Lord Ashcroft did a very useful survey on Election Day. Over 12,000 voters were questioned. They were asked not only about their voting behaviour but also about their attitudes to economic policy and their personal experience with respect to prevailing economic conditions. The results are worth reflecting on. (Analysis and tables of results can be accessed here). They illustrate the difficult political problem that the Labour Party faced with regard to economic policy. They also prompt some reflections about the wisdom of the party’s policy choices.
At the time of the election nearly half of voters questioned (46%) said they would endorse a continuation of austerity and cuts in government spending for the next five years. Almost a quarter (24%) chose to adopt a hardline anti-austerity stance, viewing cuts in government spending as unnecessary and ideologically driven. The remainder (30%) thought a period of austerity had been necessary but they did not accept the need for another five years of cuts in government spending. So overall a majority of voters (54%) was against the continuation of austerity as government policy.
Only a quarter of voters (26%) said they were already feeling some of the benefits of an economic recovery. The rest were evenly divided. There were those who weren’t feeling the benefits of a recovery but expected to do so at some point (37%). And there were those who weren’t feeling the benefits but didn’t expect to either (37%). So a substantial majority of voters hadn’t seen evidence of the much-trumpeted economic recovery in their own lives.
Those already feeling the benefit of recovery were overwhelmingly in favour of continued austerity (well after all it seemed to have worked for them! so why not for everybody else?). Most of those who expected to benefit from recovery accepted that austerity had been a necessary precursor, although only about half of them (48%) thought that there ought to be further cuts in government spending. Most of the support for the most hardline anti-austerity position was amongst those who didn’t expect to benefit from recovery anyway.
To summarise: a majority of voters opposed further austerity and cuts to government spending; and only a minority had yet felt any benefit of an economic recovery. You might think this combination of circumstances ought to favour opposition to the existing government and its economic policy of continuing austerity.
The Conservatives had established themselves as the party most definitely committed to austerity. Labour had to choose whether to compete with the Conservatives in pro-austerity territory or to stand against any further austerity. The problem for Labour was that a policy incorporating a degree of austerity (which definitely includes further cuts in government spending) risked writing off the votes of anti-austerity voters (especially the hardliners who thought it had never been necessary in the first place). But without accepting austerity as being a platform for recovery Labour risked writing off the votes of those expecting to benefit from any recovery (the hopeful or aspirational?), and many of these people (48%) favoured further cuts in government spending.
In the event, Labour offered an undefined degree of austerity (definitely including some further cuts in government spending). But this did not attract substantial support: only about a tenth (11%) of those who favoured more austerity voted Labour (59% of them voted Conservative). Perhaps surprisingly Labour held on to half (51%) of the hardline anti-austerity voters; but significant shares went to the avowedly anti-austerity Celtic Nationalists (12.3%), the Greens (11.9%) and UKIP (11.4%). And Labour got a lower share of those expecting to benefit from recovery (31%) than the Conservatives did (35%). And less than half of those with no hopes of benefiting from the recovery voted Labour (42%); about a fifth of these ‘no-hopers’ (19%) voted for UKIP, perhaps because UKIP at least promised ‘something different’.
With the wisdom of hindsight (and Lord Ashcroft’s data) Labour made a fundamental miscalculation by backing austerity (even though a less austere austerity than the Conservatives: ‘austerity lite’). If Labour had had the courage to define itself as anti-austerity, and if the party had got the same fraction of the anti-austerity majority of voters as the Conservatives got of the pro-austerity minority, then Labour might have won the election.
But, surprisingly perhaps, this message is not what the Labour leadership contenders seem to have absorbed. Instead they are mostly arguing that Labour should have been more convincingly pro-austerity in order to have won.(Analysis and tables of results can be accessed here)