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Forget the 70s, new voters can’t even remember the 90s

September 27th, 2013

Henry G Manson on the events of the week

We’ve seen a plenty column inches devoted to Ed Miliband wanting to take Britain back to the 1970s by committing to freeze energy prices for two years. The title of Dominic Sandbrook’s article in the Daily Mail, ‘Miliband’s Marxist father and the real reason he wants us to drag us back to the nightmare 70s’ has a full house in the bingo game seeminlgy played by right wing journalists. Well done that man. What’s more intriguing is the wider political commentariat whose language might not be so daft but whose assumptions are as out of touch with public understanding and sentiment.

    The typical media commentator in this country seems wilfully blind to the changing times we’re in and not interested in exploring views contrary to their own. For political punters this provides a challenge and an opportunity.

It’s one of the reasons why the professional pundits badly underestimated a ‘shock’ hung parliament in 2010. Many objective commentators of this blog appreciated early on that a hung parliament was quite likely. My early 9/2 with Hills on no overall majority was like taking candy from a child. Note the recent ‘shock’ at Lord Ashcroft’s poll from battleground seats showing Labour outboxing the Tories where it counts.

I think most of commentators’ mistakes relate to so many of their reference points being so far in the past, combined with the self-reinforcing circles they keep. Many are very well paid and are immune to the economic and social changes taking place elsewhere. Add to the fact that TV increasingly rewards heat rather than light then quite quickly the view becomes none the wiser to what’s really happening.

I was reminded of this when reading a particularly potent essay from Marcus Roberts at the Fabian Society published before in the days before Labour’s energy announcement. It contains an astute observation to all of us of the changing electorate that has completely escaped many commentators since Labour’s flagship policy was revealed:

‘There will be voters who go to the polls on 7th May 2015 who weren’t alive when Tony and Cherie Blair posed outside 10 Downing Street on 2 nd May 1997. They will have no memory of an event which is a moment of history as distant from them as Margaret Thatcher’s 1979 election victory was for the voters of 1997.’

If that doesn’t make you feel old, I don’t know what will. Forget the 70s, new voters in 2015 can’t even remember the 90s.

Roberts adds ‘Tony Blair understood that then: he did not try to win the election that Jim Callaghan lost, nor to reconstruct Harold Wilson’s winning electoral coalition. If Ed Miliband seeks to emulate what Blair did in 1997, he too must build his own political majority for the era in which he seeks to govern.’ The fact that this common sense observation is anything but common, speaks volumes for the current debate.

The author makes a similar point to one Mike repeatedly makes here (and is right to do so) that it will be people who previously would have voted Liberal Democrats who will be provide a large part of the support to get Ed Miliband to 40% in the polls. Roberts argues that ‘to insist that a winning Labour strategy must always and only target Tory switchers is now a matter of political superstition borne of old habits. It is not supported by the psephological evidence for 2015, which is radically different from that of 1997.’ Completely right.

The essay argues that between them former Lib Dem voters, new voters and former Labour supporters who sat out the 2010 election can take Labour to 40%. He even incorporates expected deaths of Labour voters among his calculations along with some of the ideas that will motivate and retain some of the different groups voters. Roberts doesn’t underestimate some of the challenges but with a clinical eye passing over the different segments of the electorate he draws a highly plausible route map to a Miliband majority.

I’ve read the essay several times now and I urge all punters to do the same, whatever your political inclination. Just as Nate Silver made a mockery of punditry in the US, in their own ways Marcus Roberts and Lord Ashcroft are doing something similar. They are the ‘moneyball’ analysts of British politics and therefore are a punter’s best friend. Ignore the rentagobs, dismiss the guff about the 70s and put your money on a Labour majority at 6/4. It’s ‘true’ likelihood is odds on and not the 40% implied.

Henry G Manson