A blog by Luke Akehurst about politics, elections, and the Labour Party - With subtitles for the Hard of Left. Just for the record: all the views expressed here are entirely personal and do not necessarily represent the positions of any organisations I am a member of.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Basic sociology and demographics for the Labour left

Some of the responses I get to my critique of Cruddas' strategic vision (at least he has one, as opposed to the Hard Left whose strategy is "stop the world I want to get off") indicate a worrying ignorance of some basic facts:

1) Embourgeoisement and de-industrialisation. Britain has been getting more middle class for over 50 years. That's one of the reasons why the underlying trend in the Labour vote (ignoring the short term self-inflicted losses of the early '80s and a temporary upward blip in 1966) was down from the early '50s right through to 1997. The industrial working class is shrinking. Trade union membership is half what it was in 1979 because so many people no longer work in unionised industries. Most people are generally more prosperous - objectively - than their parents and grandparents - and a very large percentage of the population live lifestyles in terms of consumption that would have been the preserve of an elite few in the 1950s. Right-to-buy means far more people are home-owners. The language of appeals to the "Labour core vote" says nothing to them about their lives.

2) An ageing population - because the birth rate has gone down and people live longer. And older people are generally less radical than younger ones, and more concerned with their personal and financial security.

3) Population movement on a huge scale - from "Labour" cities and industrial areas to "Tory" suburbs and rural areas, and from the "Labour" North and West to the "Tory" South and East. This would not matter a jot in a PR electoral system, but under FPTP with regular boundary changes to ensure constituencies are of roughly equal size, it means there are fewer and fewer safe Labour seats and the territory Labour needs to form a majority is more and more "middle class".

So the "back to the core vote" strategy isn't a strategy. It's a political suicide note.


Anonymous Duncan said...

"A critique of the (very) basic sociology of the Labour Right"

(I liked the nod to 'Panic', but the music that you constantly play is problematic as well, Luke)

a) The well-rehearsed argument about the affluent society - effectively Crosland's point - is interesting and has some validity, but only goes so far. What we have now - and also had pre-war and in the 1950s - is a very unequal society which includes considerable affluence and considerable relative poverty. There have, of course, been shifts in the nature of that economy over time, not least for the demographic reasons you articulate. However, it was back in 1951 - only 6 years after Labour's first election majority - that the most startling example of what you refer to was evident: Labour got the largest popular vote they have ever received and yet lost an election: our core vote was massive but was too geographically concentrated to secure a majority.

And yet, Britain in 1951 was hugely divided, with an industrial north recovering from their pre-war depression and hugely pro-Labour, and the south-east and parts of the midlands frustrated that post-war austerity and rationing was holding them back in their boom.

What Labour succeeded in in doing in 1964 was giving a message that was appealing to those working in the new industries (the white heat of technology) and to their heartland or core vote, who needed a Labour government more than anyone else.

What happened in the 1980s has remarkable echoes of the 1930s: unprecedented social mobility and expendable income for some; a return to depression, emigration, repossessions and unemployment for many in our heartlands.
A teliology of embourgeoisement is a myth - one devised by terminally pessimistic Marxists, for the most part. In fact there is a much more complex picture of affluence, alienation, social exclusion and social mobility.

What Labour achieved in 1997 - as in 1945 - was to assemble a coalition with our heartlands who were aware of the damage a tory government could do, progressive sections of the middle class and those who were just sick of the same old faces (also a big factor in '45, but perversely also in '51). We were further helped by the bubble having burst in the south-east and so even some of the winners of the Thatcherite period were thrown into our welcoming arms.

Though our adoption of some Thatcherite ideas and philosophy may have helped prevent scaring away a part of that coalition, it was not instrumental to the '97 victory.

The policies most associated with Blairism do no only alienate our 'core' vote (which is a disastrous thing to do) but also many other aspects of this coalition: sadly it is not working-class voters who are most upset by university fees, for example. The relationship between attitudes to war and security and class are complex. Blairism has alienated much of our 'core vote' but it has alienated a lot more than that.

2) There is, indeed, an ageing population, but most of my encounters with penioners organisations have been pretty scary! There seems to be a lot of radicalism amongst the so-called 'grey vote' and Blairism has also alienated older voters with its approach to pensions. It is not that Blairite policies are unpopular with all pensioners, but they are unpopular with those who might vote Labour (and I think that's a fairly key point).

3) The demographic point you make is true, although PR would probably exentuate the point further rather than smooth it over. Of course we have to try and win marginal seats and attract swing voters, but in those seats a big part of our current problem is getting OUR voters out. And just as we may struggle to get them out in Dagenham, we struggle to get them out in our safest seats as well, and it is in our safest seats and our no-hoper seats where local organisation is breaking down most notably (although I concede that Hackney is an exception!)

I realise that you would categorise me as hard left and therefore probably have little interest in my analysis of this, but it is of fundamental importance: we have to build a coalition of support and, once we've built it, we have to keep it. People like you have been very good at reaching out to unexpected areas for support, but you mustn't lose sight of people who thought they would always vote Labour. We might call those people our 'core vote' (though not all of them are our 'traditional vote').

10:30 pm, February 05, 2007

Anonymous Mike Kneesmith said...

Hello this is a message for Luke,

I am a Labour Party member and have moved to London recently from the East of England. We are living in Stoke Newington. I run for the District Council a number of times in the 1980s, never with any success, but always with enthusiasm.

I would really like to get involved in supporting Labout in Hacnkey.

Please let me know the best way to do this!

many thanks

Martin Kneesmith

11:55 pm, February 05, 2007

Blogger Luke Akehurst said...


