Is Labour going back to the future?

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.

When asked ‘whose side is Labour on’ they said that Labour was on the side of the poor, the sick, the vulnerable and the old, but that Labour wasn’t on their side.

This tied in with much of the early research undertaken by Deborah Mattinson and Philip Gould for the NEC who also reported that swathes of ex-Labour voters no longer thought that Labour spoke for them or understood their aspirations.

The choice quite simply then was either to do what Labour had done since 1951 and blame the voters for not understanding or once again to become the party that looked after the poor and understood the aspirations of those who were moving slowly up the social ladder.

People were becoming more and more socially mobile and wanted a party that would look after them as well as providing a traditional safety net for those less able to look after themselves. However tempting it might be to become once again the party of the poor and dispossessed, the lesson of the past is that there are never enough votes there to win. And unless Labour can win, there is very little it can do to help those that need its help the most.

In understanding the desires of an electorate that want to better themselves, Labour has to accept that the patience of these voters with those who appear to accept a life on benefits is wearing thin. Certainly Channel Four’s recent programme ‘Skint’ did nothing to allay those feelings, featuring people who cared little beyond their immediate family and believed the state owed them a living.

Ms O’Hagan concludes that the Joseph Rowntree Foundation report shows that Tony Blair’s Labour Party changed its supporters’ minds about poverty and that Ed Miliband’s Labour Party must change them back.

Just how mad is that?

Tony Blair and New Labour did more to attack poverty than any government since 1945 and that only happened because Labour won, not because it changed supporters’ minds about poverty. So here’s my advice to Ed: ignore people who want to take Labour back to the 1980s and instead appeal to a broader majority of voters that make up the working class and the squeezed middle so we can win once again.

John Braggins worked for the Labour Party for 37 years. He was the first head-office staff member to take charge of by-elections for the party, running all by-elections for the party between 1988 and 2001. Now he and his by-election sidekick, Alan Barnard, have set up their own company, bbm campaigns, to take the techniques, principles and attitudes of electioneering into the corporate and not-for-profit sectors

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18 Responses to “Is Labour going back to the future?”

  1. It is common to brand everyone who disagrees with any strand of blairite creed as ‘wanting to take Labour back to the 1980s’ but it really does not stack up. Regrettably New Labour contributed to the hostility towards people on benefits and shamefully some of its proponents still do, as shown here by John Braggins. Quoting a crap TV programme is hardly an evidence-based argument. There is tons of real evidence to debunk the scrounger myth and to show that most of the poor are in jobs and ‘hard working’ and most unemployed people want to work. Millions of people are stunned to find that ‘welfare benefit scroungers’ includes them because they get tax credits or child benefit or are suddenly liable for the vicious bedroom tax. Most welfare money goes to pensioners.

    Of course Labour can only win by appealing to a wide range of people. But that does not mean adopting a Daily Mail agenda or by dividing people and condemning some as worthless. I believe in the ‘One Nation’ approach, but One Nation includes the poor, and we need them to vote for us too. Driving down wages is now being used to drive down benefits, setting people against each other. Divide and conquer, the Tories oldest game. Labour should have nothing to do with it.

  2. Clr Ralph baldwin says:

    None of you get it do you…lol

    It’s about Trust and the very people you need have already left your Party….the hypocrisy and stupidity of the remnants leaves you without a chance….normal people don’t just dislike Labour they are happy to see it gone forever…maybe your lates shallow gimmick “Work” and “Home” will work…maybe the public will be dumb enough to believe the dribble that is written with “One Nation” and “Work and Home” cut and pasted into it….lol The funniest part of the farce is that the idiots sitting there bihind closed doors have absolutely no understanding at all of what ishappening in politics at the moment and moreso what the people are feeling and thinking….beacuse they are trying to entice people who are smarter than they are…the joke is on you all.

  3. Lynne says:

    It is no longer 1980 or 1997 come to that. Times have changed. I voted Labour all my life, and New Labour for the last time in 1997. They were a huge disappointment. They could have changed things for the better. They didn’t. They just tinkered about at the edges and took us into three wars.

