I am interested in examples of how a centre-left government which has been in power for a while can win an election in which it has a new leader, and is facing a challenger who is a 'compassionate conservative'.
One unfortunate consequence of Al Gore's defeat to George Bush is that the lessons to be learned from that are more about what not to do than what to do. Two lessons often cited are that Ralph Nader cost the Democrats the election ('why voting Lib Dem could let the Tories in'), and that Gore made a mistake by sidelining Clinton until the very end of the campaign ('why Gordon Brown should not reject Tony Blair's legacy').
I think there is a much bigger lesson than either of these, though. It's how Welfare Reform cost the Democrats the 2000 election.
Welfare Reform is often discussed, politically at least, as a Good Thing. In 1996 Bill Clinton signed the Republican bill to 'end welfare as we know it', introduced time limits for welfare support, in so doing stopped Republican attacks about welfare dependancy. Millions of people, in a booming economy, got jobs and were lifted out of poverty (though the longer term effect is that after six years of George Bush and recession, there are now millions of Americans who are out of work and not entitled to benefits).
The consequences for the Democrats of being tough on a group of people who tend to support them, however, were much more mixed. In 1996
Clinton got 59% of the vote amongst people earning less than $15,000, and this group made up 11% of the electorate. In 2000
Al Gore got 57% of this vote, but it made up only 7% of the electorate. Part of this was due to rising incomes, but to look at it another way, the proportion of the electorate earning $30,000 or less went from 34% to 23%. At the same time, the proportion of the electorate earning $75,000 or more was 18% in 1996, but 28% in 2000.
In 1996 and 2000, the biggest reason given for not voting
was that people were 'too busy', due to increased demands of employers. So what is happening is that the government is getting people into low-paid work through a mix of a growing economy and greater sanctions for people on benefit, and turnout in elections is falling amongst this group, who are reporting that they are too busy to go and vote.
Four years of economic boom, and the biggest shift in American history of people from being unemployed to finding work, did not lead to any noticeable electoral benefit for the Democrats, but instead to a fall in the number of people in this situation voting for them. Al Gore would have won the Presidency quite comfortably if as many people earning $30,000 or less had voted as the number earning $75,000 or more.
This should at least give Labour something to ponder ahead of the next election. The danger of people on low incomes not turning out is at least as significant a challenge as that of marginal, middle income voters switching to the Tories. In some areas, we don't even canvass people if they didn't go out to vote at the last election - makes me wonder why exactly we would expect them to go and vote. It should be made easier for people who are working all day and also have children to look after to find the time to go out and vote, especially as levels of employment increase. And crucially, we need policies and messages which help people on low incomes, which show that we care about the issues that mean most to them, that we are listening to their ideas, and which give people a reason to go and vote for us and show how we are different from and better than the Tories.