The electoral myths of ‘blue Labour’
By John Ross
Recent reports are that the current ‘blue Labour’ is coming apart – with former leading supporters stating they no longer wish to be associated with the project following Maurice Glasman’s widely criticised interview with the Daily Telegraph on immigration. But it is also important to understand that the entire basis of the factual claims by blue Labour were inaccurate.
The name ‘blue Labour’ summarises its analysis. It claims that the politics represented by the colour ‘blue’, that is the Conservative Party, are deeply attractive to those who can or did support Labour. As one analysis by a blue Labour leader put it: ‘Appealing to Lib Dems is all well and good. But we have to start to reach out to the millions of working class former Labour voters who left us for the Tories.’
Unfortunately there is no factual basis for a claim that the fundamental reason for Labour’s decline in support is the attractiveness of the Conservative Party and values it represents. Indeed the facts show the reverse.
There are naturally short term swings at elections, but Labour’s entire strategic net loss of votes over the period since it last came close to enjoying majority support in the electorate, a decline from 47.9% in 1966 to 29.9% in 2010, has been to the Liberal Democrats and other parties – chiefly Scottish and Welsh nationalists. None of this net loss of votes was to the Conservative Party.
To show clearly the factual trends of Labour support Figure 1 charts the Labour percentage of the vote at all general elections up to 2010.
As can be seen the trend is clear. There are, naturally, many short term fluctuations, but Labour’s support rose until the early 1950s, the absolute peak being reached at 48.8% in 1951. Support remained at a high level until the mid-1960s – with 47.9% of the vote being secured in 1966. After 1966, again of course with short term fluctuations, Labour’s vote fell from its previous level.
It therefore may be accurately said that from 1966 the social/political coalition which had made Labour a force commanding the support of almost half the total electorate progressively came apart. The key strategic issue therefore is where did Labour’s votes go?
To show what happened to Labour’s former support Figure 2 shows the change in the party’s share of the vote after 1966. As may be seen in that period:
- Labour’s vote fell by 18.9% .
- Liberal/Liberal Democrat votes rose by 14.6%.
- Support for parties other than the three major ones rose by 10.2% – this being chiefly the SNP and Plaid Cymru.
- The Tory vote, far from rising as it would have if it had attracted electors from Labour, fell by 5.9%
Therefore none of Labour’s net decline in support went to the Conservatives. The facts show, in short, that far from being attractive to Labour votes, the Conservative Party and Conservative values were deeply unattractive. The whole of the loss of Labour votes was to the Liberals/Liberal Democrats and ‘other’ parties – chiefly Scottish and Welsh nationalists.
The Conservative vote
Taking as a starting point for comparison 1966, a peak of Labour’s popularity, furthermore understates the decline of Tory support. Strategically the Conservative vote, naturally with short term fluctuations, has been declining for a prolonged period – as is clear from Figure 3. The post-war Conservative peak was in 1955, at 49.6% and Tory overall support, again inevitably with short term fluctuations, has been declining since.
The Tories failure to win an overall majority at the last general election was therefore not a ‘surprise’. Every Conservative victory since 1955 has seen the Tory vote fall to a lower percentage of the vote than the previous one.
The Conservative Party secured 49.6% of the vote in 1955, 49.4% in 1959, 46.4% in 1970, 43.9% in 1979, 42.4% in 1983, 42.2% in 1987, 41.9% in 1992, and 36.0% in 2010. The average decline of the Tory vote per year between victories is 0.3%.
The Liberal Democrats
Given Tory support was not rising but falling throughout this period the main parties receiving rising support were the Liberal Democrats – as shown in Figure 4, and ‘others’ – chiefly Scottish and Welsh nationalists, as shown in Figure 5
Between 1966 and 2010 support for the Liberals/Liberal Democrats rose by 14.6%. Support for other parties rose by 10.2%
The facts on the erosion of Labour’s former support are therefore clear.
- Strategically the Tory party has not shown itself attractive to Labour voters. None of the strategic net loss of support of Labour has gone to the Tories. On the contrary the Tory it is a party whose vote is in long term decline.
- The strategic loss of Labour support has been to the Liberal Democrats and Scottish and Welsh nationalists.
Posed in terms of values the conclusion of this is equally clear. Conservative values have not shown themselves attractive to former Labour supporters at all – on the contrary they have shown themselves unattractive. It is Liberal, Democrat and Scottish and Welsh nationalist values that have shown themselves attractive to Labour voters. Therefore, far from moving closer to Tory values, what Labour has to do is to be more attractive to those who have shared the values of Liberal Democrats and Scottish and Welsh nationalists.
Appendix – Percentage of the Vote at General Elections 1931-2010
The vote at general elections is set out in Table 1 below.