Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Labour’s lead is slipping and its main rivals are still the Tories (remember them?)

The Independent’s poll of polls announced last week showed two things: the first is that Labour’s poll lead is slipping (to five points, its lowest level in a year, a year which has been abysmal for the Tories). This is exactly what we would expect, it is doing what pretty much every mid-term lead has ever done – evaporating. There’s a bit more analysis behind that here.

That does not mean it should not concern us and growing consciousness of this effect may well have been a factor in the raft of – pretty sensible – policy announcements made the previous week.

But the second point was that UKIP was eating into Labour’s support, rather than just the Tories. The question is not whether this is happening – it is, if in a modest way – it is why, and what should we do about it?

There are two ways to interpret the “why” – one obvious one is that there are voters switching from Labour to UKIP because they have evaluated the policy offerings of both and are choosing one above the other.

Since the local elections, the UKIP effect seems to have resulted in some feverish speculation in various corners of the party, perhaps a factor in the resurgence of some Blue Labour ideas in areas such as immigration and Europe.

The other way to interpret the swing from Labour to UKIP is hidden in an explanatory quote from Prof. John Curtice, who compiled the poll of polls:
“Labour’s relatively soft vote, much of it a protest vote, also seems vulnerable to UKIP’s appeal”
In other words, the UKIP voters are protest voters. Protest voters tend to swing about wildly between parties, for the simple reason that they are voting against something rather than for something. It is a much more reasonable explanation than the first one, for the simple reason that Labour’s and UKIP’s ethos and proposed programmes (such that are available at the time of writing) are so different as to be entirely incompatible.

Let’s look a little more closely at protest votes. Almost a year before Farage’s big surge in this year’s local elections, Left Foot Forward pointed out that much of Labour’s lead was down to Farage’s taking votes from the Tories rather than booming popular support for Labour. Ergo, when UKIP’s support thins out, as it almost inevitably will, it will be Labour who most suffers.

Why will it almost inevitably thin out? Because there exists something one might perhaps describe not as an iron law, but certainly a consistent pattern in British politics:
There will almost always be a protest party of some sort;
support for the protest party will generally be overestimated by the media, until
its inevitable poor showing in a general election under a first-past-the-post system.

At varies times it can be applied to the SDP, the Referendum Party, Respect and so on.

So, both Labour and UKIP are showing protest vote effects.

Conclusions from all this? First, not to forget that the Tory vote will strengthen as UKIP declines, and more than Labour will. Our lead is not only declining, but what remains is palpably soft because it contains its own edge of protest votes within it.

Second, it does not make a great deal of sense to tack towards a party whose policies are diametrically opposed to our own. There is no Labour/UKIP porous border.

There is a reason why it is attractive to cast around among the Lib Dems, UKIP, Respect or others to find specious electoral threats. And that is because it avoids us having to deal with the unpalatable truth that the Tories are really the only party standing between us and Number 10.

Unpalatable because, to take votes off a party, you ultimately need to recapture ground that they have taken from you; some kind of wishful-thinking rainbow coalition simply will not work. That said, there are positive signs that the leadership is finally starting to recognise this home truth.

However, it also requires a different approach from the one we appear to be adopting. Ironically, making UKIP-lite noises on immigration and Europe might even put off those centrist swing voters we are trying to attract back from the Tories.

So, here are the three most important parties we need to worry about in this “four party politics”: the Tories, the Tories, the Tories.

This post first published by LabourList and selected for Progress' What We're Reading

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