    Don’t talk to me about peoples aspirations. Although we had eighteen years of tory governments, we managed to buy our own council house, I’m so glad we did, otherwise we might have ended up paying the bedroom tax. We also helped send our two children to university, we got partial grants, plus we contributed, and when they left they had very small student loans. We would not have been able to do that under New Labour.

  4. Ex-labour says:

    @steve Hilditch

    Absolutely unbelievable ! When in doubt move further to the left, abandon those who have voted for you and concentrate on the feckless, feral and work shy as your core vote. Great thinking there Steve.

    I live near “communities” like the ones on Skint, and unfortunately they are all too common. Left wing apologists like our Steve here are all to ready to defend these attitudes and that’s why traditional labour voters like me won’t vote for them again. Labour has lost it’s values and become a mouthpiece for people who, quite frankly, don’t give a shit about labour or their politicians. All they care about is their handouts and if labour will deliver that then they get the vote. How do I know ? Well I actually know a lot of these people, I went to school with them, live near them, I talk to them and listen to them whine about cuts to their benefits.

    The “one nation” stuff is just BS spin and if you think this will win an election then dream on. Labour is fast becoming a party of protest with nothing of value to say to the electorate. The labour family and community I grew up in was about hard work, responsibility, wanting better for your family which is diametrically opposed to everything this Labour Party stands for.

    You are the party of the “slob on the sofa” and have lost all sense of self worth and responsibility.

  5. bob says:

    Steve Hilditch: do you live in an ivory tower or a house in a nice leafy street in the suburbs. With what has been happening on council and ex council estates all around the country what did New Labour do to improve anything during its time in power. Yes, it is nearly three years since the last election but the majority of these areas are under and have been for many years the administration of Labour councils, Leeds Manchester Liverpool Luton.

    Most politicians in all parties have come up through the ranks of the party, uni to SPAD or think tank to MP. The have never lived in the dead end of a council estate or a run down area, so called improvements like Prescott’s Pathfinder scheme was an expensive disaster, tax payers money thrown away to no good use.

    Most politicians today merely pass through in their cars. Milliband Cameron Clegg, Balls x2 Harman and the rst have no idea of what the man/woman on the street want. I could tell them, it’s a safe community, a job, healthcare and education for their children which is both robust and diverse in the terms of vocational and theoretical, low taxes and a smaller state both nationally and locally. Why does my local council in Liverpool has upwards of 80 councilors when we only have 5 MPs, lets slash that back to 10 and do a better job.

    The Labour party is not the party of the worker as they consistently supported the feckless, and skivers, high immigration as admitted by Mandelson, and those who take out more than they put into society. Why is working for ‘dole’ such an anathema to Labour MPs, i see it as a good idea, this is a something for something world not a something for nothing.

    Feel free to move to the left, but look at France to be an example of what happens, higher unemployment, poor inward investment due to red tape taxes and prevention of companies to be flexible and lastly 10000 burnt out cars last year by rioters. Please follow their example but the people of Britain will see through your spiel and tell where to go.

  6. Jim McM says:

    Ex Labour

    Estates like the one you are concerned about would not exist if we lived in a properly organised, rational, just, equal-opportunity society i.e a socialist society. Yes, socialist……the “s-word”; the political idea which dare not speak it’s name.

    With regard to the wider point about back to the future, I thought the 1983 result was the most remarkable success for Labour in that about 11 million people voted for what was at the time a socialist party. All in the face of the most extraordinary media campaign against us. What was lacking was leadership. Unfortunately we then ended up with Neil now “lord” Kinnock.

  7. e says:

    You argue that in the ‘80s voters wanted a centrist approach. Well it was ever thus. And that some people (particularly voters able to buy their council homes I would add) were becoming more and more socially mobile yet at that time we all wanted a traditional safety net for those less able to look after themselves.

