Comment: Labour’s strategy for Tory voters is to insult them as often as possible

By Richard Heller

It doesn't seem to worry Labour's high command, but the party has won over very few Tory voters since the last general election.  Earlier this year Peter Kellner, head of YouGov, estimated Tory-Labour switchers at half a million – less than five per cent of the Tory vote in 2010. 

Labour candidates in Tory marginals might take a different view from their high command. Tory switchers are worth twice as much to them as any other possible voter movement: without them, Labour is dangerously dependent on Liberal Democrat malcontents, Tory defectors to Ukip, or new voters.

Why has Labour done so poorly among former Tory voters? Perhaps because it keeps insulting them. Year after year, it has been telling them that they must have been wicked or stupid to put David Cameron's government in power. The biggest insult to them was the Incredible Shrinking Clegg election broadcast last spring – the stupidest ever put out by a major British political party. It offered a crude caricature of the Cameron government – arrogant, braying, heartless, ignorant, interested only in pampering the rich and privileged. It gave out two messages to Tory voters: either you share the values and interests of that wretched bunch or else you have no idea what you voted for.

In a softer and more coded form, Labour continues to insult Tory voters with its basic message on the economy.

I have just ploughed through Labour's 60-page statement: One Nation Economy (fortunately many pages are blank or taken up with photographs of Ed Miliband).

The foreword by Ed Miliband and Ed Balls begins with a picture of a vanished golden age.

"A growing economy brought shared prosperity. And that meant that people who put in effort were rewarded, with good jobs, paying decent wages, and were able to make a better life for themselves. Millions of families bought a house, a car, even a second car, took holidays abroad, started their own business, looked forward to a stable pension in retirement and were confident that they could set their children up in life so that they could enjoy a better life than themselves."

There are some important reasons why this golden age vanished. Britain's prosperity relied too heavily on private and public debt and an unbalanced economy which was especially vulnerable to the banking crash. The enduring eurozone crisis afflicted our major trading partners; investment and activity are blighted now by new dangers in eastern Europe and the Middle East. Above all, Britain is part of a world economy where billions of foreign workers can equal or exceed the output of a British worker at far lower cost. Even without a succession of emergencies, this development alone would have shaken British prosperity and put severe pressure on British jobs and real wages.

None of these factors are mentioned in the two Eds' foreword. Their golden age disappeared for one reason only: the wicked Tories. The government "really seems to believe that the way an economy should grow is by looking after a tiny privileged few at the top and squeezing everybody else". This repeats the insult to Tory voters. Either you are part of a privileged few, or else you are total suckers.

The body of the document continues this approach. Every problem has its origin in the Tory-led government, and every solution lies in its replacement by 'One Nation' Labour. There is no engagement with Tory voters, no recognition that they might have legitimate doubts about Labour's record or its current policies. These are presented as being so transparently reasonable that it would be virtually treasonous to go on voting Tory.

It is instructive to examine the winners and losers of the policies which are actually explained in the document. Many carry no pain at all, and are presented as a pure benefit to the whole country, for example "a proper British Investment Bank" (good to know it will not be an improper bank) "to support lending to businesses and a regional banking network to serve every part of the country". How could any voter oppose that?

If there are losers from any Labour policy, they are invariably a privileged minority.

For example, higher-rate taxpayers will suffer from restoration of the 50p rate – but the receipts will be used to benefit recipients of tax credits. Owners of houses worth over £2 million will pay for restoration of the 10p starting tax rate for lower incomes. No more winter fuel allowance for "the richest pensioners". No cut in corporation tax for big businesses:  instead, business rates cut and frozen for small-and-medium-sized ones. Shaming  highly-paid executives and their companies. A bank bonus tax to fund a compulsory job guarantee to young people. (Does that mean that if the banks stopped paying bonuses there would be no jobs guarantee?)

On issue after issue, Tory voters are asked to identify themselves either with a small, greedy, unpopular section of society – or as complete fools who cannot recognize their own interests or the country's.

Labour needs to understand that even before the recent spate of good news on the economy and jobs, Tory voters might still have reasons for believing in this government's policies. That includes the millions of voters who have had no direct benefit from them, or even been made worse off.

Tory supporters may be right to believe that cutting the deficit remains the top priority for the British economy and that the Tories might still be the best party to do this. They may be right to believe that financial markets have more confidence in the Tories than in the Labour alternative. They may be right to believe Tory rhetoric about cutting taxes and burdens on wealth creators – after all, they heard plenty of that from New Labour, including speeches from Ed Balls fawning on bankers. They may even be right to continue believing in the Tories' superior general economic competence.

Labour needs to acknowledge all of these beliefs with respect, rather than demanding that Tory voters abandon them and admit that they made a terrible mistake at the last election.

Above all, Labour needs to admit that the cost-of-living crisis is not entirely the fault of the wicked Cameron government – and that the British economy cannot be transformed at the expense only of small, privileged élites. It will require huge adjustments in the way millions of us live and work and none of us can count on returning to the vanished golden age depicted by the two Eds.

Insulting voters is rarely a sensible strategy and Labour's current tactics are more likely to confirm Tory loyalties than subvert them. If Labour continues to express its economic policy with the simplistic assumptions and prissy tone of its current document it will drive away other voters too.

Richard Heller is an author and journalist and former adviser to Denis Healey.

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