To have a chance of forming a Government in 2024, Labour must firstly face the Maths
We must be honest when calculating the challenge we face
As the Labour movement continues to grapple with the aftermath of the 2019 general election, it must avoid resorting to the cold comforts of meaningless statistics. Yes, Jeremy Corbyn may have won more votes than any Labour leader since 2001, but here’s the problem: Boris Johnson won more vote than any Conservative leader since 1992.
Selective statistics designed to make us feel better just won’t cut it when it comes to the blunt psephological truths of what it requires to actually win an election.
Perhaps ‘uniform swing’, which measures the average movement of support between parties, isn’t a much better way to gauge electoral performance. Nevertheless, it is better, and as long as it’s treated with the pinch of salt it deserves, provides a rough yardstick to measure the number of voters who must switch their vote to Labour in order for the party to win in 2024.
According to electionpolling.co.uk, to win the 124 seats required to achieve an overall ‘majority of one’ Labour will need a swing of 10.52% — larger than the uniform 10.2% that Tony Blair achieved in 1997 — and contrary to popular belief — around five times more than the 2% that Jeremy Corbyn achieved in 2017. If Labour can’t manage to break back into Scotland then — after taking Scottish seats out of the equation — they will need a swing of a 13.8% — greater than the overall shift in support that Labour achieved in the famous 1945 election — to form a majority government.
And the challenge doesn’t stop there. When the new boundary changes are introduced, which are likely to disproportionately benefit the Conservatives, the swing required will be even greater still.
Too gloomy? Let’s approach this problem from the opposite direction.
What would it require for the Conservatives to remain the largest party but lose their majority in 2024?
Again, according to electionpolling.co.uk — and based on current boundaries — Labour would need a swing of only 3.18% to deprive the Conservatives of the 41 seats necessary.
Now, even with boundary changes pushing that figure up, this feels far more within reach.
Labour can consider a return to government as a ten or fifteen-year project if it wishes; incremental swings from the Tories to Labour at the next two elections edging us closer to power. I don’t know about you, but I believe we cannot wait that long.
Labour must not only lead, but unite, the opposition
In a fascinating chapter from his book “The Alternative: Towards a New Progressive Politics”, Duncan Brack tells the story — quickly lost under the rubble of the Labour landslide — of the Labour and Lib Dem’s efforts to work together in the run up to the 1997 general election.
This collaboration didn’t go as far as electoral pacts — where one party stands down for another that is more likely to win a seat — as it was felt that this strategy would backfire.
Instead, through a more discreet operation, the parties avoiding attacking one another in favour of co-ordinated attacks against the Conservative government. It involved working with the Labour-supporting Daily Mirror newspaper to endorse Liberal Democrat candidates in seats where Labour had little chance against the Tories. Labour reduced resources in these seats and reallocated them to more winnable battles elsewhere.
In the end, 20 of the 22 Lib Dem candidates endorsed by the Mirror won their seats. Analysis by respected analysts John Curtis and Michael Steed calculated that between 15 and 21 seats won by Labour, and between 10 and 14 seats won by the Liberal Democrats were due to ‘unprecedented’ levels of tactical voting.
In the aftermath of 1997, these gains ended up being a modest cherry-on-the-top of Labour’s overwhelming majority — and this points to the smartness of the strategy: it wasn’t an ‘either-or’ approach. Labour were able to aim for majority government whilst safeguarding for a hung parliament.
A similar strategy in 2024, not just with the Lib Dems, but with the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Greens, and the re-emerging progressive parties of Northern Ireland, could — at the very least — produce gains that are critical to deprive the Conservatives of their governing majority. What’s more, this more collaborative approach could more easily pave the way for a Labour-led coalition government.
Labour’s pressing responsibility is not only to lead our country’s progressive majority. The party must also fight to unite it. This is the only way that a Labour-led government appears on the not-too-distant horizon, which by then will be needed more urgently than ever before.
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