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Labour’s Post-Poll Priorities are Clear

Ken Livingstone

THE general election result is notable for the fact that in London, for every vote Labour lost to the Tories on the right, it lost almost five to those presenting themselves as to its left – to Liberal Democrats, Respect, and the Greens.

Labour’s losses were therefore not due to any significant resurgence in Tory popularity but to it slipping, at least in terms of the parliamentary elections, in its leadership of London’s huge anti-Tory majority.

There is no doubt that the fragmentation of the “left” wing vote let in Tories. Labour’s share of the poll fell by 8.4 per cent while the Conservatives’ rose by only 1.4 per cent, the Liberal Democrats’ by 4.4 per cent, Respect also by 1.4 per cent, and the Greens’ by 1 per cent.

It would be a fundamental strategic mistake for Labour in London to base its policy on chasing the one elector who deserted to its right, to the Tories, rather than the five it lost to parties presenting themselves as being to its left.

It is important for Labour in the third term to win back those who have opposed second-term policies such as top up fees, the war in Iraq, or limits on trial by jury. It is almost electorally irrelevant – and definitely counter-productive – to spend time chasing those whose agenda is set by the Daily Mail.

The same applies nationally. Overall Labour’s vote fell by 6 per cent. But only 0.5 per cent of that went to the Tories compared with 4 per cent to the Liberal Democrats and 1.5 per cent to others – the bulk of whom presented themselves as being to Labour’s left.

John Ross’s book Thatcher and Friends – The Anatomy of the Tory Party sets out the long-term trends that have dominated political developments over recent years. Its social analysis – that the Conservative Party was heading towards the greatest electoral defeats in its history, and all attempts to revive its popular base would fail – appeared almost incredible when published at the hour of Thatcher’s greatest triumph in the 1980s.

It provided a sobering alternative to the doom-mongering of those who argued that the forward march of Labour had been halted.

Conservative support has plunged to its lowest levels for a hundred and fifty years and stuck there. Tory failure to regain social support last Thursday was not short-term but rooted in long-term social decline. The implications of such analyses, both nationally and in London, are evident.

Labour’s position depends on its ability to position itself at the head of the 67 per cent of the British people who vote against the Tory Party.

The message Labour hammered out in the campaign’s last days, "vote Liberal Democrat and get a Tory", was true. But it was too late, and too purely negative, to be sufficiently effective – although overall the Tory vote actually fell marginally in strictly Labour-Conservative contests and a two per cent increase in turn out probably won Labour 10-20 seats. 

Labour must consistently reach out to issues potential Liberal Democrat and Green voters care about, and in London also Respect voters, not the small handful considering deserting Labour to the Tories. Provided Labour retains hegemony of the anti-Tory vote the Conservatives can be left in their social bunker.

The underlying reason the Tories do not gain, and Labour and Liberal Democrats both can, is clear.

London suffers some of Britain’s worst deprivation – over 40 per cent of children live in families below the poverty line. Tackling such deprivation is high on the agenda – Respect’s vote in Bethnal Green & Bow, and East and West Ham, reflected overlapping pools of Muslim voters and appalling poverty.

But in large areas of the city’s west and outer north, Londoners have some of the most pleasant “private realms” in the country – decent incomes, good houses, high leisure expenditure, and expectations these will improve.

Both groups are critically affected by the public realm’s quality. All need reassurance against crime, the majority travel to work on public transport, they rely on public not private health provision, they educate their children in state schools, they want a sustainable environment, they are socially concerned and have no hankering for a return to empire.

A Tory agenda of slashing the public services (or at least failing to adequately invest in them) simply cannot meet such voters’ needs.

In 1997 and 2001, these voters felt their needs were met by Labour. In 2005 the party appeared to waver in its commitment to them not only over Iraq but also over issues symbolised by top-up fees. Entirely logically the electorate therefore punished Labour not by turning to the Tories but to those presenting themselves as moderately to Labour’s left.

Labour’s task is therefore the same in London as it is to win a fourth term nationally.

The Tories remain in their social bunker. Labour’s job is to maintain and regain its position as undisputed leader of the vast anti-Tory majority.

Published in the Morning Star, 14 May 2005