So Labour is drifting, according to the polls. The Observer yesterday put some bones on to why that may be happening. Or rather it explained why to some extent there is no real substance to Labour’s UK opposition…
Today’s Opinium/Observer poll shows Labour dropping three percentage points from two weeks ago to 36%, taking its lead over the Tories to only seven points. Some senior figures in the party suggest that Labour’s silence for much of the summer is symptomatic of a lack of resources and forward planning – the email sent to shadow ministers in July asked for ideas, not necessarily fully worked-out ones, by the end of the next day. More worrying still, others say the lack of response to that rather panicky email suggests a party devoid of fresh thinking.
Michael Meacher MP, a minister for the environment under Tony Blair, is not necessarily of that mind. He is a firm supporter of Miliband, voted for him over his brother David in the leadership election three years ago, and believes in him. But his frustration at a lack of counter-narrative to the Tory message of austerity, in particular, is widely shared within the Labour ranks. “I would like the Labour party to speak out more strongly about the positive alternative,” Meacher told the Observer. “Maybe it will when the manifesto comes to be published, but there is, I think, a lack of wider discussion and a bit of a void.”
Meanwhile, according to Danny Kruger, David Cameron has only the election in his sights, and having resiled from any sturdy political defence of his own big pre-election idea of ‘the Big Society’, or indeed much in the way of restarting that other big stick they used to hit Gordon Brown’s Labour with, they’ve resorted to squeezing the poor on the housing issue and sending vans round immigrant neighbourhoods asking the illegal ones to go home.
The trouble for Labour is that the same issues are as likely to bind them into just as large a twist. As Iain Martin notes, the system still favours Labour, and the poll lead is still seven per cent (which Electoral Calculus currently transposes into a 90 seat majority):
The Labour leader needs a rethink, and fast. While he dealt relatively well with the recent row about trade union influence over Labour candidate selection, on the big subjects on which the next election is likely to be fought his party seems to have perilously little to say that might cut through in the country.
If the economic recovery does pick up, and employment continues to grow, Labour will have lost its central line of attack against Mr Cameron. The huge hit that Britons have taken in terms of falling living standards since the financial crisis offers an opening, but if there is any sign of recovery by polling day then Mr Cameron will campaign on asking voters whether they want to jeopardise hard-won improvements by gambling on Mr Miliband.
Equally, on welfare, despite several attempts to recast his party’s welfare policy, it is still not clear what the party is trying to say in practical terms.
The loss of voice of Labour on anything but macro economic policies (a game which the Tories from the outset calculated would provide diminishing returns as the country drifted back towards stability if not prosperity) and Tory troubles is unnerving some insiders.
David Skelton, a founder of Renewal, a campaign to try and get the Tory party to make a serious appeal to working class and ethnic voters, argues that Labour’s attention has drifted from its northern heartland to the professional classes. In US parlance from the beer to wine drinkers:
That new reality is reflected in the voting figures. Only 57 per cent of skilled working-class voters voted at the last election, compared with 76 per cent of middle-class voters. The level of detachment from today’s Labour Party is illustrated by the fact that only 29 per cent of the skilled working class voted Labour – it was well over 50 per cent for Tony Blair’s first two victories. Ordinary working people have fallen out of love with a Labour Party that has relinquished any claim to be the People’s Party.
That much of David’s pitch is certainly true. Whether with policies like the bedroom tax affecting the poorer classes, the Conservatives are in a plausible position to generate new votes out of it is another matter. Neither large party is offering credible long term solutions to big problems like the housing crisis.
This is not an inconsequential problem. As Brian has noted, the UK’s population is on the rise:
Almost two-thirds of the growth came from natural population increase – the number of births minus the number of deaths. The remainder came from net migration, which was 165,600, down from 247,000 the previous year.
The government’s bedroom tax is an attempt to flip local populations within the rented sector to make better use of the current limited supply of properties. Anticipation of the Help to Buy scheme is already fueling something of a housing bubble (as John McDermott notes), this is impossible to avoid when “you increase demand in a supply-constrained market” (it also keeps labour supply high).
These are patchy, and may prove in the end to be nothing more than gimmicky tinkering with trickle down politics. Yet large scale social change often arises from the smallest changes in procedure. Eva Wiseman in yesterday’s Observer exasperatedly notes…
Who, in these times of zero-hours contracts still believes that the unemployed, the poor, the young, are simply not working hard enough? Who still believes that it is possible to buy a house on a single income, without an injection of family money?
A high proportion of those who have the vote and regularly use it have already jumped the gap and are clinging hopefully to some point of the property ladder. Many of them find it all too easy to believe.
Of those who don’t, very few trust the mainstream parties at all and would, if sufficiently motivated, shift out to the far right ideologues that talk directly to their distress without feeling the burden of having to offer any workable solutions.
Labour, to have a credible chance at government year after next, has to find someway of reconciling those two ends.
Their core problem is that Britain remains, for all the rhetoric of Conservative and Labour, a two nation society…
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty