Which way forward for Labour?

Glastonbury Festival, 2017

JVL Introduction

In his analysis below Andrew Fisher, Labour’s director of policy from 2016 to 2019 argues that Labour is moving in the wrong direction.

Its new strategy director, Deborah Mattinson apparently believes that Labour’s task is to “lure back millions who defected to the Tories in 2019”.

But, says Fisher, remember that twice as many votes were lost to Lib Dems and Greens as to the Tories.

And remember what happened in 2017 when Labour had so successfully converted non-voters from 2015 into Labour voters

Labour should not to rush rightwards in search of the relatively small number of voters who went Tory, but focus on non-voters. There are more of them – and they tend to be working class, young or from ethnic minority communities.

But they need to be inspired – as they were in 2017.

Fisher’s excellent article is weakened only by its bizarre failure to mention under whose auspices the 2017 gains were made.

We have no intention of colluding in making Jeremy Corbyn a nonperson.

Who else in recent decades has been able to offer what Fisher says is necessary: a radical “strategy of inspiration”?

This article was originally published by the Guardian on Thu 5 Aug 2021. Read the original here.

Labour shouldn’t lurch to the right – it must get out the vote

The idea of winning back millions of Tory supporters is a misdiagnosis. The aim should be registration and participation

Labour has lost the last four general elections. From the death throes of New Labour in 2010 to the implosion of Corbynism in 2019 and Ed Miliband in between, the party has been out of power for 11 years now, and it falls to Keir Starmer to try to reverse that trend.

The party has an identity crisis that reflects a changing class composition across demographic and geographic divides. In Scotland, the rise of Scottish nationalism and a Conservative unionist counterweight appears to have closed the door on Labour winning the sort of landslide the party used to take for granted, even in its dismal defeat in 2010. No wing of the party, in Westminster or Holyrood, has yet found an answer to that conundrum. These challenges are significant, but they are not insurmountable. If Labour is to win again, it has to be crystal clear about its potential voters – and the electoral coalition it needs to win.

Electoral strategy is not a value-free science; the political leanings of strategists inevitably influence the kinds of voters they wish to attract. Those who advocate targeting Conservative voters want Labour to be tougher on migration, social security and law and order, while being less bold in spending commitments. We can disagree on the approach to rebuilding the party, but what should be beyond argument is the data.

That’s why a presentation briefed to last weekend’s Observer by Labour’s new strategy director, Deborah Mattinson, is concerning. It allegedly stated that Labour must “lure back millions who defected to the Tories in 2019”. The data about the numbers involved suggests otherwise.

Winning back voters who defected to the Conservatives is necessary but not sufficient, because there simply aren’t “millions” of them. Labour’s internal analysis, based on the British Election Study in the aftermath of the 2019 defeat, showed that Labour lost only 300,000 votes to the Tories. A similar number defected to the Brexit party.

In the same election Labour also lost about 600,000 voters to the Liberal Democrats and Greens. If Labour triangulates too far to Conservative positions, the party’s younger voters could easily fracture to the minor parties, as the May 2021 council elections in Bristol and the London mayoral election showed.

Some have used Labour’s crushing defeat in Hartlepool in May as a vindication of their calls to move to the right: to win back the “red wall”, Labour must appeal to Conservative voters.

But this is a misdiagnosis. Labour’s vote in Hartlepool fell from 15,000 in 2019 to just 8,000 in 2021. The Conservative vote rose by less than 4,000 votes in the same period. The problem for Labour was an intensification of its failure to mobilise and inspire the voters it should attract.

Labour’s post-2019 internal analysis, shared with the new Labour leadership in 2020, showed that about 1.4 million people who voted Labour in 2017 did not vote in 2019. In 2017, Labour had inspired 3.5 million more people to vote Labour, propelling the party to its only electoral gains this century – and its largest increase in its share of the vote since 1945.

Labour lost Hartlepool because, as deputy leader Angela Rayner confessed, “people didn’t know what Keir Starmer stood for”. Activists and MPs who trod the streets in May’s dire elections almost universally complained about the lack of clear, flagship policies on the doorstep. That complaint is recognised in the central thesis of Mattinson’s leaked analysis: that Labour needs “clearer, sharper, more uplifting messaging about the party’s values and Starmer’s vision”.

