Modernisation: Labour's winning formula

13 Feb 2014

By the time the 2015 general election comes around, Labour will have been stranded in opposition for a full 5 years. That’s a full 5 years since that fateful week in May, since the resignation of Gordon Brown, since the Lib/Lab coalition failed to materialise and the Con/Lib coalition came into governance. Any party in opposition knows that they should use their time wisely, regrouping, rebranding if necessary, and most of all, reconnecting with voters. Time in opposition should be seen as an opportunity, a 5 year opportunity to reflect, to learn some important lessons, to discover why the electorate lost faith in you, and use this information to not make the same mistakes twice. The trend in the UK over the past 20 years has been; the party that modernises the most wins the most seats. This was evidenced by the landslide electoral success Labour experienced when they renewed their policies and stances, which gave them their longest stint of power to date. It was also evidenced by the Conservatives winning the most votes in 2010 after the rebranding Cameron introduced after years of static policies and views, which granted them a shot at governance after 13 years in opposition (albeit with the anchor of the Liberal Democrats weighing down their true ambitions). The way Labour will win the 2015 election is if they continue to modernise, however, not in the contemporary political sense of the word.


Tony Blair stated in 2011 that Ed Miliband must continue to modernise the Labour Party if they were to regain the power of government. I happen to agree with Blair’s statement, but only because he and I have rather different political definitions of the word ‘modernise’. In Tony Blair’s lexicon, along with many other progressive political figures, ‘modernising’ refers to reconnecting a party with the modern age, with an array of neo-liberal economic policies and an intense focus on media presentational skills, to keep the party up to date with the forces of globalisation and 24 hour communication technology. This was what was required to win centrist voters in 1997, 2001 and 2005 and certainly succeeded. However, we are talking about 2015. The needs of the people are different. The views of the electorate have changed. Using Blair’s brand of modernisation won’t work this time around. Labour must still modernise, but in an alternate sense of the word. For me, modernisation is retuning your party’s political policies and reconnecting with the needs and concerns of the electorate of the day. On this rationale, Blair’s modernisation was successful, as it met the needs and wishes of the population at that time.

We however, live in different times. We, as an electorate, have been through the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s. We have been through a slow and arduous recovery and a cost of living crisis where wages have lagged behind inflation. We have been through more expense scandals than we can cope with and even rape allegations made against some of our leading representatives within Parliament. We have been through toxic press media disgrace, from phone hacking to character assassinations. We have been through spying accusations and privacy infringements. We have been through revelations of cash-for-questions and lobbying scandals. We have been through a paradoxical scenario where ordinary people suffer from the brutal, ideological cuts of austerity and rising bills, while our government takes the EU to court to defend the bonuses of British bankers. Blair’s dated brand of modernisation just won’t cut it anymore, not for Labour, not for Britain.

In Ed Miliband’s latest Party Conference speech, he highlighted some key issues in Britain today, and outlined a potential future under the banner ‘Britain can do better than this’. He was charismatic, oratorically impressive, comfortable, and endearingly passionate. His speech was patriotic, uplifting, insightful, and realistic. More to the point, he struck two key areas; he struck a nerve in the Tory Party, and he struck a chord with the public. He offered up policies such as lowering the voting age to 16, reversing the highly controversial and electorally toxic ‘bedroom tax’, he promised to protect workers’ rights, protect the environment and create a million new jobs in green energy. He said he’d produce legislation to ensure more apprenticeships were on offer to tackle youth unemployment, to renationalise unused land for house-building, to cut taxes for small businesses while taxing large businesses higher, to offer a living wage, and most poignantly, to freeze energy prices for 20 months to tackle the cost of living crisis. This was an array of policies, which all had a concurrent theme: being unashamedly left-of-centre. More significant than that even, is that they are all popular. The approval ratings of Labour, and even more so Miliband, have risen significantly since this speech, because Miliband established that he will fight for the proverbial David in the face of the proverbial Goliath. He claimed he will fight for the little man, and won’t be afraid to stand up to big businesses and vested interest groups.

The fact that Labour’s proposals are so favourable among the population is significant in two major respects. For one, it shows that Miliband’s strategy, criticised in the past, is paying off. He’s made no secrets about his aim to acquire the vote of 40% of the population. He wants to secure the vote of the Labour core, thought to be roughly 28% of the population, as well as those who swing between voting Labour and Liberal Democrat, judged to be around 6-7%, then claim a young, new and non-voter endorsement of about 6%. This would give him about 40% of the national vote. Blair won the smallest majority in history in 2005 with a 35.2% popular vote. Considering this, Miliband’s game-plan initially appeared border-line and risky, but what was perhaps unexpected by all concerned was that these latest policies have reached beyond that 40% target. There are Conservative voters who are feeling the sting of living costs rising – caused by 3 years of falling wages – who see Labour as the only party on their side and really committed to helping ordinary people. There was a line in Miliband’s speech that hit the nail on the head, ‘many of you voted for change in 2010, and haven’t got the change you voted for’. Many centrist voters voted Tory for the progressive slogans like; ‘Vote Blue, Go Green’, ‘Caring Conservatism’ and the ‘Big Society’. These same voters feel betrayed that the Conservatives have reneged on these policy areas and lurched right in an effort to dispel the rise of UKIP and extinguish the fires set off by disgruntled backbenchers. In 2015, they will either abstain from voting out of protest, or join Miliband’s Merry Men; the only group standing for One Nation ideologies, actually first developed by Conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. Either of these outcomes will result in a fall in the Tory share of the vote, which will play into the hands of Labour.

The other significance of the popularity of these left-leaning policies is that it tells us something about the British electorate. We have changed. Peter Mandelson recently criticised Miliband for neglecting the centre-ground of British politics; the battlefield that the Prince of Darkness valiantly fought on for a decade. What Mandelson has failed to notice, what Blair has failed to notice, and what the Conservative Party have failed to notice, is that as a result of recent economic events, media disgraces and parliamentary scandals, the centre-ground has actually shifted left. The centrist, progressive, neo-liberal economic policies of free trade, low corporation-tax, privatisation and deregulation are no longer trusted by the people. It is these very policies that plunged our country into recession, so why should the people continue to trust in them? Miliband offers left-of-centre Keynesian state intervention to correct the market where it fails – be it in energy or banking oligopolies for example – which in today’s political climate, seems a safer bet to the population. Traditionally left-of-centre policies are becoming the policies embraced by traditional centrists. The centre ground has moved to the left, which means in defiance of Mandelson’s comments, Miliband hasn’t neglected the centre, but has in fact embraced the centre – the new centre. He has reconnected with the electorate through policies ordinary people can relate to, and so in this sense, he has modernised the party. He has modernised the party in line with the needs of the electorate of the day, and it is this modernisation that, if it continues up to election day in May 2015, will see Labour earn the lion share of the vote, and will see Mr Miliband appointed as the next Prime Minister of Great Britain.

By Nathan Phillips

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