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Lurch to the left or the right? Where Labour and the Tories must position themselves to win in 2020

16 August 2015

1:30 PM

16 August 2015

1:30 PM

What are the best political positions for Labour and the Conservatives to take to win back more voters? The Tories want to maintain and extend their victory, while Labour is trying to work out how to unite the left and encourage more people to turn out for the party. These two parties used to focus their attention on swing voters in the centre-ground, but politics has fragmented too much for that now.

Things are, naturally, more difficult for Labour. The scale of its 2015 defeat means that just taking votes and seats from the SNP, Plaid and the Greens is insufficient to give the party a majority in 2020. The party will only win by taking seats currently held by the Conservatives, and it can only win enough of them by taking votes from parties to their right, or motivating new voters to turn out for them.

To see how best Labour can win, Demos analysed the survey responses in the British Election Study’s latest release: existing Labour voters, those who support parties considered to be left of Labour (SNP, Greens and Plaid) and non-voters who consider themselves closest to Labour, who we have called ‘Labour leaners’.

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While the SNP/Green/Plaid group might appreciate a move to the left, they do not give Labour enough support for it to cancel out the damage this would do to the party’s standing among Labour-leaners, who are more centrist both economically and socially.

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Furthermore, a move to the left will not help Labour win over those who supported the Tories in 2015. In our first-past-the-post system, these voters are considerably more valuable.

If Labour had won all 2.6 million votes from the parties to their left, all other things being equal they would still have lost in May. On the other hand, there are 71,512 existing Conservative votes in marginal seats who could have made Labour the largest party if they had lent them their support. That’s just 0.24 per cent of the voting population.

Labour’s challenge is that it needs to win back these crucial votes in the centre, and avoid bleeding more support to parties to its left, particularly in England.

Though the Conservatives are already in government, they still want to increase their majority in 2020. We used three groups of voters in the BES release: existing Conservative voters, Ukip voters and non-voters who said they think of themselves as closest to the Conservatives. We call these ‘Conservative leaners’.

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Unsurprisingly, UKIP voters were the group most likely to want to leave the EU, and the most anti-immigration. They were also the most socially conservative on a range of other issues. Conservative leaners, on the other hand, were roughly in line with existing Conservative voters on social issues. This means that there may be votes on the right to be won with traditional, socially conservative policies.

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But on economic policy, Conservative leaners were slightly more moderate than Conservative voters, but Ukip voters were more left-wing, or populist, than both. All three groups actually think of themselves as more centrist than the Conservative Party. In this respect, the Tories will only be able to ‘Unite the Right’ through a move towards the centre on economic policy. This would need to be done carefully, so as not to alienate 2015 votes, but it carries less risk of shedding votes to Labour or the Lib Dems.

This is not to say that a left-wing Labour leader could not win in 2020. Governments become unpopular, public opinion is not static, and personalities matter. Similarly, given Labour’s difficulties, it is not inconceivable that the Conservatives could win on a more stridently right-wing economic platform. However, despite the fragmentation of British politics, the evidence available suggests the best opportunities for both parties still lie in the centre ground

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