For Labour, it’s all about what you say

Published on Incomes and Inequality

Labour members heading to Brighton this weekend will be a historical anomaly. Because they will be perky. That isn’t the word you’d normally associate with Labour party members on the eve of party conference for the last decade. Depressed, occasionally. Determined, often. But perky? No.

And fair enough. Just 15 weeks ago they learnt that the British public had revived their party’s chance of forming a government rather than relegating them to the fringes of politics, with a 40% vote share, only achieved on two other occasions since 1970. Far from massive losses the party saw a net gain of 30 seats. They might have been near a million votes off winning the election. But when everyone tells you your team is certain to be relegated and then they squeeze into a Europa League spot, perky is the least you feel justified in being.

In hindsight maybe the surprise shouldn’t have been quite so surprising. Only once since 1918 has a party that has been in government for as long as the Conservatives have since 2010 not lost seats in an election. Theresa May might have taken some comfort from the fact that Harold Macmillan, then like her a (reasonably) new PM, had bucked the seat losing trend back in 1959. But that was the era of “you’ve never had it so good”. Ten years on from the financial crisis, amidst the weakest decade for wage growth since the Napoleonic wars, and with years of spending cuts both behind and ahead of us, it would take a brave politician to repeat that phrase today.

Indeed, on the narrow following of both the political and economic cycles, the ‘normal result’ should have been a Labour victory on 8 June. Obviously the economic legacy of the crash, challenging internal party politics and Brexit complicated the situation. But perky activists heading to Brighton should still pause to consider how a government with all the headwinds above returned to office.

Rightly much of the election post-mortem has focused on the starkest age divide in British political history, as the young voted overwhelmingly for Labour while the over 65s backed the Conservatives by more than two to one. Even his most ardent critics acknowledge that Jeremy Corbyn has done a good thing for politics by playing a part in encouraging the young to vote. This new generational divide has left the Conservatives understandably panicked that they have lost support of voters who are, for reasons of longevity, more likely to be voting in the years ahead.

Debates about how this has happened (clues include rapidly falling home ownership rates amongst the young, who have also suffered by far the deepest pay squeeze and biggest student debt) and what they can do about it rightly concern the Conservatives so much they’ve taken to discussing it on haystacks at festivals.

But then there is the issue of class. Some have concluded from the fact that differences in party vote shares by social class have narrowed that it isn’t a big story of the 2017 election. Another, more accurate way of reading it, is that according to IPSOS MORI, this election result saw the Conservatives best result among working class voters since 1979, while Labour polled its highest share of middle and upper class votes since the same year. Yes Labour still won large sections of working class votes – but by much lower margins than in 2015. A quick look at the seats with the biggest swings tells a similar story. The two constituencies with the biggest swings to the Conservatives from Labour were Ashfield and Bolsover – both ex- mining seats that voted for Brexit. In contrast the biggest swings to Labour from the Conservatives were in Bristol West and Hove – younger seats, with many more students and graduates voters that overwhelmingly backed Remain.

Now Brexit, and Theresa May’s relentless focus on it, evidently played a big part in narrowing the traditional class divide. But the perky activists travelling to Brighton should at least consider whether there are any more lessons from their disappearing lead amongst working class voters.

Here’s one thought: in politics, and in particular in opposition politics, parties are what they talk about. And Labour has done some very effective talking both during the election campaign and since on two issues in particular – public sector pay and tuition fees.

The abolition of the public sector pay cap has been the central issue in the party’s opposition to austerity. And given how long it has been in place for they are right to call for a change in approach. But the focus on public sector pay is in stark contrast to the lack of attention on the other big totem of austerity in the next few years – significant cuts to benefits that risk both squeezing family incomes and increasing inequality. Labour’s 2017 manifesto did not ignore this issue entirely, but it only promised to reverse a fraction of the planned benefit freeze and cuts to Universal Credit. And if you are what you talk about it is worth noting who is affected by these different kinds of austerity. As the chart below shows, while families of all incomes are affected by the public sector pay cap, it is higher income families that are most affected. Lower income families have much more to lose from cuts to the benefits they rely on. True, Labour has campaigned for a higher minimum wage. But the benefits of a higher wage floor are actually spread evenly across all households, rich and poor.

It’s a similar story on university tuition fees, which Labour has promised to abolish.  Again, there are many graduates amongst poorer families and many non-graduate parents want their children to go to university. But many more graduates and children who expect to go to university are in better off households. Even if they wouldn’t benefit directly from the abolition of fees, they know the Labour Party is talking about them.

There are many things to be talked about at each party conference in the coming weeks. The Conservatives should be thinking long and hard about what they can do to demonstrate that they understand the growing problem of intergenerational fairness and the challenges facing today’s young people. For them the danger is they correctly identify the problem but do not rise to the challenge of doing something about it. Labour, without the luxury of being able to do anything, can focus only on what it says and who it says it to. With that in mind it wouldn’t hurt for the issues affecting low and middle income families to get a bit more airtime in Brighton this week.