Tuesday, 26 July 2011

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.

Figure 1

10 05 07 Labourl Vote

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.

Figure 2

11 07 27 % Change in Vote

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.

Figure 3

10 05 07 Tory Vote

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%

Figure 4

10 05 07 Liberal Vote
Figure 5

11 07 26 Others


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.

Table 1

11 07 26 Table


Charlie Mansell said...

A useful analysis. One thing you do need to take account of is the level of electoral competition. Labour's 1966 vote was overstated because the Liberals only contested around 300+ seats in the 60's and 100 seats in much of the 60's. A Fabian Society pamphlet in the early 90's re-analysed party shares of the vote and showed Labour and Tories would have polled around 43-45% in the 50s and the Liberals never less than 12% (1951 and 1955) if they had stood in every seat since 1945. Thus their advance in the post-war era is also about the reduction in entry costs into the political market (eg real terms reduction in deposit, cost of printing and admin costs). Since the late 90's the internet has made it much easier for smaller parties to organise too thus further lowering entry costs and we have seen a rise in their share from 2% to around 9%. Electoral reform has also assisted smaller parties to achieve enough success in some list elections to stay the course over a longer period.

I think Blue Labour was always a misnomer as it was more "Tough Labour" aiming at the sustenance safety and security values of some voters that neither aspirational New Labour nor liberal comopolitanism actually talks to in emotionally resonant terms. For example there are things we might think of as seriously 'unfair' which will not resonate with those voters at all yet some of their directly expressed perceptions of unfairness may well be anathema to some of the people reading this website. We do need a more emotionally resonant conversation with some of those voters which does not pander to prejudice, but which does show it can address some of their more immediate concerns, which might then create some reciprocity to 'earn' us the right to be more respectfully heard by the politically disaffected on the issues that are of greater concern to us.

Old Politics said...

Good analysis (mostly - but neglects the fact that Labour's rising middle class support means a purely net figure understates the amount of working class support lost) but faulty premise.

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.

Nope. Blue as in melancholy, blue as in collar, even for Maurice blue as in the type of music. Blue as in Tory? Only in respect of some old Tory values completely alien to the Liberal Thatcherites of today's Conservative Party.

Shaun O'Byrne said...

The voting-trend analysis is excellent and certainly illustrates the long-term decline in votes for both Labour and the Conservatives.However I do not think the quite large "short term" fluctuations can be ignored and it is here where some "blue" policies impact our vote; there is no doubt we ignored white working-class opinion on immigration and paid the price, maybe they didn't go over to the tories but they stayed at home.
Bridgwater & West Somerset CLP

Anonymous said...

Great details thanks - just wanted to add a slight question mark over Nationalist votes being lost by Labour. Actually in Scotland the Liberals and Nationalists have largely taken votes and seats from the Tories. Labour has been remarkably around the 40% mark since the 1970's with the Tories declining from the high of 30% Mrs Thatcher got, hard to believe but she was more popular in Scotland than Cameron!
I'm in favour of listening to a lot of the Blue Labour analysis - would be wrong to rule a lot of it out