections after all, isn’t it.

    This is typical Labour Uncut – fitting up partial evidence to suit its own preconceptions.

  4. Anon E Mouse says:


    Hate to break it to you but Labour had it’s second worst election defeat in it’s history when it lost the election.

    The “others” are going to go UKIP, green etc. Why would they vote for a party that forced the unelected Gordon Brown on the country?

    You completely miss the point of this fine article but then Labour supporters really don’t “get it” do they?

  5. ianrobo says:

    There is life outside London you know. Why not look at elections in the West Midlands, North East, Norwich, Ipswich, Reading, North west where we had proper elections in proper wards ?

    26% of working class voted LD so say half them switched then which is more than possible if you look at the LD collapse in Labour areas ?

    shall we just ignore them ?

  6. john P reid says:

    felix, anon e mouse has got you there

  7. uglyfatbloke says:

    Atul has hit the nail on the head, and the picture may actually be worse. In the past Scots voted very differently in Holyrood and Wesminster elections, that may not be the case in the future. The old situation where Scotish Labour got 40+ seats for 40% of the vote and the gnats got 6 for 25% of the vote could be reversed. That’s the risk with FPTP; it may not work in favour of Scottish Labour at teh next GE. That does not make it impossible for Ed to won – not by a long way – but it wouild make it much more difficult and it would be a reincarnation of the ‘democratic deficit’ identified by John Smith and Donald Dewar etc….Scotland voted Labopur and got the tories. Is there anything better about Scotkland voting for thegnats and getting Labour?

  8. FP says:

    “But marginal Tory wards are staying just that. Tory.”

    Except General Elections are decided by marginal parliamentary constituencies. And Lab would have gained 8/9 seats from the Tories on the new boundaries.

    It’s difficult to tell the effect on the Lab/Lib Dem battleground would have been due to the two horse race nature of the London contest but Labour would have very likely gained Willesden, Bermondsey and Waterloo and Hornsey & Wood Green.

  9. Moose says:

    It was 5m, not 4m Labour votes lost between 1997 and 2010 (13.5m, 10.7m, 9.5m, 8.4m), with just 2m added since 11.5m voted Labour in 1992. But in addition to the 5m there are another 11m who registered to vote in 2010 but then decided, after 13 years of New Labour, that they remained disenfranchised by lack of representation.

    It is these 16m who have no record of even centrist voting – let alone Conservative voting – who remain to the left of the political spectrum. You talk about a Tory working class vote but there is another class being completely ignored here that belongs to the years of consensus after the war.

    While you talk of a working class driven by a work ethic it conceals a service class that hopes for prosperity through economic cooperation and public service rather than through competition and bribery.

    Across the constituencies of Toryland there is not a single Tory MP representing over 45% of their constituents because the core Labour vote in these constituencies has been disenfranchised by New Labour and before that by the betrayal of the SDP.

    In opening up Britain to examination on a scale unpresedented since Domesday Book Ed Miliband is giving that silenced majority the opportunity it needs to take its place in control of the nation’s afairs. All it needs is the truth.

  10. Mike Homfray says:

    Try shifting out of London and the South for once, and you will find that Labour were winning seats we have never won before, because the LD vote has collapsed, and has largely gone to us. In the south the LibDem vote will just as likely go to the Tory.

    We won’t win a lot of the southern seats which some hope we will. But it won’t stop us getting a majority although it will be in the 50-60 seat region, not the 140+ scenario, which did us little good as too many MP’s got scared about upsetting their one time only Tory switchers.

    Get real and accept that Labour can form a government without having to get a huge majority and pander to southern Tories. There are also plenty of people who didn’t vote last time and they need to be convinced to start voting for us again – rather easier than persuading Tories to vote for a left wing party

  11. john P reid says:

    before that by the betrayal of the SDP, moose those ex labour voters who voted SDP weren’t silenced by the sdp forming they gave them someone to vote for same as your view old labour stayed at home in 2010

    yiour figures on labour getting 11.5m in 92 are wrong too,

  12. Moose says:

    john P reid says:
    July 7, 2012 at 12:42 am
    yiour figures on labour getting 11.5m in 92 are wrong too,

    You’d better correct Wikipedia then.
    General Election 1992, Popular vote:

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