What next for Labour?

Paula Surridge
Jan 20 · 5 min read

What is an election winning collation for the Labour party? After a fourth election defeat it is understandable that this should be a question to which the party seeks urgent answers, but the magnitude of the defeat in December not only points to answers being complex but also affords Labour the luxury of time to work out what went wrong. The simple answer is we won’t know what an electoral winning coalition looks like for Labour for some time.

Although it seems clear that voters deserted the party between 2017 and 2019 there isn’t a simple answer as to where they went. A sticking plaster to stem the flow of votes to any particular party will not be enough. Labour lost voters to the Conservatives, to the Liberal Democrats, to the Brexit party, to the Green Party, to the nationalists in Scotland and Wales and to non-voting. How many went to each of these, and for what reasons, will take some time to understand (it critically requires detailed survey data on individual voters, the first of which to be available is the British Election Study panel hopefully available in the next 4 weeks, but it will not be until we have the face to face BES data in the summer that we are really able to address questions of who chose not to vote at all).

Second, we do not know how the electorate will change and develop new priorities over the next four years. Will those who voted Leave in 2016 now be content that it is ‘job done’ and seek to address their other priorities, or will Brexit turn out to be a disappointment to them; not resolving the disillusionment on which some of those votes were based. At the same time, it is not clear how the pro-EU movement which has gained prominence over the last three years will regroup. Will there be a significant ‘rejoin’ movement and how will parties position themselves in relation to it?

This doesn’t mean there is nothing useful to say in the meantime — otherwise there would be little point to this blog. We know that the ‘core’ values that underpin political preferences and evaluations are slow to change, in this respect for understanding the shape of the electorate the past is a good guide to the future.

For at least the last 20 years, and possibly longer, voters core values have been thought of as taking two distinct dimensions. An economic dimension, often referred to as ‘left-right’ which relates to preferences for economic organisation such as nationalisation, trade union power and the redistribution of wealth and a social dimension, which I will refer to here as social liberal-conservative, which relates to preferences on authority, crime and tolerance of the unconventional. In what follow where I use the terms left and right I am referring to the economic dimension and liberal will refer to the social dimension.

Although once seen as primarily organised around only the left-right dimension, politics has seen a rise in the salience of issues that are not directly connected to economics over the last two decades. Issues of security, immigration and criminal justice are not predictable by knowing what a voter thinks about nationalisation.

If we look at how the Labour vote has changed since 2010 (plotted within a space defined by these two value scales), we can see that both the 2015 and 2017 elections saw Labour voters located further to the left and the liberal positions than earlier elections. The voters here responding to the positioning of the party. Since the 2010 election Labour have moved further to the left and further to the liberal positions, they have vacated the ‘centre’ on both sets of values, while the average Conservative voters now sits in the position on social issues that Labour occupied until 2010.

That (at least) two sets of values are needed to understand political positions was a key point missed in the seemingly endless discussion of ‘new’ centrist parties at the start of last year (and of course the eventual birth, re-birth and death of Change UK/Independent group for Change/Independent Group). While other structural factors are important for understanding why this enterprise failed, the ‘centre’ of British politics was never where those involved in this venture tried to position themselves.

So what should Labour do next?

Let’s start with the good news. First, if we look at these values over time, around half of the electorate are positioned broadly on the ‘left’ on economic issues. This is why when individual manifesto promises are polled they are often popular. Second, the electorate are volatile, in the past we would probably have said that a Labour victory is out of reach in 2024, the mountain is too big to climb. But beginning in Scotland in 2015 and in three successive elections we have seen swings of the magnitude needed and seats changes that were unprecedented. If Labour can find the right formula there is no reason to think voters will not respond. Finally, for the good news, the electorate are, slowly, becoming more liberal. This is a process of generational change and social change as more educated generations replace those for whom the experience of higher education was rare.

There is also less good news. Key among this is that the way the two value dimensions combine creates groups of voters with only some of their values aligned with Labour. Around 1 in 3 of those on the left also hold the most liberal social positions; or to put it more starkly around 2 in 3 ‘left’ leaning voters may not be in the same position as the party on social issues. To connect with those voters the Labour party will need to find ways to talk to voters with which it disagrees. For example, not to recoil in horror when someone in favour of nationalising Royal Mail also wants to bring back the death penalty. Language and communication style matters here and will be key for rebuilding connections with voters.

Based on this reading of the values positions of voters there seem to be three possible pathways for Labour to set out on.

The one which seems to be most popular currently, is to try to unite the ‘left’ by reaching out and bridging across social issues. This is to some extent an extension of the strategies tried in 2017 and 2019 to emphasise what the voters have in common and appear a little more socially conservative. It will likely fail unless the party finds a different way to communicate with those voters and while the party membership remains very socially liberal it may struggle to project outwards real change in its view of social conservatives.

A second strategy would be to accept that the party has, over the last generation, lost socially conservative voters. It could instead look to build a coalition of ‘liberal’ voters. This is likely to entail a move to the centre on economics to allow those who are less radical on economics to feel comfortable voting for the party’s social agenda. There simply are not enough socially liberal voters on the left to form a winning coalition.

Finally, the party can maintain its ideological ‘purity’. Continue to appeal to a relatively small, but growing, section of the electorate and wait for the electorate to come to them. The issue here is of course, there could be many more elections to lose before that happens and in the meantime others may well fill the void the Labour party left behind.

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