Lord Ashcroft KCMG PC.
Like David Cameron, Ed Miliband has an
election-winning coalition to build. And like the Prime Minister, he has a
dilemma to go with it. Labour’s lead in the polls looks consistent, but is it
firm? My latest research report, Project
Red Alert, seeks to answer this question.
For many who have switched to Labour since
2010, buyer’s remorse is a big factor, especially if they simply voted for
change, or liked David Cameron, but had not considered the likelihood of cuts.
Not surprisingly, this is even more the case among those for whom austerity has
brought personal consequences.
Like many other voters, the feature of the
Labour Party they most often mention spontaneously is that it is for the
working class – unlike the Tories, who are for the better off. (The fact that
this is often said by people who both regard themselves as working class and
voted Conservative at the last election probably says as much about the
strength of the Labour brand as it does about the caprice of voters).
Labour Joiners recount a litany of things
that have changed since 2010. Significantly, the Labour Party is never among
them. Though a majority of Joiners said in the poll that they thought Labour
had learned the right lessons from its time in government, much of this is
wishful thinking: in discussion, they struggle to think of any evidence that
Labour has changed or learned, often insisting simply that “they must have
Many Joiners hit by austerity hope a new
Labour government would restore some or all of what they have lost out on. It
would be dangerous for Labour to rely on this impression: this kind of fantasy
rarely survives a general election campaign.
A quarter of those who have switched to
Labour say they have not finally decided and may well change their minds. Of
these “soft Joiners”, four in ten say one of the concerns they have about
voting Labour is that they might spend and borrow more than the country could afford.
A further 10% of all voters are Labour
Considerers, who would not vote Labour tomorrow, but may do so in future.
Notably, a low to neutral view of Ed Miliband is the factor that most
distinguishes this group. While not an attraction for Joiners (who often say he
is the price to be paid for a Labour government, as do some Loyalists), he is a
factor preventing some people from switching to Labour. If this were not the
case, Labour’s poll share would be above 50%.
Considerers are much less ready to say that
Labour can be trusted to govern again. Asked what would be different today had
Labour won the last election, they say they would have carried on spending and
borrowing, perhaps with disastrous consequences. Labour’s opposition to cuts,
and apparent refusal to take responsibility for the state of the public
finances when they left office, only reinforce this view.
With its double-digit poll lead, Labour may
decide it need not broaden its appeal any further. This would be a gamble. The
wild card is the economy. Even some Joiners say they would have to think again
in the event of a tangible recovery. Having so vehemently opposed the
Conservative economic strategy, Labour had better be sure it is not going to
work. If it does, many will have to conclude that the Tories were right and
Labour were wrong.
For Labour, creating a more stable voting
coalition means restoring credibility on the economy, especially the deficit.
Some in the Labour movement argue that by talking about the deficit the party
can only lose, since it is a Tory issue: they should “frame” the debate in
terms more favourable to themselves. But the deficit is not something the
Conservatives have invented in some sinister “framing” exercise of their own.
It is all too real, a fact recognised by many of the voters Labour needs. The
party has no chance with people who think it wants to shy away from the central
economic question of the day.
All of this means that Ed Miliband has a
choice. He can either make clear to his supporters that there will be no return
to the days of lavish spending, or he can fight an election knowing that most
voters do not believe Labour have learned their lessons, and that many of his
potential voters fear Labour would once again borrow and spend more than the
country can afford.
If he makes the wrong choice, Miliband will
be gambling on a precarious coalition of the disaffected and the dependent who
do not see, or do not want to see, the economic reality that the post-2015
government will have to face. Perhaps he thinks it would be better to wait
until he is in Number Ten to disappoint them – in which case he will miss out
on voters who want some reassurance that Labour will not return to form, and
could miss out on Number Ten altogether.
The fact that Labour have got themselves
into this position shows how much the party has changed since it was last in
opposition. Tony Blair would never have risked losing because voters feared a
Labour government would be profligate.
I think this research clearly shows the
strategic path Labour should choose.
But why would they take advice from me?
> Read more about Lord Ashcroft's latest and historical opinion polls.