Keir Starmer’s Labour should consider moving to the right on social issues to appeal to floating voters who have a left-leaning stance on economic matters but are more traditional on cultural policies, a thinktank report argues.
The study by the right-leaning Onward claims that even a relatively small rightward shift on cultural values could deliver enough additional votes to bring a 1997-style landslide for Labour at the next election, or even more.
Based on a poll of more than 10,000 British adults on their general views as well as their specific opinions about Labour, the report says that while Labour has been consistently ahead of the Conservatives in polling since December 2021, much of this is based on the numbers who say they do not know how they will vote, or that they will not vote at all.
The polling took place in August and early September, when Labour had a 12-point lead. The researchers said that if all the voters in the “don’t know” category returned to the parties they supported in 2019, the lead would have been just four points, which if replicated in an election would see Labour and the Tories almost tied on MPs.
Onward argued that to properly secure its advantage, Starmer’s party needed to appeal more to so-called left authoritarians – those who have leftwing views on economics but are more conservative on social issues, many of whom supported Boris Johnson in 2019.
These represent 61% of all voters, and 78% of potential switchers to Labour, the report says.
The polling involved asking all non-Labour voters about their main reasons for not supporting the party, with 24% agreeing with the reply “It represents the very woke and leftwing” – the second most popular option after “not competent” – and 19% saying “It’s not for people like me, I don’t share its values”.
In 48 of the 60 seats that Labour lost in 2019, Onward said, at least two-thirds of voters were more socially authoritarian than average.
Voters who now support Labour but backed the Tories or the Brexit party in 2019 are, perhaps not unexpectedly, 25 percentage points more authoritarian on the standard British Social Attitudes scale of such values than are 2019 Labour voters, Onward found. At 11% of the party’s current base, they are more numerous than the 6% who have moved from the Liberal Democrats and Greens.
Based on the statistics, Onward said that “a small shift rightwards, to become more socially and culturally conservative”, could bring Labour anything from 1.1m to 2.1m extra votes in the next election.
Paula Surridge, a professor of political sociology at Bristol University and deputy head of UK in a Changing Europe, said one caveat to the research was that the Onward polling ended on 2 September, before Liz Truss became prime minister.
“Truss really damaged the Conservative party’s reputation on economics, which opens up an economic space for Labour that might push some of these social issues out of people’s consideration,” Surridge said. “If your mortgage is going up, you might be less concerned about social issues.”
He also noted that the questions used by the British Social Attitudes survey to determine levels of social conservatism were based more on crime and policing than on identity politics, and that Labour was already relatively close to the Conservatives on the former.
Being authoritarian or liberal is “not a binary”, Surridge said. “I would argue that there are quite a few people on that socially conservative scale who are more in the middle, and who Labour can appeal to without having to tack very strongly to the right.”
James Blagden, Onward’s head of politics and polling, said: “With an election less than two years away, no outcome is certain. Keir Starmer has to climb an electoral mountain of 124 seats to reach No 10 despite his polling lead. Labour is still seen as weak and incompetent by voters.
“But fixing his party’s brand and focusing on economic fairness and quality public services, rather than culture war politics, can put him in with a chance of victory.”