Keir Starmer has made “security” one of the three keywords of his vision of a Labour Britain (alongside “prosperity” and “respect”). The idea has not been universally welcomed in the party. For some, it seems vague and narrow, and it is not clear that most voters understand what it means. But some recent research suggests that the idea may be much more important than his critics suggest. So why does it matter?
Red Wall: Red Herring
The research comes from the Nuffield Politics Research Centre, and is based on the British Election Study, a large-scale, very long-term, survey of electoral behaviour. Jane Green and Roosmarijn de Geus set out to study how far familiar political divides really drive voting behaviour. The results are striking.
What they found is that behind many of the patterns which have been widely discussed lies a deeper issue: people’s sense of economic security. They suggest that this may be the underlying driver of the old/young, graduate/non-graduate divisions which were evident in 2019.
This is not a simple issue of income or savings. An older non-graduate in a poorly paid but secure job, who owns their ex-Council house in a poor region, may feel much more secure than a young graduate working in the gig economy and living in a rented flat in London or Manchester. When they asked whether people have savings to protect against sudden expenses, a secure income, and the ability to borrow in an emergency, they found that, in all regions and all kinds of constituency, those who feel secure by these standards were much more likely to vote Conservative in 2019.
They point out that, while Britain has been through difficult times, and real incomes have not grown for a decade, many people’s personal experience has been of relative stability. In the Tory shires and “red wall” Northern towns alike, that sense of security has driven conservative attitudes and voting.
How safe do you feel?
“Security” is not a simple concept. The commentary about Labour’s security idea has tended to focus only on crime. Although there is anxiety about crime, especially in poorer areas, when asked to identify the three most important issues facing the country, only 11% pf people mentioned it. However, reductions in police numbers, the closure of Courts, prison overcrowding, and the disputes between lawyers and government about rates of pay for legal work all contribute to a sense that law and order is breaking down.
A second obvious theme is defence, which is always the first responsibility of government, and has risen in importance following the Ukraine invasion. The idea of real war in Western Europe no longer seems quite as remote as it has done since the Cold War. But again, only 10% of people put it among their three top concerns.
Security of, and in, work is a key issue for most people, and work has become much less secure in recent years. Despite near full employment, declining real wages and the rise of the gig economy make work seem more precarious for many. The employment legislation that exists is often not enforced and the decline of trades unions has removed another layer of support. What once felt secure no longer feels as safe in a firm buffeted by Brexit, Covid and a global downturn.
Housing is a critical security issue. Everyone wants somewhere secure to live, and 18% of people list it as one of their top three concerns. But even older voters who have paid off mortgages and vote Conservative recognise that the housing market is deeply dysfunctional. There are nowhere near enough houses for people, and the available housing is prohibitively expensive. The rising value of houses depends on an ongoing shortage. So the gap between the secure, with at least a “step on the ladder” of ownership, and the insecure, with no real prospect of ever doing so, or of finding secure decent rented accommodation, grows ever wider.
Health has become another source of insecurity. After the economy, it is the issue of greatest concern to voters, cited in the top three issues by 37%. Covid was a one off, though continuing, crisis, for an NHS already under severe pressure. Most people are no longer confident that they will be able to see a GP who knows them when they fall ill; or that, if they have an accident, an ambulance will arrive in minutes, and they will see an A&E doctor promptly.
The electoral prospects
We all want greater security. Delivering that is a proper priority for any government, and it is clear that it is a really important issue when people are making voting decisions. So what does this mean for a future election?
First, inflation and falling real incomes, and perhaps rising unemployment, will further undermine the sense of security for many more people. That strengthens Labour, certainly in the short term. If they can articulate a vision of a government which provides greater security, they should do better in the next election, but they have to find a specific policies that make it more than a slogan. If they succeed in winning power, the challenge of providing it will not be trivial. Ironically, of course, if they succeed in doing it, they may feed the sense of security which swings voters back to conservatism.
By contrast, the Conservatives face an uphill task. Brexit, Covid and the global economic crisis all mean that insecurity is reaching into a much wider population. They have few levers to tackle it, and it is far from clear that the pre-election tax cuts promised by Rishi Sunak will do it for them. Ironically, while their focus on culture wars may play well with the most committed supporters, for the average voter, it is yet another dimension of division and insecurity. Perhaps that is why they toy with reviving the idea that a Labour government would be a “coalition of chaos”.