The conventional narrative that framed New Labour’s dominance over the party and subsequent election victories went that traditionally left-wing ideas are no longer popular and that votes had to be attracted from the centre and the right.
Thus the Labour Party marched ever rightwards, confident in the assumption that its working class and left-wing base would continue to vote for it no matter how far it went. But the band has to snap sometime.
At some point, the electorate will begin to worry that democracy is not providing them with a genuine choice. Given the trend of low election turnouts, declining party memberships and people increasingly turning to smaller parties outside of the mainstream, or as is too often the case disengaging with politics entirely, it appears that point is fast approaching.
On a shorter-term scale, it is possible to see that Labour’s poll lead has been highest when it’s set out clear left-wing alternatives to Tory policies. And it has slumped when it has supported the Conservative agenda and announced austerity-lite policies.
Many assume that Labour’s woes can be pinned at the door of Miliband’s personality, that he just doesn’t look or feel like a future prime minister. While Miliband certainly does have an image problem, this didn’t stop Labour surging to a decade high 12 point lead in the polls early last year when Miliband backed a very solid redistributive policy of reinstating the 10p tax band funded by a mansion tax.
Over the next few months, Labour abstained on workfare, refused to commit to repealing the bedroom tax and signed up to Tory spending plans. This cost the party significant support in the polls and it didn’t begin to recover until it got a conference boost on the back of finally coming out against the bedroom tax and pledging to freeze energy prices.
Labour’s lowest ebb came this year, however, when with the exception of 13 left-wing MPs, it overwhelmingly backed the welfare cap.
There are, of course, other factors at play. The recovering economy has boosted the Tories, although with Conservative support being eroded by the rise of UKIP this has been somewhat mitigated. Labour too is losing some support to UKIP.
But many erstwhile Labour supporters are simply becoming disengaged with party politics entirely, convinced now there is little point backing Miliband’s party if it is not offering anything radically different from the Tory Lib-Dem government.
If Labour wants to reverse its declining poll ratings, it shouldn’t be trying to fight the Tories for the centre-right ground – Cameron just does it better. Miliband needs to play to his base, the people Labour has for too long taken for granted, and offer a strong set of anti-austerity, redistributive policies that provide a clear opposition to the Conservatives.
Otherwise Labour will keep on haemorrhaging support.
This article was originally written for Left Foot Forward