Can Labour Win the next Election? I’d Bet on a Hung Parliament
Keir Starmer’s leadership has started well, but the 2019 election result left Labour with a mountain to climb and scaling it may well prove impossible
Keir Starmer is the most popular Labour leader since Tony Blair. Every single poll of net satisfaction since he became leader has been positive. In his first 100 days as leader he has more than halved the Tory poll lead, which peaked at 26 percentage points but has fallen to single digits in most recent polls. He was elected with a strong mandate in the leadership election — winning over the most MPs, constituency associations and affiliates, and crucially, winning the support of a majority of Labour Party members on the first ballot.
The government are in the middle of the biggest public health crisis since the Spanish Flu and the biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression and they are led by a Prime Minister without principle, whose grasp of detail is often embarrassing and whose absence during key stages of this crisis has been glaringly apparent. Keir Starmer’s skill as a QC is serving him well during Prime Minister’s Questions, where the description of him as ‘forensic’ has been so apt that it’s now regarded as a cliché. This has allowed him to dictate the news agenda more than is normal for a Leader of the Opposition, helped by the government’s refusal to back down from unpopular policies and positions until the damage has been done and an embarrassing u-turn has been forced. He has taken control of the party’s internal structures, quickly wining a majority on the NEC and he faces a media who seem inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt, seeing him as the adult in the room during this period of crisis and as a moderate who — like Kinnock and Blair before him — will face down the left in his party and lead Labour back to power.
So why, despite all of this, am I worried that Labour may struggle to win in 2024? Why is my hope for a better future always tempered by gloom?
Firstly, there is the issue of Scotland. In 1997, Labour won 56 out of 72 seats north of the border. But, since the party backed the union in the Scottish Independence Referendum in 2014, the SNP have cemented their position as the dominant electoral force north of the border, reducing the once dominant Labour Party to one seat in Scotland in the 2019 election, behind both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats (who both won 3 seats). As the recent Labour Together report makes clear, winning a majority without making gains in Scotland would require the party to win North East Somerset from Jacob Rees Mogg. This has led many to argue that a future Labour government would need to rely on the support of other parties, leaving Labour vulnerable to the charge that the price they would need to offer for a post-election deal with the SNP would be another referendum on Scottish independence, putting the future of the union at risk.
Secondly, there is the sheer scale of the defeat in 2019, leaving Labour with a mountain to climb to overturn Johnson’s 80 seat majority. Turning again to the Labour Together report, they argue that the swing required to get a majority of just one would need to be equal to that of 1997 and they point out that the party would need to increase its number of MPs by 60% to win — something no major Party has ever done.
Thirdly, there is the nature of the electorate. As a recent report by the UK in a Changing Europe shows, the ideological position of Labour MPs and members is closer to the public on economic issues, but there remains a big gap between Labour MPs and members and the electorate on cultural issues, creating a potential source of alienation that Labour would be well advised to seek to avoid. Some ‘Blue Labour’ figures have argued that Labour should move to the right on cultural issues in order to appeal to the average voter, but this risks alienating Labour’s existing support base, whose liberal progressive metropolitan values are at odds with the more authoritarian instincts of the electorate and whose support cannot be taken for granted at the next election. After all, there are many potential competitors for these progressive voters and their support seems fickle — with many having recently voted for other progressive parties at local and European elections.
Finally, there are the worrying longer term trends that Labour need to contend with, not least of which is the fact that the Conservative Party have increased their share of the vote at every election since their crushing defeat in 1997. These longer term patterns are complex — caused by partisan dealignment, deindustrialisation, generational divides, a decline in unionisation and by the changing nature of how we consume our news. But what they add up to is a significant political realignment, so that our politics is increasingly shaped by cultural divisions mediated by age and education level rather than class and where Labour’s remaining support is increasingly concentrated in metropolitan centres, with their support in towns and in rural areas being slowly eroded. If you look at the Conservative’s target list for 2024, you’ll see that Labour are now defending tiny majorities in seats that were once considered safe. Stockton North, where I was born and raised, had a majority of 21,357 in 1997. This majority is now 1,189. Labour must not assume that these trends will not continue.
So, given the above, can Labour win the next election?
In order to give themselves the best chance of wining Labour must remain where they are ideologically. Taken individually, the policies in the Labour manifesto were popular, but people were sceptical about whether the pledges could be delivered as trust in Corbyn’s leadership and the public’s perception of Labour’s economic competence was low. The current crisis is already damaging the government’s competence and it is highly likely that the government’s economic competence will be the next causality — with predictions from the OBR today that the recovery will be weaker than expected, with unemployment expected to peak at 12%.
Oppositions do well when they are able to capitalise on a government’s faltering ratings during an economic crisis — Black Wednesday, the Winter of Discontent and the Great Recession prove the point that elections are often won and lost on the issue of economic competence alone. But, Labour must not be complacent as their poll ratings inevitably rise in the coming months and the scale of the electoral challenge facing them must not be underestimated. In Keir Starmer, Labour have their best leader in a generation and he is faced with a government that seems utterly rudderless in the face of multiple crises, but they also face the biggest electoral test they’ve ever faced as a party.
Given the above, I’d cautiously predict a hung parliament when the time comes, with Labour as the largest party, but in my heart I hope for the scenes of jubilation that greeted a young Tony Blair when he first walked through the doors of Number 10, proclaiming ‘a new dawn has broken has it not?’
I guess only time will tell.