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Gains today, pain tomorrow?
Labour's focus on social conservatives could bring trouble in government
Labour have had a lot of hardline things to say about crime in recent months, with aggressive and controversial ads attacking the government’s record on the issue. This is part of a broader strategy to avoid appearing ‘weak’ or ‘soft’ with economically left wing but socially conservative voters. The electoral logic here is clear: Labour fell back further with socially conservative groups in the 2019 election, and such voters congregate in target seats, particularly in the infamous ‘red wall’. Labour have a mountain to climb in next year’s election, and cannot win without a broad electoral coalition. Therefore strengthening the weakest link in that coalition, by recovering lost ground with social conservatives, is seen as essential for victory. As Ben Ansell noted in a recent substack post, the swing voters floating between the Conservatives and Labour are on average much more socially conservative than Labour loyalists. As a result “Starmer is very very likely to frustrate many Labour Party members and supporters as Crime Week turns into Crime Month turns into Crime Year…”
This isn’t a critique of this approach as an electoral strategy. Mending fences with social conservatives has helped Labour build massive poll leads over the last year, and locking these votes down may well be essential for delivering a Labour Commons majority. I want to focus instead on the bill that will then come due. Focusing on social conservatives may work well for Labour in opposition, yet the same focus could swiftly bring major headaches in government. It will be hard for Labour to appeal to social conservatives in government without saying and doing things which anger and alienate social liberals - and social liberals provide the majority of Labour’s vote, and the overwhelming majority of its MPs and activists.
Pledges to crack down on crime or illegal immigration are a great way for the Labour opposition to get attention, and win positive headlines in outlets favoured by the social conservatives they are targeting. But they could also prove to be a great way to start feuds within the Labour big tent once Labour is in government and actually has to deliver. Labour’s MPs and party members have similar views to the party’s voters on economic issues, but not on social issues (see Figure 1). Labour’s politicians and activists are very socially liberal on average, more so than Labour voters, and much more so than the voters Labour is targeting with crime crackdown promises.
Figure 1: Labour MPs and activists are very socially liberal
Source: Bale et al (2020) “Mind the Values Gap: The Social and Economic Values of MPs, party members and voters”
This disconnect could cause major headaches if and when a Starmer starts doing socially conservative things. Social liberals who will accept contentious slogans and pledges now, when the focus is on ejecting a Conservative government they like even less will feel very differently about voting for or defending such ideas as government policy. Prime Minister Starmer could face regular rebellions from back benchers who oppose authoritarian policies on crime or immigration on principle, or are swayed by grassroots outrage organised by equally liberal campaigning activists. Labour’s annual conferences could become tempestuous affairs, pitting an embattled government seeking to implement its campaign pledges against socially liberal activists vehemently opposed to authoritarian policy.
Exit stage (liberal) left?
Labour will need to worry about discontent among core voters as well as activists. The voters who have stuck with Labour in recent elections are much more socially liberal than the swing voters the party is now targeting, reflecting a longer running shift in the demographics and attitudes of Labour’s support which Brexit accelerated (but did not create). Graduates and social liberals were minority groups in the 1990s/2000s New Labour electoral coalition, but they provide the majority of Labour’s support today. The average Labour voter in 2017 or 2019 was a little to the left of the average Labour voter in 1997 or 2001 economically, but far to the left of their predecessors on social issues, as figure 2 illustrates.
Figure 2: Economic and social values of Labour and Conservative voters in elections since 1992
Source: Ford et al (2021) “The British General Election of 2019”
The tribal bonds of partisanship are also much weaker now than they used to be, particularly among the younger socially liberal voters who have aligned with Labour by overwhelming margins in recent elections. Left wing economic preferences and an overriding desire to remove the Conservatives are keeping such voters onside for now. But they may rapidly lose patience with a cautious, swing vote focussed Labour government. Lacking the tribal ties which bind voters to an incumbent in hard times, disaffected social liberals may instead head for the exit en masse. A number of attractive alternatives are already available on the liberal left flank in the form of the Liberal Democrats and the Green party, the SNP for Scottish voters, and Plaid Cymru for Welsh voters. A Labour government which ignores or downplays liberal priorities may face a major case of the midterm blues, with slumping poll numbers, by-election defeats and local election drubbings. Such troubles, in turn, would encourage restive backbenchers and activists to make further trouble internally.
