As predictable headlines follow Ed Miliband committing to speak at the TUC rally on March 26th, it's useful to take a more detached look at how the relationships between Party, movement and workplace demographics interact.
Let’s not be daft - no-one sensible is saying that Labour is “in the pocket of the unions”; however, it is not a particularly wild claim that Labour’s two historic constituencies among the employed have been public sector workers - largely unionised - and the unionised private sector. New Labour’s genius for electoral success was, of course, its ability to fashion a broader church than Labour had ever before managed. “Post-New” Labour, however, is a different animal.
While Labour has been busy getting back those it lost to the left during those years, such as leftist Liberals, it seems not to have spent so much effort in re-establishing contact with those it lost to the right. One school of thought, of course, says that these people are negligible in number. But that seems unconvincing: the centre ground in politics is perennially important.
In any event, my contention is that much of Labour’s lost vote was taken from that other large demographic, private-sector workers from non-unionised workplaces - who nevertheless believed in public services; and that, although they are people who Labour really needs to keep, the party is disengaging from them in important ways.
Firstly, in Labour’s public utterances of late it has been quick to emphasise the limitations of the free market. Reasonable, but some will hear this as “we don’t like business any more”. When a party spends most of its 100-year history at loggerheads with business, it’s easy to see New Labour’s warmth towards it as a mere 10-year aberration. Unfair too, as Ed Miliband is hardly anti-business but, in Opposition, it’s often the noises that count, rather than the policies. A small retrenchment can be perceived as a large one.
Next and surely counter-intuitively, during the period of New Labour government, unions ended up with more clout in the party than at the beginning. For example, union funding went from a low of 33% in 2002 to 82% in Q3 2010. Now, although some Tory conspiracy theorists might be surprised to learn that unions do not go around buying policy positions, it would also be hopelessly naïve to suggest that unions, with a generation of leaders seemingly more punchy than their predecessors, might not have more influence on the tone of Labour politics - and we must bear in mind that people outside the unionised sector may not relate to that tone.
Finally, Labour appears slightly obsessive on the issue of high pay, when the aspiration to “do well” is one of the things which attract people to the private sector. Whilst legitimate concerns exist about excessive pay distorting good management practice, the focus on high pay comes across as a populist response to public anger about the City - a very specific case - with a wink to Labour’s traditional supporters. But the message to private sector workers, most of whom don’t work in the City, is that their reasonable aspirations to wealth are disdained by Labour.
That said, does this all matter? Are non-unionised, private sector workers really the key to electoral success? Well, think about the following: the public sector has kept steady at just under 30% of total employment for most of the last three decades - but the proportion of unionised workers has dropped by roughly half since its peak in the late 70s. It is acknowledged by the TUC that the bulk of these losses have taken place in the private sector, deindustrialisation being one obvious cause.
So, a big part of the unionised private sector has gone: also the increasing “grey vote” as a proportion of the electorate lessens the impact of all working people at the ballot box. So, in the old days, Labour could practically win an election simply with the support of its two traditional demographics; in 2015, simply, it cannot. This is not to undervalue them as the core of the party’s support, but they’re simply not enough.
In short, little by little Labour seems to be disengaging from those private sector workers that it won over, although perhaps unwittingly. This disengagement matters, because Labour’s old constituency is no longer enough and it has picked off those who will support the party to the left already.
A couple of good opinion polls do not a summer make. Labour cannot just leave those to the right for David Cameron.