Election experts

After early stumbles, Labour must repair its rapidly fraying strategy

A man with a plan? Stefan Rousseau/PA

As polling day approaches, the main parties face an electorate that is deeply dissatisfied with politicians in general. It’s best to be cautious about reading too much into polls but the latest two do not make for encouraging reading for Ed Miliband and the Labour Party.

Both of them give the Conservatives a three-point lead over Labour. The most recent Ashcroft poll puts the Conservatives on 34% and Labour on 31% with UKIP on 14% and the Liberal Democrats and Greens level pegging on 7%. The latest YouGov/Sun poll puts the Conservatives on 35%, Labour on 32%, with similar figures for the other parties as in the Ashcroft poll.

To some extent, these results are offset by the fact that the Labour Party needs to win fewer votes to obtain an overall majority. Indeed, it is entirely possible that the Conservatives could win more votes and gain fewer seats than Labour.

The Conservatives tend to pile up large majorities in safe seats and because the planned redistribution of seats did not take place after the 2010 election, Labour has a number of seats with below average electorates, making the vote-to-seat ratio work all the more in its favour.

On the other hand, a new system for voter registration brought in this time round is bad for Labour. Instead of allowing the head of each household to register all the voters in it, every new voter must now register themselves. This has led to a decline in total voter register of about one million and many of the missing are likely to be potential Labour voters. Students – who are said to be among Labour’s best targets – are particularly under-registered.

Miliband’s strategy

Does this mean that the Labour strategy is flawed? Miliband seemed to be banking on a core-vote strategy. That’s no longer possible. This would see the party trying to mobilise its own loyal voters while also recruiting disillusioned left-leaning Liberal Democrats. The trouble is, many of the Liberal Democrats it would like to woo have already defected to the Green party.

For New Labour, election strategy was based on the insights set out by economist Anthony Downs in his 1957 book An Economic Theory of Democracy. This book remains highly influential in terms of advancing a spatial model of voting. Voters are distributed in terms of their preferences across a bell-shaped normal curve which means that there are many votes to be won in the centre.

However, Miliband appears to have taken the view that there are not that many votes to be won from the Conservatives, given that they were down to their core vote already. He appears to be largely correct in that assumption because there have been relatively few Conservative to Labour transfers.

True colours? Stefan Rousseau/PA

Miliband also assumed that voters had shifted to the left as a result of the global financial crisis. The evidence here is less clear cut. It is certainly the case that voters have become disillusioned with bankers and the global elite in general. However, when this happens, they often turn to parties of the populist left, seeking a critique of globalisation and a revival of the authority of the nation state. Labour may be too strongly associated with the status quo to appeal to this type of voter.

Meanwhile, those within the party who see themselves as Blue Labour think that not enough is being done to address the concerns of the party’s own voters on issues such as immigration.

These latest polls may just be a blip but Labour’s strategy for this election is still not entirely robust. Whether it can cope with all the variables that are making this election so uncertain remains to be seen. From here on in, Labour needs to show flexibility in its strategy and tactics.

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