Core vote or Middle Britain – what should Labour now do?

When a party is as down and out as Labour is today it is conventional for them to debate whether they should now concentrate on salvaging something by pandering to the core vote, or drive decisively to middle Britain and ignore the many party cries for a more traditional approach. It is only fitting that Labour should now agonise over this, as they have spun for years that the Tories can only do well if they ignore their core and position in the centre ground.

I do not believe in the conventional descriptions of UK politics based on a left-right analysis. Some of the defining issues no longer fit in such a geometric pattern. Euroscepticism is not a monopoly of the right, and is held passionately as well by the Benn wing of the Labour movement. Pulling out of the EU was after all Labour policy in the 1980s. Wishing to restore our civil liberties is a passion of many of us Conservatives today, but there are other Conservatives who hold more authoritarian views, whilst many in Labour hate their government’s attack on our liberties. The left tries to make out that only they would pay large sums into our schools and hospitals, yet both main parties believe in free treatment and free school places and accept that requires substantial and increasing sums of public spending on them. The new divisions are Eurosceptic versus Euroenthusiast, and freedom loving versus turning to the state to seek a greater sense of security and direction in private lives.

Mr Brown will be unable to learn any lesson from recent electoral reversals that requires getting powers back from Brussels, or requires allowing us greater freedom. He is too hooked onto the Euroenthusiast agenda of more power to the centre, and too persuaded that he needs to take more control over our lives to fight his own miserable version of the “war” on terror. He will need to look elsewhere for policies that might chime with an increasingly sceptical electorate.

In the economic sphere there is a clearer distinction between Conservative and Labour, and between Blairism and old Labour. It is here the battle will be fought for the sole of Brown’s Labour. Is he truly a Blairite moderniser, as he sometimes spins, or is he an unreconstructed tax and spend socialist, as his actions since 2001 indicate? Will becoming even more of a tax and spend socialist help win back the core vote, or does he need to become less of a tax and spend socialist to win back some “centre” votes?

Blairites believe that public services should be opened up to more competition and choice. They believe that whilst delivering free medical care and free school places remains important, this can be done more effectively through a range of providers, some of them in the private or charitable sectors. They see the inefficiencies, poor quality and high cost of some monopoly state provision. Socialists believe that these services must be supplied in a uniform way by state employees through a monopoly service, and persuade themselves that any problems of quantity or quality simply reflect a lack of “funding”.

Gordon Brown has elements of both in his thinking. In his statements he tells us the Blairite reforms carry on. He claims to favour a wider range of different types of school, and wants private treatment centres hired by the NHS to provide specialist facilities. However, as Chancellor he was often the roadblock to reform, and as Prime Minister for all the fine words there is not a lot of evidence of major reform on the ground. He increased spending massively to test out the old Labour proposition that there was nothing wrong with monopoly state services that large injections of cash could not put right. Now in power at Number 10 he faces the conundrum of what do you do when the public services are still not good enough and you have run out of money?

The irony of the PM’s position is clear. He will continue to speak as a moderniser but will operate as a traditional high spend socialist. The one thing he is likely to conclude from the bruising rows of the last few months is he should drop all moves to higher taxes, and just borrow and borrow and borrow. The left has largely given up on the idea that taxes on people should be raised – after all the left somewhat belatedly joined Conservatives in complaining about the last income tax hike. Trade Unionists will have another go at taxing energy companies, just as oil prices start to subside. The demand will be popular, but the Chancellor if he goes there will probably end up making another mess and become impaled on an increasingly international and vociferous business lobby capable of shifting profits and domiciles quite quickly if he goes too far.

All this leaves Gordon Brown to do as he will see it is to spend more and more on Labour areas and Labour causes. This will make the economic position worse. Years of high spending on the inner cities, and years of skewing spending to the north and west away from the more prosperous south and east has failed to narrow the gap. Over the last eleven years the more they have spent in the public sector the bigger the regional gap has grown. This will not deter them.

Heaping more public spending on will delay the interest rate cuts the UK economy needs to revive its housing sector. Spending more in the public sector will intensify the squeeze on the private sector and lead to more job losses there. It will reveal to all who still do not get it that Gordon Brown is very much a high spend socialist. It will also bring his government down. It’s the economy stupid. More public spending is not the way to fix it.

If he wants to revive his political fortunes he does need to get a grip on the public sector, and reduce the squeeze on the private by cutting taxes and interest rates.


