Why Labour may not get a workable overall majority in the next election


Why Labour may not get a workable overall majority in the next election

Dr Chris Stevens crunches the numbers and argues Labour’s route to power may not be as easy as it looks…

Just before the 1997 general election, I was visiting a friend at an Oxbridge College when the BBC came calling.  The journalist wanted evidence to support his view that there was going to be a Conservative victory despite the opinion polls putting Tony Blair massively ahead of John Major. Kenneth Clarke had transformed the country’s economic prospects and the economy was flourishing, he argued.  Surely, the electorate would understand that and keep Labour out. The proposition was ludicrous. Bungled membership of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1992 had damaged the Conservative Party’s reputation for electoral competence and Tories were marred by sleaze and riven by infighting.  The real evidence, however, came from bye-elections. The political scientist, Anthony King, was explicit about this on BBC election programmes. Prior to 1992, there were stunning Liberal bye-election victories, but no evidence of appetite for Labour.  This was reflected in the 1992 election. After 1994, bye-elections showed a seismic swing to the Labour Party. The swing to Labour was over 20% in Barking in June 1994.

I was reminded of this when listening to BBC Radio 4 pouring caution on the prospects of Sir Keir Starmer.  Starmer, it suggested, is too boring to be an election winner; opinion polls put Labour ahead but show Starmer as almost level with Rishi Sunak on competence; Starmer is simultaneously vulnerable because he will not commit to rejoining the EU and tainted by his former support for remain. The Conservative Party may have lost its reputation for sound economic management, but the BBC has an answer to that as well. One does not have to listen to the Today Programme for long to hear presenters argue that with the economy in the state it is, there is no economic capacity for Labour to deliver its proposed policies, despite the Party’s apparent popularity.  Come on, they urge Labour spokespeople, admit you cannot achieve your political goals. Labour is offered a choice between ambition and realism: opting for pragmatism leads to condemnation for lacking ambition and vice versa. The debacle of the Truss Government is argued to be a cloud with a silver lining for the Tories; it shows that there is now no alternative to austerity, which only Conservatives will deliver.

Despite these arguments, it seems very unlikely that the Conservative Party will outpoll Labour in terms either of seats or votes at the next election. The Conservative Party has only won outright twice since 1992. It squeaked home in 2015 by exploiting short-term factors:  blaming Labour for the 2008 financial crisis; exploiting the perceived weakness of Ed Miliband; playing on fears in England that the Scottish National Party would hold the balance of power. On the face of it, 2019 was devastating for Labour.  The supposed post-Brexit electoral realignment, that some political scientists have seemed keen to wish into being, and for which they found spurious corroboration in the 2019 election, has not, however, materialised. Nearly fifteen years of Tory austerity, a record of economic mismanagement, the collapse of public services, poor economic growth and the traumas of Johnson and Truss are likely to be insupportable barriers to a Tory revival.

So will there be a significant Labour majority at the next election: possibly but probably not.

The problem for Labour remains one of electoral geography. The Labour Party has won only four landslide victories since the second world war: 1945, 1966, 1997 and 2001.  In each of these, the party won not just a substantial majority of seats in the UK Parliament but a majority of seats in England.  At other times, the Labour Party has depended on its seats in Scotland, the number of which has since been reduced as part of the devolution settlement. In 2005, for example, Labour secured a majority of 66, but won 41 seats in Scotland.  Without those seats, Labour would have been 25 seats short of an overall majority.

A significant Labour majority is likely, therefore, to depend on recovery in Scotland.  This, however, does not look likely to happen.  Prior to the Scottish Independence Referendum, there was a tendency among Scottish voter to give their votes to the Scottish National Party in Holyrood elections but to Labour in UK elections.  The referendum changed that.  The 2015 general election was a critical election in Scotland, to use the political science jargon, breaking the existing electoral alignment and introducing a new one.  Like almost all beneficiaries of critical elections, the SNP could not hold on to the 56 out of 59 seats it won in 2015, and it fell back to 35 in 2017 and 48 in 2019. These figures do not, however, give much encouragement to the Labour Party.  It only won seven of the 59 seats in Scotland in 2017 and one in 2019.  Even if Labour can take advantage of Conservative unpopularity in Scotland to become the unionist party of choice north of the border, the SNP is still likely to be the main beneficiary of Conservative collapse and Labour may struggle.

There are 650 seats in Parliament, so the nominal majority is 326, but the Speaker occupies one seat, and Sinn Fein M.P.s do not take their seats, so the required number of M.P.s cannot be stated without knowing how many Sinn Fein will win. Let’s say 320 seats will provide a majority. The Labour Party cannot look to the north of Ireland, where it does not contest any of the eighteen seats. Plaid Cymru will win at least three or four seats in Wales, as it has in every election since 1983, and the Greens will keep one and perhaps gain a second in England.  If Labour wins only 10 seats in Scotland, it will need to find about 310 seats in England and Wales, where it won only 255 in 2017 and 201 in 2019.  Labour will need to win 120 seats from the Conservative Party just to give it a majority of one.  Even if Labour recovers the so-called red wall seats, it is hard to see where it will find the 160 seats that it needs to win to have a working majority.

Will the Liberal Democrats come to the rescue?  The wisdom is that Labour does well when the Liberal Democrats do well, because, although Liberals win seats in Con-Lib contests, they take votes from the Conservative Party in Con-Lab contests.  In this analysis a resurgent Labour Party has nothing to fear from Liberal success.

Indeed, the state of Liberalism may be good news for Labour. Nick Clegg’s decision to form an austerity coalition with David Cameron in 2010 destroyed his Party’s fortunes.  From a high point of 62 seats in 2005, the Liberal Democrats collapsed to eight seats in 2015 and twelve in 2017. Following Jo Swinson’s disastrous election campaign, the strategic ineptitude of which has been generally overlooked, it won only four seats in 2019. It will be hard to recover from that in seats where the Liberals are in third place or only narrowly in second place.  There, Labour may be the first port of call for anti-Conservatives. 

This may ease Labour’s path in its target seats, but it will not necessarily turn enough blue seats red.  Liberal Democrats, encouraged by their victory in ultra-safe Conservative seats during the Johnson premiership, will be more confident of success in constituencies where they are the clear challenger to the Conservatives.  Liberal triumph in these may be a harbinger of Tory angst without bringing the Labour Party any nearer to a majority.

To have a workable majority after the next election, Keir Starmer will need to win about 366 seats.  To do so, the party will need to perform nearly as it did in 1945, 1997 and 2001.  To put this into context, the Labour Party won a landslide in 1966, but without its Scottish seats it would have had a majority of only three.  There may be a very large anti-Conservative majority in Parliament after the next election without Labour having a workable majority.

Dr Chris 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.

Photo by Red Dot on Unsplash

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