A (slowly) moving target?
The strongest defence of Labour’s current strategy is numbers: focussing on socially authoritarian voters makes sense because there are a lot of them and they cluster in target seats. But the electorate is not static. The most socially conservative cohorts are the oldest, and are set to decline as the grim reaper does his work. The most socially liberal cohort is the youngest, set to swell as new voters join the electorate.
Generational change of this kind is slow, but it is relentless. By the end of a first term of a new Labour government, which could be as late as 2029, the share of graduates in the British electorate will be five percentage points or more higher than now, while the share of school leavers will be six points or more lower. Demographic change could make a strategy focussed on social conservatives obsolete, while social liberals become a steadily more important electoral target.
Figure 3: Share of voters with no qualifications (dark line) and with university degrees (grey dashed line) 1985-2016
Source: Data from British Social Attitudes surveys, graph from Sobolewska and Ford (2020) “Brexitland”
A missed opportunity?
Finally, there is a risk that by focussing intensely on the archetypal “red wall” social conservative, Labour misses out on opportunities to build a more coherent, and perhaps more resilient electoral coalition by picking up support elsewhere. A first example is Scotland, where the SNP’s recent turmoil provides Labour with their best opportunity in over a decade to recover ground in what was once a stronghold. A Labour strategy focussed on red meat for English social conservatives risks playing into the traditional SNP campaign strategy, which paints all the ‘Westminster’ parties as reactionary and out of touch with progressive Scottish values. What makes life easier in the red wall may make life harder in the Central Belt.
There are other opportunities in England, too. Two excellent recent substacks from Steve Akehurst and Beyond the Topline have put the spotlight on an under-appreciated slice of the electorate - the “Rishi good, Tories bad” voters. While the stereotypical Labour Leaver is at odds with the Labour core vote on social values, these “pro-Sunak, not Conservative” are not. There voters are more Remain, more pro-immigration, and more pro-environment than the average Tory voter. The Conservatives choices since Brexit have trashed the party’s brand with such voters, making it hard for the current Prime Minister to win back their trust, and opening a window of opportunity for Labour. And there are a lot of them: Akehurst estimates the “Rishi good, Tories bad” segment as up to one fifth of the electorate. So even a relatively modest recruitment rate could deliver substantial gains for Labour.
These socially liberal but fiscally conservative voters may be harder to persuade right now than “red wall” social conservatives, particularly given their greater distance from Labour on the economic issues currently dominating the poltiical agenda. But if such voters are won over, they may also be easier to hold on to in government. A Labour government is likely to disappoint economically left wing, socially authoritarian voters twice over. It won’t be able to deliver the kinds of hardline policies such voters would prefer on crime and immigration without triggering major internal conflict, and it will be hard to deliver the big and tangible improvement in public services these voters want given Starmer and Reeves’ preference for fiscal constraint. The socially liberal, economically moderate “pro-Sunak, not Conservative” voters could be a better fit with the party’s grassroots on social issues and with its leadership on economic issues. Labour may come to regret not courting this group when it had the chance.
You won, now what?
While the next election may well turn on the choices of socially conservative swing voters, yet an incoming Labour government will be more reliant on social liberal votes than any of its predecessors. Retaining the loyalty of the authoritarian swing vote without angering the larger social liberal swing vote will be a hard task indeed. And while losing authoritarians will be painful, alienating liberals would be even more so. Not only is this a larger, and faster growing part of the electoral coalition, it is also one whose partisan attachments to Labour are weak. The young, progressive graduates who have swung to Labour since Brexit could easily swing behind a liberal challenger once Labour are in government. Building a winning coalition in opposition is a hard task. Holding a winning coalition together in government may yet prove harder still.
You can read the full report here. And you should! There’s loads more fascinating stuff in there about where MPs, members and voters diverge, and such divergences help explain a lot of otherwise puzzling political behaviour
There’s plenty more stuff like this in our book on the last general election, which you can buy here