Labour will find it ‘impossible’ to win next election without support from socially conservative voters, says report

Ashley Cowburn
The broadcaster's exit poll results are projected on the outside of the BBC building in London: AFP/Getty

Labour will find it “impossible” to win back power at the 2024 general election without support from socially conservative voters, according to new research urging the party to focus on economic policy and democratic reform.

Examining Labour’s worst electoral defeat of the post-war era, the report claims the December vote exposed new political divides in Brexit Britain and said the Tories built a “remarkable” alliance between traditional shires and Leave-voting towns.

It also cautions against adopting a rejoin position on EU membership, and rather for Labour to concentrate on holding the Conservatives to account as the ministers attempt to thrash out a trading relationship with the bloc.

Published by Europe for the Many — a research platform at the London School of Economics — the authors analysed seats that abandoned Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour for Boris Johnson’s Conservative last month.

The research groups the electoral map into four categories, including “multi-ethnic working class heartlands”, “young cosmopolitan centres of the new capitalism”, “Brexit voting towns of left behind Britain”, and “affluent and middle class Conservative shires”.

The authors claim the Tories established a new electoral coalition at the 2017 and 2019 general election that combined “highly affluent and ‘left behind’ areas” and said their ability to hold onto these voters will be crucial at the next election.

And they also dismiss the suggestion that Labour lost touch with its working-class base in December, adding: “Labour’s consistently held seats are areas of high inequality and persistent deprivation.

“In fact, of the 20 constituencies with the highest levels of child poverty in the UK, 19 of them are held by Labour. Workers remain a cornerstone of Labour’s coalition.”

The researchers say a Labour victory at the ballot box will be “impossible” without winning over voters with socially conservative views, but also warned: “Avoid making shallow appeals to these voters. Do not adopt insincere slogans or messages like ‘one nation Labour’ or ‘British jobs for British workers’. This is self-defeating, reinforces Tory messaging and risks eroding the Labour coalition. Focus on the economic policy offers that have support.”

Instead, they argue, a focus on economics and democracy will be critical in Labour gathering 14m votes needed to win the next general election.

“Labour can combine a strong economic offer with a message of retooling our democracy and making politics work in our localities,” the researchers conclude. “If voters believe we can credibly deliver on this agenda, then we can still win in 2024.”

Luke Cooper, an associate researcher at the London School of Economics and co-author of the report, said: “Brexit has created a really tough situation for Labour. By making values and identity the central questions of the day it has broken the party’s traditional electoral coalition.

“But it has also created a remarkable new Tory alliance. The seats won in the last two elections are very different economically to their traditional strongholds. If the economy becomes the most important issue then Labour can break up this potentially fragile Tory coalition.”

Christabel Cooper, who also authored the report, said: “It is impossible for Labour to win the next election without the support of socially conservative voters that switched to the Tories this time.

“But it would be a betrayal of both Labour’s fundamental values and of its core voters, for the party to embrace illiberal policies on issues such as minority rights. So how to bring these voters back without compromising our values is the big question facing the next party leader.”

The Labour MP for Houghton and Sunderland South, Bridget Phillipson, also added: “This report is a really important start to understanding the party’s defeat and how we can rebuild. It busts the myth that the working class is one big homogenous group, but also reveals the challenges we face.

“To win over voters who are less socially liberal than Labour is today, but more economically left-wing than the Tories, we should not impersonate them. We need to convince them. Going forward the party has to build that trust and credibility.”

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