First a word of warning. This is not a normal blog. What follows is a lengthy look at how Labour could win the next election (or at least become the largest party) but why it has not yet found an effective strategy for appealing to two very different kinds of target voter.
My analysis derives from, but goes beyond, two polling reports I have written for the Tony Blair Institute.
It examines the need for Labour to appeal to working-class voters who have switched to the Conservatives, notably in the “red wall” seats of the North and Midlands, while at the same time retaining the support of younger voters with more liberal and internationalist values. I have commissioned fresh polling research which indicates how this can be done.
I have discussed this analysis with groups of current and former Labour MPs, and shared early drafts with leading Labour figures past and present. Full(ish) disclosure: they are all people who were either at the heart of modernising Labour in the 1980s and 1990s, or involved in the governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, or have been actively rescuing Labour from the catastrophe of the Corbyn years. They all belong to that section of the Labour Party that actually wants to win elections.
All have agreed with my basic argument. Some have suggested amendments that I have incorporated in this version. Two people who are familiar with the views of Keir Starmer’s inner circle told me separately ahead of last month’s local elections that my analysis was right but politically awkward for Starmer to address.
There is probably never a right time, from a party leader’s view, to debate these issues. But with the next general election probably less than two years away – and it might come much sooner – the time is running out for Labour to confront the kind of strategic choices I discuss, and which I believe are best aired publicly.
WHY LABOUR MUST WIN OVER JENNY AND JOE – AND HOW IT CAN
First there was Mondeo Man, then Worcester Woman. In Labour’s wilderness years in the 1980s and 1990s, pollsters defined the party’s challenge in terms of the middle-income swing voters it needed to attract.
Labour has double the problem today. It must simultaneously target two distinct sets of voters with very different political values. Meet Jenny and Joe, the voters who will decide whether Keir Starmer can become Prime Minister.
Jenny is in her late twenties. She is a graduate who has started to climb the professional career ladder. She is a liberal-minded internationalist who regrets Brexit, fears climate change and welcomes the impact immigrants have had on her community. She voted Labour at the last election, though some of her friends voted Liberal Democrat or Green.
Joe is in his late fifties. He left school at 16 and, apart from brief spells when he was unemployed, has done manual jobs throughout his working life. The years of austerity have been tough for Joe and his family, living in one of the struggling, ex-industrial and once-solidly Labour that elected Conservative MPs in 2019. He worries that measures to tackle climate change will make life even tougher. He feels that Britain’s elite has let down people like him. Like many is his town, he voted to leave the EU in 2016 – and Conservative, “to get Brexit done”, in 2019. Some of his friends voted UKIP in 2015.
Behind the scenes, arguments are raging around Keir Starmer over what to do: appease Joe or champion Jenny. For the moment, the “Joe” faction is ahead. Starmer has retreated from his past support for the European Union and freedom of movement, and is seeking to avoid tough choices on climate change. This faction hopes that at the next election, this approach will allow Labour to recapture the Red Wall seats, without alienating Jenny. They believe that they can count on Jenny staying loyal, come what may, as her dominant concern will be to kick out the Tories, however far Starmer tacks to the Right.
Other Labour figures, including some in the shadow cabinet, think the opposite. They want Labour to hold firm to its liberal, pro-European principles and green ambitions. They side with Jenny and fear that to appease Joe would be to betray their values. They hope that Labour will be able to expand its appeal to progressive Britain, and that the departure of Jeremy Corbyn will be enough to bring Joe back into the fold.
Both sides are wrong. To win the next election, Labour must actively appeal to both Joe and Jenny. To target one and not the other is a recipe for defeat. To be sure, it’s a tough problem. To make Keir Starmer Prime Minister, at least at the head of a minority government, Labour must aim for 40%-plus. To reach this target it needs both Jenny and Joe.
This analysis explores the reasons for Labour’s twin challenges – and how to tackle them. It draws on fresh evidence of public attitudes to two of the most divisive issues, Europe and immigration. It argues not only that Labour must appeal to both Jenny and Joe – but that it can.
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Understanding Labour’s predicament is the starting point for tackling it. How come that today’s Labour Party needs the support of not one kind of voter, occupying the middle ground of British politics, but two very different kinds of voter?
There are two sets of reasons. The first relates to the past, and the way Britain’s electorate has changed. The second relates to the future, and the changes yet to come.
First, the past, and how we got here. Back in the early 1980s, most people of all ages in professional jobs voted Conservative. “Jenny” in those days, born in the mid-1950s and graduating in the 1970s, was a home-owning beneficiary of a number of Margaret Thatcher’s policies. This Jenny did not think of herself as especially right-wing; but she feared what a left-wing Labour government might do.
In contrast, “Joe” in the Thatcher era – a manual worker born in the mid-1920s – voted Labour, as he had done every election since his first, in 1950. In the Tory landslide in 1983, some of Joe’s friends switched to the Conservatives; but most stayed loyal to Labour. As trade union members in large factories, mines, mills and shipyards, they believed in solidarity and collective action as the way to a better life.
Since those days, “Jenny” and “Joe” have swapped parties. The Tory Jenny of the 1980s had become the Labour Jenny by 2019 – while the Labour Joe who couldn’t stand Margaret Thatcher has been succeeded by the Conservative Joe who put his faith in Boris Johnson.
The stories of Jenny and Joe reflect the transformation of Britain’s economy, the decline in the Red Wall towns of heavy industries with their powerful trade unions, the growth of new technology and the expansion of higher education in so many big cities. The old social-class divide (working-class Labour / middle-class Conservative) has been replaced by new divides of age and education (graduates under 40, heavily Labour and pro-European; non-graduates over 50, heavily Tory and pro-Brexit).
