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

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)