  1. Glyn H
    July 26, 2008

    Thank you for another thoughtful piece. As one Eric Blair said in about 1948 it is Authoritarian v Libertarian; and I have long been a Libertarian Tory – regarding the fundalmentalist anti-abortionists, hangers and floggers et al with distaste yet being economically dry and therefore very eurosceptic. Which brings me to the point; may I direct you to Guidos vignette on your late and unlamented collegue, the member fror Grantham?

  2. Neil Craig
    July 26, 2008

    The statistical fact is that free market run economies work better & grow faster than controlled ones. If Labour could come to understand this in their marrow they would have few problems. There is nothing wrong with society providing a safety net & as we are a very wealthy society by any historical standards we can afford a very good safety net without problems.

    Labour was set up to represent the organised manufacturing working class – not dole scroungers, not quango employees, not immigrants, not windfarm owners, not farmers & those who want to stop people building houses in the countryside (a traditional Tory interest), not criminals or human rights lawyers (a Liberal interest), not public employees, not "environmentalists" nor the arts lobby, nor the BBC. Many of these have since become "left wing" but are not intrinsicly related to socialism. Socialism was originally a doctrine which claimed to be technologically progressive looking towards a better future, none of this "age of cheap oil/airflights/food/electricity/bin collection is over" nonsense. A bit of back to basics would do them no harm.

  3. David Belchamber
    July 26, 2008

    "If he wants to revive his political fortunes he does need to get a grip on the public sector, and reduce the squeeze on the private by cutting taxes and interest rates".

    I agree entirely but it would be good if you would proceed from that point to what the conservatives will do in practice. You imply – but do not state – that government waste must be reduced as a necessary prerequisite.

    Secondly, could you reassure us that the conservatives will be efficient and competent in government, where the present government is so patently incompetent? Will you be able to return the civil service to its former high standards of impartial service?

    Finally, cannot the conservatives now demolish once and for all the Brown mantra of "We have delivered the highest levels of employment, and the lowest interest and inflation rates"?

    This is the mantra every government minister returns to when asked a question, on QT, the news, political programmes etc.

    It is simply not true but our shadow treasury team has not killed it.

  4. Freeborn John
    July 26, 2008

    When a party has been in power so long there needs to be a countervailing reason to keep voting for them to compensate for the ever growing number of voters who are simply sick and tired of the old regime. Fear of the alternative could be one reason to keep returning the same government, but I don’t think it will work this time. Labour really has to think through what it can offer the voters that will persuade us that the country will be a better place at the end of another Labour term and currently I see nothing from them except intellectual tiredness.

    The discrediting of socialism and the breakdown of class divide means that the old left-right distinction has faded, but the old political ideals of individual liberty, representative government, equality etc. still remain. Many of the new dividing lines are caused by the relative priority that we attach to these different goals, with for example Tony Benn agreeing with many libertarians on the desirability of liberty and democracy but simply prioritising equality as his highest goal. The first of the dividing lines you mention (freedom loving versus state direction) is between those like me that prioritise liberty highest and the rest. The second issue (EU-scepticism versus federalism) is largely one of the overthrow of representative government that some (not all) EU-supporters seem willing to countenance to see their ultimate goal (which in many cases is anti-Americanism) advanced.

    I would suggest that if Labour wants to get out of their torpor they need a plan which voters feel would leave the country in better shape five years from now. They need to articulate it immediately because the next election is lost unless they can get the Tory lead down to single digits by next summer. Given the timescales and current torpor I would suggest they put Jack Straw in as leader and put Tony Benn in charge of the manifesto because he is the only Labour politician who seems capable of fresh thought that appeals beyond their base. He would need to be constrained to stick to liberal economics (even ‘Le Monde’ this week asked the question ‘Is the right the truth?’) but I feel he could quickly articulate policies of social equality and opportunity, representative government and even individual liberty that would appeal to the country at large.

  5. Ken
    July 26, 2008

    Brown is fundamentally a high spending, equality of outcome socialist. He is intellectually just bright enough to ask the right questions – all the talk of neo-classical macroeconomic growth models – and the need to enhance total factor productivity. But I realised during the Laura Spence affair that he didnt really understand the question and he certainly didnt understand the answer. He spent the proceeds of growth and borrowed more, and he spent it unwisely. What did Gordon do for TFP? Nothing.
    Once one understands that the economy grew without any aid from Brown (except for the public spending splurge of 2001 when public spending helped the UK avoid recession post-dotcom bubble – and the spending wasnt wise), one can see that the Brown reputation is hollow. He is a shallow and rather stupid man, but with an iron determination to influence those around him. This makes him difficult to shift from No. 10, and I have no doubt that he would react badly to hints that he should go.
    Thus a grip on public spending is beyond him (high spending socialist). Whether the Labour party get a grip and off Gordon before an election is an open question – the infighting caused, the lack of an effective new leader, the fundamental intellectual bankruptcy of the Labour machine, all suggests otherwise, but desperate people might just summon the courage to face up to Mr Bean.
    The direction taken by the Labour party will depend upon:

    1) Whether Brown stays or goes. If he stays, a gradual slide to the left is likely as he finds the unions calling the tune.
    2) If (and when – for example after losing the next election) Brown goes, the direction of Labour will be determined by their next leader. However, expect a great deal of infighting no matter what. I'd guess total incoherence is the most likely outcome*.