My former colleague Matt Zarb Cousin is right to argue that Labour’s self-flagellation roadshow – the political equivalent of football fans chanting “we’re shit and we know we are” – is likely to prove self-defeating. Voters know Labour has let them down. They don’t want Labour to passively agree – they want us to actively improve.

It is therefore welcome that Andy McDonald and Angela Rayner have spent the last week setting out exactly the sort of practical policies to improve our working lives: making every worker, whether in the gig economy or in formal employment, eligible for sick pay, parental leave, holiday and the minimum wage as soon as they start work.

In 2017, the day after Theresa May called a snap general election, Labour’s senior staff assembled to discuss election strategy. A paper was put forward outlining the electoral coalition we would seek to build, including converting non-voters from 2015 into Labour voters. “They’re called non-voters for a reason, they don’t vote,” snapped an executive director based in the Labour’s headquarters. That view was confounded when turnout rose, especially among young people, who were inspired to vote for Labour in historically significant numbers.

Those who argue that Conservative voters won’t vote Labour because they’re Tories are equally wrong. People reflect and change their views, their material circumstances change – and political parties can and should seek to convince and persuade.

The reason why Labour should focus on non-voters is pragmatic: there are simply more of them, and 2017 showed they can be inspired to vote Labour. Non-voters are more likely to have at least one of these overlapping characteristics: working class, young or from ethnic minority communities. All three of these cohorts have one thing in common: if they do vote they are more likely to vote Labour. But mobilising them will require the strongest voter registration drive in Labour’s history to overcome the voter suppression tactics that this government has imported from the American Republican right.

Voter registration drives are labour intensive: they require passionate supporters going door to door in the right neighbourhoods with the right message. Social media can do some of the work, but it is no substitute for human engagement in target seats. It’s worrying, therefore, that Labour membership, as reported to last month’s national executive committee, has dived by 116,000 since Starmer became leader.

In contrast, when Labour inspires people to vote for them, it also inspires them to join. Starmer’s Labour must resist a strategy of triangulation based on exaggerated numbers of Labour-Tory switchers, and instead prioritise a strategy of inspiration: only then will it stand any chance of winning the next election.

  • Andrew Fisher was the Labour party’s executive director of policy from 2016 to 2019


Comments (11)

  • Doug says:

    Oh Jeremy Corbyn

  • Sean O’Donoghue says:

    Unfortunately, the foot soldiers have been expelled, suspended, resigned, retired because the leadership has demotivated them. Can’t see Progress lot getting their hands dirty.

  • Sabine Ebert-Forbes says:

    I have no trust nor confidence in Starmer and co.

  • The other major lacuna was the failure to even mention the Labour Right’s sabotage in 2017 and its war against Corbyn, most notably via the ‘antisemitism’ campaign. Unfortunately Andrew Fisher bought into that campaign lock, stock and barrel.

    Without a recognition that the Labour Right preferred a Tory government under Johnson to Corbyn then there really is no hope for the Labour left.

  • Andrew Hornung says:

    Only two days before the Mattinson “analysis” was given an airing in the Observer its sister paper The Guardian. published what amounts to the opposite perspective, put forward by Andy Beckett. This, oddly but convincingly, was based on a right-wing think-tank report on the “anti-capitalist” drift of younger people.
    Personally I’m rather suspicious of any perspective not based in political principle but only on target demographics. That said, Mattinson’s approach seems completely wrong-headed anyway. For one thing it means that a Labour leader who everyone knows is a keen Remainer will have to drop that stance and appear utterly opportunistic.
    The recent statement of policy regarding workers’ rights, however, is a positive step and we should be pushing to make campaigning around this a central project. The language in which this initiative is couched is cringeworthy patriotism, but that shouldn’t stop us at the grass roots from rallying our local CLPs to campaign around this.