The impact of the trends represented by “Jenny” and “Joe” can be seen in the “Red Wall” towns captured by the Conservatives in 2019 – and in Labour’s growing dominance in the big cities in the same regions with established universities. The following table compares the way they voted in two general elections, 32 years apart, which both produced similar nationwide results – Conservative leads of 12 percentage points in the national vote.
The first thing to note is that there is a two-to-one majority, among those who take sides, saying Brexit has been bad for the economy, society and living standards. Even among those who voted Leave, just 37% think Brexit has benefited our economy. We can assume that among the most passionate Leave voters, the number saying “good” is more than that – and that among more “normal” Leave voters such as Joe, the proportion is less than 37%. (By the same token, the number of “normal” Remain voters saying Brexit has been bad for the economy is likely to be less than 71% – but still almost certainly a clear majority.)
That view is supported by the figures for the broad age and educational categories – the main demographic influences on people’s views and votes. There is some difference between the “Jenny” group (graduates under 45) and the “Joe” group (non-graduates over 45), but in both, the number saying Brexit has been bad for Britain outnumber those saying it is good for Britain.
As the following table shows, this creates an opening for a Labour policy on Europe that could appeal to Britain’s Jennies and Joes. Labour would seem to have a real opportunity to point to the harm Brexit has done – not least by identifying the particular problems facing local businesses, workers and consumers in seats with small Conservative majorities.
These figures indicate the advantages of framing the debate about Europe in terms of economic security rather than national identity. Among voters generally, agreeing common standards with the EU is supported by more people (49%) than the two more hardline pro-Brexit options combined (36%). More to the point, it is the preferred option of a large minority of Leave voters (34%) and non-graduates over 45 (40%). In short, it is a policy that many Joes could back. Only one in five voters – and just one-in-three Leave voters – are prepared to sacrifice prosperity in order to insist on Britain’s right to set its own rules. Given that the Government’s own Office for Budget Responsibility makes clear that Brexit in its current form carries sufficient economic costs, the pragmatic argument for common rules and standards is one that Labour can win.
At the very least, such a policy would no longer be a Brexit barrier to voting Labour, as it was for many Joes at the last election. At the same time, it would appeal to more Jennies than a policy that accepts every feature of Brexit and denies the case for co-operating with our European neighbours to repair the damage it has done.
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As for immigration, Joe’s other huge fear about Labour in recent years, much of the debate at the time of the 2016 referendum concerned fears of Britain being swamped by EU “welfare tourists” not seeking work but jumping the queue for health carte and social housing. Retorts that this was a travesty of reality cut little ice. Many voters thought that it was a consequence of British membership of the EU.
Now Brexit has happened, debates about immigration can be framed differently. Once again, the key to appealing to both Joe and Jenny is to steer clear of an unwinnable culture war. Instead, Labour could apply the general principle that our rules should be designed to achieve economic and social benefits and tackle the fears of insecurity, real or imagined, flowing from a policy of unrestricted immigration. The following table suggest that an explicitly work-related policy could work.
Once again, the key to bridging the cultural divide on immigration is to recast the issue as an economic and social challenge. Jenny and Joe have different sentiments about the role immigration has played in British life in recent years, but not such different views about the people that Britain should admit in the years ahead. Both could be persuaded to support a progressive/practical policy – one that is seen to aid rather than threaten economic security – as long as Labour can convince them that it genuinely intends to make it stick and is sufficiently competent to succeed. Tony Blair has suggested that the introduction of ID cards could help not just to enforce such a policy, but to reassure voters that it would work.
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These suggestions will doubtless offend those with passionate views on both sides of the Brexit and immigration divides. But many Labour and Tory activists were equally opposed to concepts such as Mondeo Man and Worcester Woman. Activists saw elections as a clash of ideologies, not as the need to woo floating voters in the middle ground.
Keir Starmer has near-total control over his party. Jeremy Corbyn is out in the cold; his allies have been marginalised. Ideologically fervent activists can safely be ignored. But it will not be enough to offer the negative reassurance that Labour is no longer beholden to the hard Left. Starmer needs his own tune for his supporters to sing. Generalities about fairness will not be enough. Clarity, courage and a fierce commitment to practical policies on issues such as Europe and immigration – and also such huge challenges as climate change and the future of public services – are vital.
So is competence. Other recent surveys have found that the greatest weakness in Labour’s overall reputation, especially among older non-graduates such as Joe, is the perception that it is incompetent. Banishing that weakness is a massive task, beyond the scope of this report. The point here is that failure to do so makes Labour unelectable, whatever it says in order to hold onto Jenny and win back Joe.
But if it can persuade enough voters that it would run Britain well, then it can frame its approach to even the toughest issues, such as Europe and immigration, in ways that bridge the divide between Jenny and Joe.
Labour has succeeded in the past by marrying its progressive principles to practical policies that voters felt would give them greater security and which they trusted the party to implement. Think of the Attlee government and the creation of the NHS; or the social reforms of Harold Wilson’s administrations, or New Labour’s record, from the minimum wage and Sure Start, to health spending and tax credits.
However, never before has Labour had to attract two distinct groups of swing voters as different as. Jenny and Joe. They present the party with its toughest challenge. Its best chance is to inspect its own history with clear eyes, an open mind and confidence in its basic values. Then it has at least a chance to win the next election as a contest about fairness, prosperity and security – rather than lose it by surrendering to the culture-war fallacy that, faced with the differences between Jenny and Joe, it must take sides.