The prospects for Labour in the Stoke by-election are apparently not looking good, and many are predicting that UKIP may take the seat. Time will tell; but it seems to be causing a degree of panic in Labour ranks already, with some predicting this as the first of the dominoes. The reaction, by and large, is to argue that Labour have to follow the opinion of the electorate even more closely than they have been doing to date, in order to shore up their own vote and attract votes from the Tories and UKIP.
I’m not at all convinced by the idea that electors carefully weigh up the policy positions of the different parties before casting their vote. Decades of experience of actually talking to voters on doorsteps has led me to believe that perceptions, prejudices, and history have at least as much to do with it. The classic example was the gentlemen who told me that he and his wife would be voting Plaid “because Labour and the Tories gave away the empire”. (The only possible response was to thank him politely and move on to the next house…) The idea that electors are carefully studying manifestoes and policies before coming to a rational decision owes more to theory than to practice.
But, just for a moment, let’s suppose that the situation is otherwise; that electors en masse are indeed deciding how to vote based on whether the parties’ policy positions match their own views. We know that around two-thirds of all those who voted Labour in the 2015 election went on to vote ‘remain’ in the EU referendum. That means that Labour ‘lost’ around one-third of their vote to the opposing camp. I can see why they’d want to get those people back – but merely switching sides and supporting the Brexit demanded by one-third of their own support means going against the views of the other two-thirds. In our scenario of rational vote decisions, aren’t they in danger of losing more than they gain?
The first counter argument would be that even 100% of the support that they gained in 2015 wasn’t enough; they need to eat into the support of their opponents in order to get a majority in parliament. That’s true, in simple mathematical terms. But not all of those who voted against them went on to support Brexit and a clamp-down on freedom of movement. And in targeting the section of the electorate which did, aren’t they, again, in danger of losing much of the support that they already have?
The second counter argument would be that there is a base level of support that will always be with them, whatever they say and do. It’s what has often, rather unkindly, been called the ‘donkey vote’, on the basis that this group would vote for a donkey if it was wearing a Labour rosette. Again, it’s probably true, but it means refining our starting scenario. We are now assuming that the majority of voters will vote based on perception, prejudice, history etc., but that there are a minority to whom a change of policy will appeal, and it is this group to which Labour’s new-found enthusiasm for Brexit and control of freedom of movement is designed to appeal.
That feels more realistic, but it raises another question. If this group of electors can really be persuaded to support one party over another based largely on whether the parties in question support Brexit and immigration controls, why on earth would they switch their alliance from UKIP or the Tories, who are clearly committed to that position, to a party which looks as though it is adopting that position with the sole intention of shoring up its vote? Why vote for an imitation rather than the real thing?It seems to me that the rush by Labour to jump on the bandwagon is doomed to fail. It is not only unlikely to attract those who have long been hostile to immigration and the EU; it is also likely to repel those who see the benefits of both. Worst of all, it legitimises and reinforces the UKIP message. Yet still some people in Wales insist on portraying Labour as a ‘progressive’ force.