    *Actually the results of the next GE will have a major impact, as only those with parliamentary seats can be leader, a la 1992 and 1997 for the Tories.

  6. APL
    July 26, 2008

    JR: "What should Labour now do?"

    Interesting question, but it can also be turned on its head, with the opposing party in some disarray (Oh joy), can members of the Tory party ever again say, "a vote for the xyz party will let Labour in"? Not for a very long time in the future.

    So what can the Tory party do to attract votes from the UKIP or English democrats, or will these parties fill the vacuum left by the Labour party?

  7. William B.
    July 26, 2008

    I wonder what Labour's core vote is these days. The union dominated blue collar sector of the 60s-80s no longer exists and many of those inclined towards traditional old-Labour ideology have changed their minds and become far more pragmatic.

    It seems that both main party have a hard-core of immoveable supporters but probably a smaller number than in times gone by. In the same way that people who might have been thought traditional Labour supporters were persuaded to turn blue during the Thatcher years so they, and many traditional Conservatives, were persuaded by the Blair message.

    Mr Brown's biggest problem, as it appears to me, is that he is not delivering what middle Britain wants and has no ammunition with which to deliver it over the next two years. The Old Labour message was "we will make things better for you by taking money from other people", New Labour's position is "we will make things better for you by taking more money from you". The alienation of Middle Britain is inherent in this approach, as has been seen so dramatically now that the economic bubble has burst.

    The national mood, as measured by polls of voting intentions, seems to have changed pretty quickly but all that has happened is that worries about where all the money has gone are no longer masked by a veneer of economic wellbeing. Tax and spend has been tried in a different way from 30 years ago but has failed for all the reasons it failed then.

    I believe that power can be gained only by appealing directly to Middle Britain, and Middle Britain fears throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

    Sustainable economic success will require a radical approach including a massive reduction in the size of The State, as you have identified here many times. I doubt that such an approach will be received well by Middle Britain unless it is effected incrementally with consistent proof that each reduction in the size of government has removed only what people do not want and has left intact the things they value.

    Mr Brown cannot achieve this because he does not believe it is the right thing to do and, in any event, his party's paymasters in the unions will not allow it. He has no means of appealing to Middle Britain except by painting the Conservatives as wreckers of valued public services.

  8. Puncheon
    July 26, 2008

    John – thanks for an excellent analysis. I agree with (almost) all of it. The one exception is your claim that taxpayers' cash has been directed to the north/north-west. I live in the far north and have yet to see any evidence of this. Our Farmers have been nearly bankrupted by the incompetence and worse of DEFRA. The corruption endemic in this administration seems to have seeped even up here, eg our city council has been working with a large local company to approve expansion plans for our local airport that would have secured lots of jobs and developed a small local airfield into a much needed commercial/business/tourist small local airport. But the Regional Administration, based in Manchester has intervened and threatended to kill it. I wonder if that is connected in any way with the fact that plan B of the said large company is to move to the Manchester/Merseyside area? This is an example of the misuse of national/regional government interfering in local affairs.

    John – an incoming Conservative Government is going to have to spend 10 years or so weeding out of local Gov and Quangoes all the left-wing Guardianista implants. An idea – if the Conservatives embraced an English Parliament they would not only sweep up all the votes in England, but would be able to abolish all the Regional quangoes and the useless county authorities as well. We are all sick and tired of lefty/pc self-serving lectures and insults, but of course we are too polite to say so.

