The Conservative Party has commonly been referred to as the ‘nasty party’ and, in the eyes of many Britons, less compassionate, less generous, less caring and plain ‘nastier’ than their opponents on the left.
Since Theresa May coined this phrase back in October 2002, her party has worked to shake off this label. As such, this has been used to explain the Tory party’s difficulties in attracting support from C2 and DE voters, ethnic minorities, social housing tenants and northerners among others.
Although nobody would argue that the party has, and continues to have, something of a brand/image problem, there appears to be less discussion on the possible issues concerning the Labour brand.
To begin with, Labour’s electoral record since its foundation in 1900 reveals it has been the second party of British politics. In the last 115 years Labour has held office for just 33 years, including 13 years from 1997 to 2010. It has endured long periods in Opposition between 1951-64 and 1979-97; during this time, it lost three and four consecutive general elections respectively.
Before the Blair-Brown years, the longest time the party had been in government, since the first Labour administration under Ramsey MacDonald in 1924, was just six years, under Clement Attlee and later under Harold Wilson. In both the 2010 and 2015 general elections, Labour retracted to its core vote and currently has fewer seats than in its disastrous defeat in 1983.
While the Tories have, no doubt, profited from being the older, more established political party, who can rely on the support on a collection of wealthy donors, there are surely other factors which explain Labour’s status as the less electorally successful of the two main parties.
By establishing how people respond to each party’s policies on individual issues provides an insight into people’s perception of these parties. Traditionally, the Tories and Labour are generally considered to have better policies, and to be more competent, on different issues. Labour performs better on health, education and benefits issues, whilst the Conservatives score higher on asylum/immigration, crime and defence issues. This fits the narrative that Labour is the more compassionate and caring party whereas the Tory Party are the tough, hard-edged party.
Over the course of the last Parliament, 2010-15, through its sample polling, YouGov analysed the responses which suggested that Labour has had problems in convincing the electorate that it is the best party to deliver or to handle its perceived traditional issues. Between 2010-15, the Conservatives led Labour on the vital issue of the economy. Additionally, the Conservatives held a minor lead on the EU, although neither party scored a breakthrough on benefits. On unemployment, which one would consider to be a Labour strength, the Tories overhauled the lead Labour which it had held between 2011-13, in 2014. A YouGov/Sunday Times poll revealed that the David Cameron and the Conservatives were viewed as the best party to facilitate British business. Another area of concern for Labour is the over-65 section of the electorate due to their demographic importance and their high turnout rate in elections. The over 65s have become more Conservative in recent elections.
Another YouGov survey asked people about who they thought the parties were close to. Predictably, the Tories were overwhelmingly seen as being close to the rich, businessmen and the City, while Labour had a close affiliation to the unions and benefits claimants. The former reinforces and contributes to popular views of the party being supporters of corporate interests and wealthy individuals whilst Labour’s associations might also be viewed negatively. Although it is not clear from YouGov’s questioning, the Labour party’s perceived closeness to benefits claimants might be born out of a feeling that they are being too soft on recipients of welfare payments.
Despite being perceived as an elitist party by opponents, the Conservatives were also seen as being close to two large, varied and electorally important demographics: the middle classes and homeowners. Certain respondents may have cited the Conservatives’ closeness to the middle class and homeowners out of a belief that the Conservatives prioritise their interests at the expense of the working classes and tenants. However, middle class and home owning respondents might, on the other hand, feel that the Tory Party is on their side whereas Labour is not.
British Election Study data has shown that the Conservatives are more popular among the AB voters whereas Labour attracts greater support from C2 and DE voters. As class is one of the more reliable indicators of how someone will vote, we can conclude that both parties face a struggle to broaden their appeal beyond their tradition class bases.
Of course it’s difficult to substantiate but Labour’s monopoly on care and compassion maybe a disadvantage as well as an advantage. The party might not be perceived as having the ruthlessness and the toughness needed to make big decisions, whether that be devising a strategy to deal with ISIS or the migrant crisis or reducing the welfare bill and government expenditure in general. The Tories might repel voters because of their perceived lack of sympathy towards the disadvantaged and their alliances with powerful special interests but at the same time Labour may alienate other voters because of their perceived profligate approach to spending and their perceived disdain for business and enterprise.
So what is the future for the Labour party? Will ‘brand Corbyn’ turn their fortunes around? After two dismal general election defeats there is definitely work to be done over the course of the current Parliament. The game’s afoot.