  • Leighton Goss says:

    Good article but you appear to have airbrushed Jeremy Corbyn out of the equation in error? Without him GE17 success would not have happened. And without internal treachery he would have been PM

  • Martyn Meacham says:

    Starmer’s fake labour party is a dead duck.With Starmer and his front bench determined to turn labour into a tin pot tory party, they have become unelectable. Starmer and his whole front bench must be removed,and kicked out of the labour party ,because they have proved to be self serving and totally untrustworthy.

  • Vaughan Melzer says:

    All these Guardian analysers, and Labour Party chiefs know that if Corbyn was brought back into the Party and made Leader, the membership would explode again. Thousands would campaign for Labour and bring hope and optimism into a defunct and dreary main Party, which seems only to want to please and placate the Tories. Frankly, it is a Liberal party. Its name is an anachronism.

  • John Booth says:

    I first came across Deborah Mattinson and Philip Gould in 1986 when they made their initial presentation, based on their focus group “research”, to a joint NEC-Shadow Cabinet meeting. This was when I was the party’s chief press officer and Gould and Mattinson were early members of Peter Mandelson’s little known Shadow Communications Agency.

    I doubted the rigour of their work then, but had that suspicion confirmed after the 2005 general election when I was invited at short notice by a focus group recruiter to fill her quota of men of a certain age. The requirement was that they be former Labour voters in the Hornsey and Wood Green constituency who had switched to elect LibDem Lynne Featherstone.

    I explained that I lived just over the boundary in Islington North so wasn’t eligible on geographical grounds alone. But she said she urgently needed to make up the numbers for the company Mattinson was running at the time — and that there would be good food and drink as well as the cash fee in the usual brown envelope.

    I couldn’t resist and duly turned up at the appointed location, a room above the Victoria Stakes pub at the bottom of Muswell Hill. Who did I meet there but many men who clearly were unfamiliar with that part of North London but who pretended a local knowledge when guided by the Mattinson company facilitator?

    The most articulate group member was a taxi driver who claimed to have switched from life-long Labour supporter to Featherstone voter “to teach Tony a lesson for launching the Iraq invasion without a second UN resolution”.

    Several others murmured their agreement during a guided discussion I found artificial and unconvincing — people singing for their supper that night and with future brown envelopes in mind it seemed to me.

    At the end of the session we were told it had been run for a lobby for the elderly who apparently wanted to know if pension and retirement policies had been an important factor in our GE vote choice. (The “findings” of the focus group were subsequently used in the publicity material for a well-publicised national conference by the same organisation the following year.)

    The cab driver and I left together at the end, him telling me he was a focus group regular who enjoyed the discussions as well as the fee and food.

    I politely declined his offer of a lift home, saying I lived nearby and would be walking there. Did he live far away himself, I asked?

    Yes, he said, he lived in Borehamwood, smilingly adding that he was a Labour councillor there and had met “Tony” the previous week at an LFI lunch.

    Of course my experience could be untypical of the work of Sir Keir’s new strategist. But as she also produced very inaccurate “focus group” material on the eve of the critical Stoke Central by-election in 2017 in support of The Guardian anti-Corbyn narrative I continue to have my doubts.

    Perhaps one day focus group raw data will be made available to members for independent scrutiny and evaluation before it helps form the basis of party campaigning. Until it is, I will remain healthily sceptical of the recommendations said to be derived from meeting real people.

  • Richard Hobson says:

    Odd JC isn’t mentioned, maybe the author felt it unnecessary, or maybe he feared being expelled from the Party by the centrist zealots who are now running things?
    Whatever the reason, the article exposes the myths and woolly thinking that pervades Labour under the current regime, they are living in 1997.
    Personally I believe Labour would have won in 2017 if it hadn’t been for the fifth column, who repeatedly gave the MSM off the record and anonymous briefings against the leadership, and even actively worked against a Labour victory as the buried internal report showed.

  • Margaret West says:

    I agree with previous poster who thinks that Andrew Fisher
    feels constrained by the current ideology to expand on some of
    his opinions.

    The idea that it is worth employing expensive companies to
    determine future strategies has surely been jettisoned now?
    However the necessity of talking with and more importantly listening
    to the electorate is surely obvious and who better than Labour Party members who volunteer to canvass. I hope that Ms Rayner thinks about
    this when she enthuses about getting rid of “thousands” of the Labour Party.

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