First published on the Times Redbox
On Wednesday this week, the chancellor George Osborne used the first majority Conservative budget to implement much of the Tories’ manifesto for Britain – and no small part of the Labour one. Labour members of parliament were open-mouthed at the spectacle of a Tory chancellor shaking up ‘non dom’ status. They were in outright shock at his creation of a new minimum wage rate for the over-25s and the audacity of calling it a ‘living wage’.
Many were left simply depressed. As Labour looked on and made its protests about the detail, Tory MP after Tory MP took to the airwaves to repeat the same lines over and over. They were so effective that I can already repeat it verbatim: ‘Moving from a low pay, high tax, high welfare society to a high wage, low tax, low welfare one’. As the comment rolled on there was one statement that never got muttered by Tories of any wing, stripe or faction of the party: ‘that Osborne is just Labour-lite’. Tories relish the opportunity to plant their flag in the centre-ground and cause Labour maximum problems. However, within Labour circles the prospect of persuading those who have voted Tory sometimes seems to provoke a response of distaste rather than enthusiasm.
The latest Fabian Society research shows that four of five of the voters we need to win a majority in 2020 voted Conservative in 2015. That is the maths. Had every single person who voted for the Scottish National party or the Green party voted Labour, the party would still be short of the 11.3 million votes the Conservatives received. There is no plan B. What makes this strategy so effective for the Conservatives, and so infuriating that Labour will not do the same, is this: while it can be hard to win votes direct from the Tories, the rewards match the challenge! Switchers from the Conservatives matter simply because those who move their votes between the two main parties count as ‘double’. When Labour candidates and canvassers convince someone who supported David Cameron’s party at the last election to vote Labour, that person’s vote counts on our pile and simultaneously comes off our main opponent’s pile.
Why is the Labour party so squeamish when it comes to winning Tory converts?
First, repentance. Labour people – understandably angry at the destruction the Tories have put the poorest and most vulnerable through – act if they want an apology from anyone complicit with the previous Tory victory.
Second, motive. Labour party members doubt why someone who fell for the other side would change to Labour the election after. We do the same with the Tory government itself. It is all too rare that the Labour opposition has questioned their effectiveness or how competent it is. Instead it has preferred to attack its motives. This may make Labour MPs feel good about themselves, even get them a cheer at the constituency party meetings, but it does nothing to convince voters that the Tories are less competent than they say they are.
Third, disbelief. The latest result is so bad; places we never considered losing went Tory. Eight constituencies to be exact. How could working-class people not support a Labour party that talks of little other than the bedroom tax and zero-hours contracts? How could they vote for a Tory government that has presided over one million youth unemployed and one million families reliant on foodbanks?
Tessa Jowell was right to point out writing in Progress magazine recently that, ‘The Conservatives are good at winning. I wish that was not true, but it is.’ Osborne has shown that, having won one outright, they have got the bug for it. As soon as Labour wakes up to this and ends its squeamishness about winning over people who voted Conservative in 2015, or 2010, or ever, it will have a chance of winning again.
Richard Angell is director of Progress