by John Braggins
Back in the day if you were bored you could go to the pictures at 3pm for the first showing and stay there until they turned the lights off after the last showing. The projectionist just kept running the films one after the other on a loop. These days politics is beginning to feel like it’s on a loop as well. The arguments Labour faced in the 1980s – Europe, unemployment, benefits, tax and spend and even leadership – are being rehearsed again.
This week, writing in the Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ellie Mae O’Hagan urged Ed Miliband to take Labour back to the time when ‘ordinary people’ voted Labour in the knowledge that Labour was on their side. Suggesting that people who no longer vote Labour would come back into the fold if only it was more left wing is surely to fall into the trap Labour faced in the 1980s.
Ms O’Hagan’s argument is based on the Joseph Rowntree Foundation report which states that ‘attitudes of the British public towards poverty have hardened and that the most marked shift has been among Labour voters. These days only 27% of Labour supporters cite social injustice as the main cause of poverty, down from 41% in 1986. Conversely, Labour supporters identifying laziness and lack of willpower as the main cause of poverty rose from 13% to 22% in the same period’.
Her take on it was that ‘perhaps some of those surveyed by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, who would have at one time classed themselves as Labour supporters, have been repelled by the party’s decidedly un-leftwing behaviour.’
Perhaps. Or perhaps not.
The 1983 general election defeat where Labour secured just 27.6% of the national vote – a mere 2.2% ahead of the Liberal/SDP vote and 14.8% behind the Tories – traumatised Labour and put an end to the fierce arguments that raged in 1981 about which direction Labour should go, symbolised by the election of Neil Kinnock and Roy Hattersley as leader and deputy at the Party’s 1983 conference.
Labour began its long journey back to power, but it took another general election defeat in 1987 before any serious research was undertaken to find out what it was Labour would have to do to get elected again.
There were two lines of thought: one, let’s put together a ‘rainbow coalition’ only comprising of those that still vote Labour, ethnic minorities, environmentalists and trade unionists and target our policies towards them, or two, let’s find out why those who had deserted Labour had done so and build a bigger coalition to include them.
It didn’t take a genius to work out that the first option was, in effect, double counting – a Labour voter concerned about the environment who happened to be black and a trade unionist, only had one vote and however that coalition was put together it could never get past 35%.
I was in the camp of ‘let’s find out why people had deserted Labour and see if we could get them back’ and despite reservations, I persuaded the London Labour party to pay for focus group research in Battersea to find out why popular local MP Alf Dubbs had lost his seat in 1987. The startling news in the report was that whilst everyone in the focus groups had either been helped by Alf Dubbs or knew someone who had, none of them had voted for him.