by Atul Hatwal
The polls are fine. Labour’s rating is holding firm in the high thirties, it will stay there because Lib Dem defectors will boost Labour’s core vote from 2010 and UKIP will squeeze the Tories’ vote.
This is the litany of the Milibelievers. A group that is distinctly under-represented in the PLP but more vocal in the media community and believes Ed Miliband’s gameplan is working.
It was neatly summarised by George Eaton before Christmas and represents one the greatest threats to Labour success in 2015. Because unless Labour radically changes course and accepts the current gameplan is failing, defeat is increasingly likely.
There are two flaws to the Milibeliever prospectus.
First, Labour’s base is not the 29% achieved 2010.
Given how appalling Labour’s performance was in 2010, it’s tempting to believe that it represents rock bottom. 29% was derisory, but Labour can fall further. In polling for Uncut by YouGov in early September, just over 1 in 4 (26%) of Labour’s 2010 voters said they did not intend to vote for the party at the next election.
There may have been some minor movement in the attrition rate since Autumn, but given the broad similarity in the polls between then and now, it is unlikely to have changed significantly.
This means Labour’s current base is actually nearer 22% rather than 29% and unless something major changes, Labour will not even be the largest party, let alone a majority government, no matter how solid the block of Lib Dem defectors.
Second, Labour is losing the argument in terms of leadership and economic competence. This is the underlying reason why the party’s base vote has eroded since 2010, why it is overly optimistic to believe Labour can rely on legions of 2010 Lib Dem voters backing the party into the high thirties and why many UKIP converts are likely to lapse back into the Tory fold.
The chart below sets out the scale of Labour’s problem. No opposition has ever won while being behind on both leadership and the economy, and Labour now trails by double digits on both.
For younger journalists, and some of the even younger MPs, Labour’s lost elections in 1983, 1987 and 1992 are just distant history. But they are very relevant to the position Labour now finds itself in.
In these wilderness years for Labour, the electoral decision was ultimately polarised into a simple, emotional proposition: can the country afford to take a risk on Labour, first with Michael Foot, and then Neil Kinnock.
It is often said that governments’ lose elections, oppositions don’t win them. But this only holds true if the opposition has de-risked the choice so that voters feel sufficiently secure to take a leap of faith into the unknown and trust an opposition.
In the 1980s and 1992 Labour failed this test because on the key determinants of voting – leadership and the economy – the public decided Labour could not be trusted. Then, as now on these issues, Labour trailed the Conservatives, regardless of the headline poll findings.
For example, in the first Mori poll of the 1992 campaign, when the headline finding was a Labour lead of 41% to 38% over the Tories, the party trailed on leadership and economy. There was 13% deficit on preference for PM, with John Major the choice of 40% to 27% for Neil Kinnock, and a 6% gap on the economy with 34% favouring the Conservatives and 28% Labour. Bear in mind, this was an election where 68% of voters agreed with the statement, “It’s time for a change.”
In the final days of the 1992 campaign, as the choice crystallised around whether voters could take a chance on Neil Kinnock, the twin shortfalls on leadership and the economy took their toll on Labour with the party ultimately polling 34%. For those swing voters that contemplated voting Labour, or even just not supporting the Conservatives, the prospect of Prime Minister Kinnock was a risk too far.
Looking at the manner in which Labour is once again trailing on leadership and the economy, it is not difficult to see how history will repeat itself.
Labour’s current deficits on leadership and the economy are essentially an index of fear, indicators that reveal the depth of concern about Labour for swing voters. The wider the Tory lead in these two areas, the greater the fear and the more likely wavering voters will subordinate residual concerns about David Cameron and the Conservatives, to stop Labour.
For some of UKIP’s current backers, this will mean returning to the Tories. For some worried Lib Dems it will mean either reverting back to Nick Clegg’s party or even voting tactically for the Tories to keep Labour out. And for disillusioned 2010 Labour voters it will potentially mean taking the plunge and voting for another party or just not voting at all.
It’s worth remembering the scale of divergence between mid-term performance in elections, and general election performance for both UKIP and the Lib Dems.
As Populus pollster and former Number 10 strategy director, Andrew Cooper has pointed out, UKIP scored 16% in the 2004 Euro elections, but 2% in the general election in 2005, and 17% in the Euro elections of 2009 but just 3% in the general election of 2010.
And the Lib Dems achieved just 12% in the 2004 European but went on to win 22% in the general election the next year. Similarly, they registered 14% in the 2009 European election but then posted 23% in the general election of 2010.
Over the past decade, there is a well-established behaviour among voters to boost UKIP and low ball the Lib Dems mid-term, only to abandon UKIP and return to the Lib Dems at the general election.
Lord Ashcroft’s mega-poll over the weekend showed that the Conservative base level of support is 29% (23% from 2010’s Tory vote and 6% who have been attracted into the fold.) There are a further 3.1% who did not vote Tory in 2010 but would actively consider it in 2015 and 13% who did vote Tory in 2010 but who are now saying they won’t in 2015 (just over half of whom are currently backing UKIP).
For the Tories to match their 2010 performance in securing 36% of the vote and ensuring they are comfortably the largest party, according to Lord Ashcroft’s polling, they need to attract less than half of the 16% who are either “considerers” or “defectors.”
Given majority of this 16% say they would prefer a majority Conservative government and the extent to which Labour is trailing on leadership and the economy, what are the odds that the fear of Prime Minister Miliband and Chancellor Balls will help swing enough wavering voters behind the Tories to make them the largest party?
The further behind Labour is on the economy and leadership, the more potent will be the inevitable Tory line of “vote Farage, get Miliband.”
To most Milibelievers, 2013 was a good a year for Ed Miliband and Labour. They look to his conference speech and the energy price freeze, to the Syria vote and the persisting poll lead as signs that all is well with Labour’s plan.
But in the course of the past year, the headline poll lead halved and, as the chart above shows, the Tories pulled even further ahead on leadership and the economy. According to the indicators that matter most, 2013 was actually a very bad year for Labour.
Unless these gaps can be significantly narrowed, 2015 will see wavering Conservative, UKIP and Lib Dem voters acting tactically to neutralise the threat they see in Labour.
Not appreciating the impact of Labour’s deficit on leadership and the economy on wavering voters’ behaviour is the essential myopia of the Milibelievers. It’s why their counsel of calm is so dangerous and why, unless it’s overturned, Labour is headed for defeat in 2015.
Atul Hatwal is editor of Uncut