    More to the point Ellie Mae O’Hagan is making: it’s not the ‘80s, it’s 2013 and today obvious efforts to rebrand the unemployed as individually wanting scumbags that leach off others is being used to explain away acute economic collapse and chronically stalled social mobility. “The poor” are growing in numbers but now culturally and racially diverse, so a much easy target than in yesteryears. Is Labour to embrace a rebranding of “the poor” as the means by which to get back to a future as some would advise, or have they and the unions something better to offer? Something that recognises sit-down money is no good to anyone. Guaranteed work, after say a year of trying the market; there’s plenty do be done. Nothing else will suffice short of embracing a citizen’s income.

  8. Well, looks like it doesn’t pay to contribute on Lab Uncut. Too many anti-Labour Daily Mail readers and being attacked for things you haven’t said. Could that be the ralph baldwin who joined the Tory Party?
    It is not a move to the left to want a rational discussion about welfare that avoids stereotyping, demonisation and name-calling. Miliband is accused of moving to the left but his statements on immigration and the requirement to take up work do not support that. We must challenge myths and prejudice and deal in facts.
    And sorry to disappoint, Bob, but I was brought up on a council estate and know exactly what they’re like.

  9. Robert says:

    “The choice quite simply then was either to do what Labour had done since 1951 and blame the voters for not understanding…”

    A ridiculous statement because Labour was in power for much of the 1960s and 1970s. Labour was unelectable in the 1980s mainly because of events after 1979. Labour is in the lead at the moment because Ed Miliband is avoiding the mistakes of 1979 to 1983 and returning Labour to the moderate social democracy of Gaitskell, Wilson, Callaghan, Kinnock and Smith.

  10. John Reid says:

    E and ex Labour are right, Lynne you miss the point of selli council homes, it was people like my family who didn’t buy their council homes who were the ones who missed out, it was in the 59 manifesto and labour opposed it In the 80’s and not voting labour after 97 as you felt it was too right wing, we did win the next 2 elections

    Steve hold itch, the point about not agreeing with everything Blair did makes you old labour, the opposite is, if you don’t agree with everything that. ed says, you’re accused of wanting to take us back to New labour who lost in 2010′ and are the reason were not as popular. We should be now

  11. John Reid says:

    Battersea in 87 was likes Thurrock, we won it in 83′ lost in 87′ what people out of London didn’t realise was we did worse in London in 87 than 83″ the Tories in London had a field day with the so called loony left of Lambeth and Harringey council and the GLC

  12. Clr Ralph Baldwin says:

    At Steve,

    Lol I joined after Labour stitched me up for challenging corruption and asking for representational democracy lol Labour has become the most privilege based Party around 🙂

    That makes you all far more Conservative than me…my joining the Conservative Party is merely showing that there are no alternatives.

  13. Lynne says:

    John Reid, I didn’t miss the point. I am well aware that the people who didn’t buy their council houses missed out. Our decision was a financial one. The Thatcher government took the subsidies off council houses. It was not a political decision.

    At the time, council tenants over a lifetime were paying a lot more in rent than owner occupiers paid for a mortgage. I’ve no idea if that is so true today. Wages have become so eroded over the years and rents are so high, that people have had to rely on housing benefit. Unfortunately Tory and Labour governments have not built enough houses to rent.

  14. Ex-labour says:


    Do I assume you are Jim McMannus – labour councillor ?

    Your naivety is staggering. You know that for significant number of these people it is a lifestyle choice. Once again you are apologising for their behaviour and attitudes towards others.

    Your solution is some socialist utopia controlled by the state where presumably the feckless, feral and work shy still get their benefits? Opportunities are open to all but the desire to take them is within the very few. Most prefer the easy option of doing nothing and letting the grafters house, feed and cloth them.

  15. Dan Filson says:

    People like ‘Ex Labour’ who write of the “feckless, feral and work shy” and are no longer in the Labour Party (if they ever, in fact, were) are not welcome in the Party in my view. Good riddance. Sweeping categorisation of the employed as idle does not help the debate at all. The idea that normal people (who defines normal?) “don’t just dislike Labour they are happy to see it gone forever” is not borne out by the millions now turning once again to Labour in despair at what the Coalition are local Tories are doing. Obviously a rat who switches to being a Tory councillor has to justify his ratting somehow, but just asserting stuff this doesn’t make it so.