Actually I have a great interest in your analysis, which as usual is thoughtful.

As a councillor for an extremely deprived inner-city ward with absolute, let alone relative, poverty, I don't ignore our core vote - they are why I am in politics - but I think:

a) many aspects of New Labour policy such as our stance on ASB resonate as much if not more in core areas as marginal ones

b) the government has delivered a lot for my poorest constituents in both redistributive terms and public services

c) my constituents need a Labour government and we have to be able to win in marginal areas to get one

d) the key voters and key seats that swung from Con to Lab in 1997 ought to be Labour anyway - they are full of skilled workers, not stock-brokers

The breakdown in party organisation and hence turnout n safe areas is reversible not inevitable - there are plenty of case studies, not just Hackney - the political will just has to be there.

I am not a "1994 was year zero" Blairite ultra-montane who is only interested in marginal voters - hence I'm in Labour First, I'm a trade unionist, I was against top-up fees and foundation hospitals, I'm not a fan of further marketisation of public services.

But I think the basic Blairite analysis of where the whole electorate is at was correct.

There is room for us to be more radical on social policy, anti-poverty measures and workplace rights. But to earn the right to do this we have to continue to be reassure the public that on security issues (defence, immigration, crime) and taxation we are looking after their best interests.

8:00 am, February 06, 2007

Blogger Luke Akehurst said...

Mike/Martin Kneesmith

you are not on the membership list ... call 08705 900 200 to get your membership transfered to Hackney North CLP, I will then get your contact details as CLP Membership Secretary and get in touch.

8:02 am, February 06, 2007

Anonymous Nick said...

The trouble is Luke that you are playing your usual game of knocking down straw men by coming up with a caricature of what Cruddas (or Denham et al) are saying and then of course finding it easy to pull apart.

I also find it a bit peculiar that you contradict the Blairite analysis then say you agree with it.

Finally, I think you're essentially correct about crime/ASB, though there is room for a more balanced approach, but I'm not so sure about defence. The mood of most swing voters is increasingly isolationist and not in favour of spending money on overseas interventions. That impulse is not a particularly progressive one, but it hardly points towards a demand for high military spending - quite the opposite.

Immigration is altogether more complicated...

10:53 am, February 06, 2007

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Luke has his own reasons for wanting more defence spending which has little to do with appealing to the "core" vote...

11:16 am, February 06, 2007

Anonymous Duncan said...

Luke, you said:

"a) many aspects of New Labour policy such as our stance on ASB resonate as much if not more in core areas as marginal ones"

Agreed. That's not to say I agree with all the stances we've taken in this area, but anti-social behaviour disproportionately effects poorer people, and we have tried to balance our stance with attempts to reverse the social exclusion of those who engage in such behaviour (there's more to do there, but there's been some positive moves - some of which fit well into your part 'b' as dealing with poverty itself is a key)

"b) the government has delivered a lot for my poorest constituents in both redistributive terms and public services":

I agree. I'm sure it has. Obviously in this sort of forum it'll sound like I spend my days slagging off the government, but I've actually spent rather a lot of my life trying to get them elected and keep them in power! Of course I could launch into a diatribe about parts of the reform agenda meaning that money meant for front-line services ends up in private share-holders' back pockets, etc. but I do not doubt for a moment doubt that there have been some significant improvements.

"c) my constituents need a Labour government and we have to be able to win in marginal areas to get one"

Again, 100% agree. I've no objection to trying to win marginal seats (I've actually no objection to trying to win pretty safe Tory seats - I live in one, and believe me there are lots of people who need a Labour government here too and a big splodge of blue on the political map can disguise all manner of inequality and local difficulties).

I suppose where I differ slightly is that I don't think you necessarily get those seats by getting the median voter. I think people tend to vote Labour because they're inspired to do so, rather than because they are reassured to do so. Now I suspect we may differ on how to inspire people, but I do believe that if grabbing the median voter and the establishment press won elections, the SDP wouldn't have failed.

"d) the key voters and key seats that swung from Con to Lab in 1997 ought to be Labour anyway - they are full of skilled workers, not stock-brokers"

Again, agree 100%. I don't believe Labour's support has a 'natural level' which it needs to fall back down to. Indeed I think we can get more people coming to us; I only differ on what sort of message I think can achieve that.

"The breakdown in party organisation and hence turnout n safe areas is reversible not inevitable - there are plenty of case studies, not just Hackney - the political will just has to be there."

Again, I agree. It is a combination of the political will, the human resources, etc. I would never argue that such a trend is inevitable. But I do think it requires a big team of activists, and I do think that to have activists you need to have incentives to activism. Some of us are just masochists and enjoy doing the door-knocking, etc. but a healthy party is one that is lively, active, where there's disagreement, decision and where decisions make a difference. It's one of the reasons I agree with you that maintaining the party's democratic structures at a local level is important - personally I believe they should have been maintained (and enhanced) at a national level as even the tedium of a compositing meeting probably turned off fewer activists than the current system.

I'm glad you feel we could more radical on workers' rights and that you have opposed some of the marketisation reforms. On reassuring our voters that we have their best interests at heart - of course. The difference comes in that analysis of course, and on how to reassure groups who may have different analyses from our own or from other groups in society. How do you reassure those who are scared of crime and those who are scared of being labelled criminals? I think you have to be upfront and honest and dispel myths and confront prejudice and ignorance where you find it. Sometimes that doesn't go down well on the doorstep, I know.

1:58 pm, February 06, 2007


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