By Lord Ashcroft.
A few weeks ago I explored whether the Conservatives could benefit from the Alternative Vote electoral system because of the meltdown in support for Liberal Democrats in target seats. The answer then was possibly, yes.
In my latest private polling I’ve investigated the different views of the Labour movement and those of swing voters. I wanted to explore if today’s Labour base is as reluctant to learn the lessons of defeat as the Conservatives were, following our defeat in 1997.
In the early years after Tony Blair became Prime Minister, large sections of the Conservative Party didn’t want to change. Active Tories and ‘friends’ in the media wanted the party to stick to its guns in the hope that voters would realise the error of their ways. At the 2001 general election the voters rejected the largely unchanged Conservative Party. And in 2005 they rejected it again. Only when David Cameron launched a concerted campaign to change the Conservative brand did the party start winning parliamentary by-elections and, eventually, enough seats to end Labour’s thirteen year grip on Downing Street. It is my view that David Cameron saved the Conservative Party although my recent analysis of the 2010 campaign looked at the range of things that might have delivered a majority government.
Is the Labour movement in danger of repeating the same kind of mistakes as the pre-Cameron Tories? My polling, supplemented by twelve focus groups, suggests that the danger is very real. The Labour movement – which I defined as party members and Labour-supporting members of affiliated trade unions – does not appreciate the reasons why swing voters rejected Gordon Brown’s government. Labour loyalists still blame voters for failing to appreciate the achievements of Brown and Blair. They blame Labour’s communications operation rather than its unpopular policies. And, all too predictably, they blame The Sun, Daily Mail and other “right-wing media” for unfair coverage.
Two other big gaps stand out between the Labour movement and swing voters. On the economy and on the need for an apology:
- On the economy 74% of swing voters think the Labour government was largely to blame for Britain’s economic problems. Not even half of the Labour movement think the same. 69% of swing voters concede that the Coalition’s spending cuts are unavoidable. 56% of the Labour movement is in denial, saying they are not unavoidable. Swing voters are more likely to think that private sector workers have unfairly borne the brunt of the recession. The Labour movement, in contrast, thinks Ed Miliband should support public sector strikers. By a 21% margin swing voters say they are less likely to return to Labour if he does.
- On the need for an apology swing voters told the focus groups that the Labour Party should say sorry for its past. They said it again and again. Members of the Labour movement were just as insistent that an apology was unnecessary. There was certainly little contrition from Ed Miliband when he accepted victory in Manchester earlier today.
The temptation to avoid change is, perhaps, greater for the Labour Party than it was for the Conservative Party, thirteen years ago. Although Brown won a smaller percentage of the vote than John Major, he won 93 more seats. This parliamentary arithmetic may deceive the new Labour leadership into thinking that victory is easily within its reach. A majority of the Labour movement that we polled did demonstrate some complacency. More than half thought the Coalition would prove so unpopular that “the Labour Party will probably win the next general election without having to change fundamentally”. Two-thirds of swing voters disagreed, concluding that “the Labour Party needs to change quite fundamentally before I will seriously consider voting for it again”.
The great challenge for Ed Miliband is to free himself from the views of the people who elected him and reach out to the swing voters who will either put him in Downing Street or who will keep David Cameron as Prime Minister. It will be tough for him to do that without upsetting the activists who just gave him victory over his older brother.