    Reply: The Celtic countries and the North has done much better out of Council grants, health and welfare payments

  9. mikestallard
    July 26, 2008

    You know the one about the Irish peasant who was asked the way to Connemara? After a long pause, he spoke: "Well, I wouldn't start from here myself."
    John, you are assuming that the Labour party has something useful to give the country. You are also (subconsciously perhaps) talking like a politician: What would I do to save my own skin if I were them?
    What they would, of course, do in an ideal world, would be to call an election. That way, they would have to offer the country some positive policies – as would the conservatives.
    What is more, because they are £20,000,000 in debt and about to be taken over by the Unions, they might like to get back to their grass roots and go round canvassing and speaking in their constituencies so that people were reassured and, yes, inspired with the very real Labour ideals of helping the poor, bringing full employment (instead of fudging it) and of supporting the genuine working class.
    This wouldn't actually cost very much money at all.
    If they did it right, too, they might very well give the (hated) Tories a run for their money in a lot of Labour seats, especially in Scotland.
    The problem, of course, is that they haven't got the bottle for this.
    Simon Heffer in the Telegraph is of the opinion that all they are suitable for is the dole queue. He predicts that Jacqui Smith will, in two years' time, be a lollipop lady!

  10. Acorn
    July 27, 2008

    JR: “What should Labour now do?”
    Wave good bye would be nice. I am frightening myself thinking what damage this government can do, up till May 2010.

    My first recommendation is to spend the holidays reading and re-reading the following, until it is understood.

    The link will open on floor 2; but, I recommend that members, particularly those with one of the numerous grades of ministerial status – all 119 of them – should start on the ground floor.

    Second, try and avoid selling of strategic assets that you may need in the future, even if you are strapped for cash; Westinghouse's nuclear reactor division for instance. You are only going to pay through the nose for their products when you need them.

    Third; try and find a bunch of guys who really can work out the "cost of legislation / regulation" and how to rank all the components on, say, "net cost per outcome" [start with the seven variants of "New Deal"] or; "cost per life year saved" [speed cameras say] or; "quality adjusted life years added" see, for instance… .

    Forth, publish it for the nation and its elected representatives. Then we could even have a bit of direct democracy and give you a hand at reducing the governments £154 billion employee pay bill; and, the £450 billion that so easily glides from their in-trays to their out-trays.

  11. DBC Reed
    July 27, 2008

    Like many of the contributors above I wonder if there is any point in pondering the last knockings of this New Labour government.The Conservatives are now probably the Government in Waiting ,virtually the Incoming Government ,and it is now no longer practical to simply overplay the Change Card (like Barack Obama). People can change to anything, SNP even.
    Conservatives need to be be getting their policies sorted out and since they are wedded to the Free market and Property Owning for All(which results in systemic House Price Inflation) they are ill-suited to the present crisis, which is entirely due to structural problems in the extolled Free Markets which translate low interest rates into high house prices .As they cannot rely on traditional responses, they need to be doing a major re-think .
    "Dave" Cameron seems more of a Public school chancer than even Blair, and George Osborne is only belatedly doing his homework on Tax Simplification.The last thing the economy needs is Free Market Faffers acting on instinct and cutting interest rates so destroying manufacturing and the provision of goods and services when all the cheap money gets diverted back into the House Price Bubble looming over the economy since 1972 (and the Barber dash for growth increased house prices by 70% in two years).
    A period of level house prices is necessary but is not good news for the Conservatives who will not be able to rely on the feel-good factor of continuously rising house prices and are ideologically opposed to increasing jobs and pay.
    BTW I entirely agree with Neil Craig above.How did the party of the workers get weighed down with all these liberal causes?Any one of them must get cause people to vote against.
    Reply: Lower interets rates help industry and commerce. The money does not all get diverted into a house bubble, especially if banking and banking reg is improved.

    1. mikestallard
      July 28, 2008

      Mr Reed,
      I take it that you are on a nice income yourself. Down at the bottom, people are struggling to keep up with rising inflation. My next door neighbours, for instance (both working people) have no holiday this year. (They usually go, they tell me to a nudist colony with their two sons!!!) My other neighbour is finding it very hard to keep up. She works in a local factory, doesn't run a car, but smokes a lot. On the other side, my neighbour is putting all his money into double glazing. He has managed to do half his house. Work has now stopped.
      If these people don't soon get some relief, they will snap.

  12. Neil Craig
    July 27, 2008

    Historicaly Labour were the party of the unionised urban working classes. This became even moreso when much of industry was nationalised. Now, when is seems likely they are again going to have to financially depend on the unions it is worth noting how this base has changed. Union membership is no lobnger concentrated among urbann industrial workers but, as the government got out of owning industry but not out of employing people, union membership is largely now among government employees. Labour has become, by increments, the party of government employment. Since they, with job security, relatively good pay & better pensions, are not a popular group the Conservatives can win by promising to cut the public payroll & shift the long term demographic base by doing so.

  13. H
    July 28, 2008

    A fight for Labour's sole? Something fishy here….

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