Dr Christopher Stevens considers what the future may hold for the Labour Party
The right-wing press likes to celebrate Boris Johnson’s next general election victory, sneering at Sir Kier Starmer’s failure to “cut through to the voters” and revelling that the downside of Johnson’s charismatic populism has been “priced-in”; the centre-left press and the BBC regrets the same, carrying out periodic vox populi raids on leave seats to report that “random” former-Labour voters see Johnson as their reason for continuing to embrace the new levelling-up, optimistic Conservative Party and it “boosterish” leader.
Can the Labour Party defy these odds and win a majority at the next election? The answer is almost certainly no, but not for these reasons. Labour’s problem is Scotland. When the Labour Party wins big, such as 1945, 1966, 1997 and 2001, it has always won a majority of English seats in Parliament. At other times, such as in 2005, the Conservative Party has won a majority of English seats and the Labour Party has depended on seats in Scotland to get it over the winning line.
This, however, will not work in the future. Between 1999 and 2015, Scottish voters that voted SNP in Holyrood elections had a propensity to vote Labour in Westminster polls. It was an entirely foreseeable consequence of the 2014 referendum on Scottish Independence that this would break down if the nationalists lost. So it has been, and with a significant consequence. To win a majority in 2024, Labour must not only win a majority of seats outside Scotland. For outright victory, the win in England and Wales will need to be big enough to exceed all the other parties, including the SNP, which is likely to increase its hold on Scotland further. Only a victory the size of 1997 and 2001 will do. The political earthquake required to achieve this is not impossible, but it seems exceedingly unlikely.
It would be wrong, however, to conclude that this means that the Conservative Party will win the next general election. That may be the case, but the Conservative majority was only 80 in 2019. With the DUP’s eight seats factored in, Labour, SNP and the Liberal Democrats need only to capture 45 seats to deprive Johnson of his majority. The remarkable Conservative defeat at the Chesham and Amersham bye-election was swept under the carpet by the BBC and the print media, because, unlike Hartlepool, it did not support the dominant narrative of Conservative success and Labour failure. There is also collective amnesia about the 2019 general election. Jeremy Corbyn’s tactical and strategic failure is well-rehearsed, but Jo Swinson’s disastrous leadership of the Liberal Democrats has not been. The Conservative Party can expect more Hartlepools as a majority of the remaining Brexit Party voters shift to the Conservatives, but, with competent leadership at the helm of the Liberal Democrats, there are likely to be even more Chesham and Amershams, while the Labour Party and SNP can also anticipate some gains. Allegations of Tory sleaze, the exposure of the chaos of pandemic management, the rise in the cost of living, and the impact of leaving the European Union may have a greater impact than some analysists expect. A Conservative majority cannot be taken for granted.
It is not the purpose of this piece to speculate on the election outcome; it is to consider what will happen if Johnson loses his majority but no other party wins one? First, Boris Johnson is unlikely to resign as Prime Minister. There is no requirement for him to do so. Technically, the Government remains in office as long as it can command a majority in parliament. That is not changed by defeat at the polls, only when there is a no-confidence vote in the Commons or if the budget cannot pass. Prime Ministers only resign when they lose an election because they know that defeat is inevitable and to stay on will make them look foolish, with negative consequences down the line. This is not the case when there is a hung Parliament. In February 1974, Edward Heath lost his majority in the “Who rules” election. He famously refused to resign until he faced Parliament because the Liberal Party might have decided to support him. To do so, he offered the Liberal leader, Jeremy Thorpe, a cabinet post, but Thorpe fancied that he might do better after a further election and declined. In the battle to dominate the political narrative, Labour declared that Heath was obliged to resign, as his government had been defeated at the polls, and Labour had won more seats. In the circumstances, Heath’s retort that he had won more votes than Labour rang hollow. Heath was running against the political tide. However he played his cards, Labour would be best placed to benefit in the next election. This proved so in October 1974.
2017 was not dissimilar. Theresa May, like Heath, went to the polls early and gave her majority away. She refused to resign and met Parliament, where, unlike Heath, she found the votes she needed, this time from the DUP. Thereafter, similarities end. Corbyn’s success was only relative. He won 55 fewer than May and was nowhere near to forming a functioning coalition. The Conservative Party was the only viable government. Politically May had no alternative but to continue.
How different was 2010! Gordon Brown went to the polls, ran a bad campaign and lost. The scale of the defeat was critical. It was not as large as some expected, but it left him short of a majority unless he could unite all the opposition parties into a coalition, and even that was too marginal to be a stable proposition. What is more, Labour had been in power since 1997, so the political narrative was that it was time for Labour to stand aside. Brown had every right to meet Parliament as Prime Minister and see if he could secure a majority, as Heath had done in February 1974. That would, however, have been a forlorn gesture that would have compounded the Labour defeat. Whatever the truth hidden in the self-serving accounts of participants in the events of 2010, a Conservative Government kept in place by Nick Clegg was the only viable outcome, even though the Liberal Democrats, flushed with the illusion of Cleggmania, played their hand badly.
So what will happen if there is a hung parliament in 2024? Only a viable coalition led by Labour is likely to provoke the resignation of the Government. That will be easier if Labour is the biggest party in the house, and easier still if Labour needs only one coalition partner. The likelihood, however, is that the Conservative Party will be the largest party in the House. It is even more likely that Labour will need not one but two coalition partners. Any result that deprives the Conservative Party of a majority while not making the Labour Party the largest party, will have seen the SNP adding to their 48 seats and the Liberal Democrats gaining ground. A Labour/SNP or Labour/Lib Dem coalition will require the missing party to join it or abstain. Unless Labour, Lib Dems and the SNP form a coalition, Johnson will be able to stay in office, meet parliament, seek the support of right-wing allies, such as the DUP, and challenge the other parties to force him out.