    As to Lynne who bought her council house, I won’t criticise her for one moment for doing so if she felt it was in her family’s best interests, and owning one’s own home is a quite understandable aspiration but I do criticise the government which legislated to let this happen, which froze the sale price at the value standing on the date when the enquiry was made (even if by the time the tenant made an offer it had moved upwards dramatically), and which gave discounts up to 60% on market value. Of course those who had the money jumped at the chance. But this reduced both the quantity of te housing stock for those in future need and reduced the range of housing stock, as the low rise sold and the high rise didn’t, those with gardens sold and those without didn’t. And councils were barred from using sale proceeds to replace the stock they lost as receipts had first to be applied to redeeming debt. One generation’s that-will-do-nicely purchase has the corollary of the next generation’s acute housing crisis.

    The curious thing about the wittering about the deficit is how senior Tory politicians switch from talking about the deficit (the difference between revenue spend and revenue receipts) and debt (the accumulated debt buit over centuries from both capital spending and net revenue deficits). If I buy or build houses for £10 billion and borrow the fuds to do so, I should end with £10 billions-worth of houses and a matching £10 billions worth of debt, and am thus – if I can service (i.e. pay interest on) the debt – better off than if I did nothing, as now I have assets which can serve a social purpose (housing the needy) AND over the long term, or sometimes very rapidly, the assets will increase in value whereas the debt will not grow similarly. I can cite an example of a local council which acquired properties in a short period that doubled in value within five years such that the debt was dwarfed relative to the assets held. But do you even hear from the Tories of assets being sold off under their legislation on fire sale terms, or indeed do you hear much of the assets side of the balance sheet at all?

  16. Clr Ralph baldwin says:


    You talk of rats and yet I’m afraid the classification of rodent falls on your shoulders. I personally did not benefit electorally or financially when i joined the Conservatives unlike your aliies who think it is morally justafiable to defend and support consistantly Labour Councillor who award themselves huge perks, place themselves above the system of ordinary people.
    Who is the rat?
    I also note in your mindless waffle that you have not mentioned depreciation of assets, maintenance of assets….what of all the empty Council houses lying empty and being unused by Labour Council in Manchester?

    Would you like to explain why this is the case in an honest and frank method…I think not. So much for the “social purpose”.

    But you can show us all how noble and unrodentlike you are, you have a clear opportunity. You can tell us how you are going to clean up your Party remove the silent City Agenda that attracts the Chuck Obamas and the Ed Balls of the world, and of course the hypocracy of the Unions demanding that private sector companies treat their employees well whilst they bully and intimidate any employee at the bottom who “causes a problem”.

    Your ship is sinking…as a rodent you should know what to do…..

  17. Ex-labour says:

    @Dan Filson

    Firstly I have never been a member of any political party but have voted Labour all my life until Brown took over. Secondly the discussion was about people on the TV programme Skint, so get your facts straight before commenting. Your comments are typical of what seems to be a new strain of labour supporters who never see any wrong doing in anyone and that they are blameless for their actions.

    I grew up in a labour household where aspiration was the norm and working hard to pay your way was the unwritten rule along with a sense of personal responsibility. Yes my parents also bought their council house.

    It’s likely that you probably live in the leafy suburbs and like Miliband and Toynbee you never have to encounter this sort of behaviour, yet you readily criticise those who have to put up with it whilst defending those who create the problems.

    If you think there is some mass defection to labour then think again. Opinion polls are narrowing and Milibands is on the wrong side of public opinion on every issue and just wait until labour actually produce some policies……that’s when the public will see who labour really cares about, and it won’t be the hard working majority.

  18. paul barker says:

    Labour has always been good at spending money it hasnt got & has run up significant debts for itself as well as the rest of us. Given the current troubles of the Party,s Banker, The Co-op some of the debt may have to be actually paid off soon.
    Im sure the Unions will want to help – at a price.

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