Here Johnson has a trump card. Once the SNP is in play, he can pose as the defender of the Union. This is Starmer’s dilemma. Any coalition with the SNP will require an independence referendum. If the SNP wins it, Scottish seats at Westminster go. With it will go Labour’s majority, as we have already ruled out the possibility that Labour can win a majority outside Scotland in 2024. A Labour/SNP coalition will have built in obsolescence. Nor can the Labour Party gamble on a unionist outcome in a referendum. If Labour either campaigns with the SNP or abstains, it can expect to be punished by the English voter. If it fights the unionist cause alongside the Conservative Party and wins, the SNP are unlikely to wish to continue the coalition.
It is worth introducing another line of argument here. The Labour Party is under pressure from political commentators, such as Polly Toynbee, to form a progressive alliance. Depriving the Conservative Party of a majority will require Liberal Democrats to win seats where they are second to the Tories, and either a formal agreement at the centre or informal agreements at constituency level will maximise that outcome. This has two pitfalls for Labour. First, as political scientists often stress, parties do not own voters and cannot command that they will follow parties into compromises. Where Labour and the Greens stand down for Liberal Democrats this will not matter, as it seems unlikely that their voters will vote for Boris Johnson to voice their objection. What, however, will Labour get in return? There are a few seats where Labour is in second place and would benefit if the Liberal Democrat vote passed to it. The problem is that Liberal Democrat voters are not all anti-Tory progressives. Liberal Democrat voters might switch to Conservative and not Labour, especially if the Liberal Democrats appear to be in alliance with Labour. There will, moreover, be seats where the presence of a Liberal Democrat benefits Labour because it splits the anti-Labour vote. The switch from Corbyn to Starmer may be a mitigation, but it may not be enough. There will, moreover, be seats where Labour and Liberal Democrats cannot agree on who is best placed to beat the Conservative Party, and some of those may have sitting Labour MPs. All-in-all, it is the Liberal Democrats who will gain most from a progressive alliance, and that Liberal Democrat advantage may be vital.
That is the second pitfall for Labour. During the election, the Liberal Democrats will assert that they will form a coalition with neither party. They will say that they learned the lesson of 2010 and they will not keep Johnson in office. They will no doubt mean it, but will they keep to it?
This is where Scotland comes in. If the Conservative Party cannot win either alone or with the DUP, the likelihood is that it will gain enough seats to reach a majority in coalition with a revived Liberal Democrat Party. Sir Ed Davy will therefore be faced with a choice: keep Johnson in power or prop up a multi-party, Labour-led coalition, including the SNP. Not that the Conservative Party and the Conservative-dominated press will put it that way. The choice presented to the Liberal Democrats will be between enabling political stability led by the Tories and participating in the future break-up of the UK. The Conservatives will offer an arrangement that lets them save face and promises to spare them from the fate that befell Clegg. They may hesitate. They may ask for Johnson to stand down as defeated and toxic, just as Clegg made Brown’s resignation the basis of any talks in 2010, but unless Johnson is under pressure to do so from his own side, expect him to refuse, and expect Davy to back down and enter the coalition. He will fear rejection at the next polls for allowing the break-up of the Union if he does not do so.
This takes us back to the outcome of a Labour/SNP coalition. As soon as Scottish seats are excluded from Westminster, following a successful independence referendum, the Labour Party will lose its majority. Either the Conservative Party will be handed an overall majority, with or without the DUP, or there will continue to be a hung parliament. The latter is likely to trigger another election. Among English voters, especially its target voters in former traditional Labour seats, Labour will be toxic for “losing Scotland”. The Conservative Party will not hesitate to go to the polls, knowing that it will clean up, and the Liberal Democrats cannot afford to stop it from doing so by going into coalition with Labour. The Lib Dems will want to avoid any of the toxicity befalling Labour, and, in any case, it will also want the reward of having taken a pro-unionist stance during the second Scottish referendum.
If the Conservative Party agrees with the foregoing analysis, it has an obvious card to play. Like David Cameron in 2015, it can declare that a vote for Starmer in 2024 is a vote for Nicola Sturgeon and a vote for Scottish independence. Yet it will not do so. The rightwing press has bought into Johnson’s “boosterism” as a political tactic, and “boosterism” requires that a Conservative victory is a foregone conclusion. Nor, one suspects, will Johnson feel comfortable psychologically with the prospect that he is not a natural “winner”. Labour’s best hope lies in public certainty that the party will lose. Corbyn benefitted that way in 2017.
Labour’s best change comes from a hung parliament in which the Conservatives are the biggest party, and where no majority is possible if it excludes the SNP. In such circumstances, Johnson can be expected to meet parliament and stay in office. He may be dropped by his party, but do not expect it. At some point, the hierarchy of the Conservative Party may decide that Scottish independence is not a bad thing after all. The prize will be a near-permanent majority in the reconstructed Westminster Parliament. That might look bad for Labour, but it will give it the possibility of reconfiguring its basis of support without the stigma of losing Scotland. The alternative for Labour is far worse.
Dr Christopher Stevens recently retired as Director of Quality and Standards at the University. He was previously an ESRC Post-Doctoral Research Fellow, working on post-war grass-roots British Conservatism, and a Lecturer in Politics at the Universities of Teesside and Queen Mary, London.