UK Politics: Why Labour are better-placed than first appears

Labour's Keir Starmer and Kim Leadbeater
Batley and Spen produced an urgently needed boost for Starmer

Labour appear to be in the doldrums but Paul Krishnamurty explains how their prospects of leading the next government are not insignificant...

"Among the last three polls, the share between Lab/Lib/Green is 51%. That compares to 47.5% and 49% at the last two elections."

Where exactly are we in British politics right now? An unbroken Tory poll lead since January and rarely broken for six years, is remarkable for any incumbent government. However the polls have tightened recently and a trio of by-elections, all won by different parties, produced very different narratives to suggest a high level of uncertainty.

The Conservatives remain hot favourites at 1.4740/85 for Most Seats at the next general election. That probably under-estimates their chances, given how their voters are efficiently spread across constituencies. They're also marginal favourites to win another overall majority at 2.186/5 - equivalent to a 46% chance - compared to 2.3611/8 [42%) about a hung parliament.

Tories probably need majority to stay in power

That Overall Majority market is particularly significant in the current climate. It is hard to see how the Tories would stay in power were they to lose that majority, because potential allies among opposition parties are few and far between. Even the DUP might refuse, in light of what they see as betrayal over Brexit.

The next election is therefore far from a done deal. Those recent results reinforced the demographic divisions that have hastened since Brexit - around age, ethnicity and education - and it isn't clear how that will pan out in a nationwide contest.

Hartlepool looks like an outlier

The morning after the local elections, when Hartlepool declared an historic by-election battering of Labour in a seat they'd never lost, may turn out to be the high point of this Tory era. By the end of the weekend, a more balanced picture had emerged across the country. As argued then, their advantage in projected national vote share was far from emphatic.

In Hartlepool, Boris Johnson's brand of Toryism played perfectly among an ageing, almost exclusively white electorate including a much smaller than average share of graduates. A substantial far-right vote collapsed and transferred en masse. But Chesham and Amersham, and Batley and Spen, had quite different make-ups and electoral histories. Both produced very different results.

Trouble brewing in the Blue Wall?

In the former, the Tory heartland vote collapsed in shocking fashion. Local factors definitely played a part but this is a 'Blue Wall' seat, that voted for Remain. The total and obviously tactical collapse of the Labour vote, transferring mostly to the Lib Dems, suggested such once unlikely targets could be in play next time.

There are seats like this all across the South and Home Counties but, regarding the main 'Blue Wall', new research from Yougov should concern the Tories, as this excellent thread explains.

In Batley and Spen, the Tories failed to take what looked a straightforward gain for two reasons. One, notable defections to Labour in the usually reliable Tory area of Spen. Second, they failed to unite that far-right/Brexit vote, with large number of former Ukippers preferring George Galloway.

Progressive coalition growing likelier

There are positives to be taken here for the otherwise beleaguered Keir Starmer. The Labour leader made a point of refusing to rule out an electoral reform agreement with other progressive parties. Tactical co-ordination with the Lib Dems hasn't worked effectively for 20 years but it has a better chance than at any point since, thanks to the ongoing re-alignment of British parties.

The Tories are a different party to the one that shared power with Lib Dems after 2010. Their brand is now hard-Right, swapping a chunk of liberal Remainers for authoritarian Brexiters. Their coalition needs those ex-UKIP or Brexit Party voters, who showed in Batley and Spen that they aren't reliable Tories. The more they push culture wars and authoritarian social policies to win these voters, the more they will alienate moderates.

Likewise, Labour have evidently changed under Starmer, compared to Jeremy Corbyn. On one level, for the worse. They're losing members, money and unlikely at present to generate anything like the required enthusiasm among young voters, who are essential to their progress.

However on the other, Starmer doesn't alienate like his predecessor. Thus it is easier for usual opponents to lend them a tactical vote, as they did when getting a much improved result in Airdrie and Shotts. Labour's only victories in the last 47 years coincided with an unofficial tactical pact with the Lib Dems.

Labour will likely improve at a general election

Labour can also take heart from the last two election campaigns. In both, they significantly squeezed the Lib Dem and Green shares. This is almost inevitable, once progressive voters realise that in most constituencies Labour are the only realistic alternative to the Tories. This coalition has greater growth potential to the one Boris Johnson has already fully formed on the Right.

So were an election imminent, the current vote shares could very quickly turn sour for the Tories. Among the last three polls, the share between Lab/Lib/Green is 51%. That compares to 47.5% and 49% at the last two elections.

Remember in the first of those, the Tories lost their majority. To change the government next time, they would need to lose around 50 seats. A perfectly realistic target, even for a barely competent opposition.

Of course much can and doubtless will change beforehand. Covid effects, whether regarding health, social restrictions or economic. The Brexit fallout and ongoing sores. The battle over a Scottish independence referendum. None of the main party leaders are completely safe in post.

Successful betting on the next election to a large extent involves successfully predicting those outcomes. Nevertheless as it stands, the chance of a Labour-led coalition is probably somewhere around 30-40%. Not quite the catastrophic position that one might assume from the popular narrative.


Follow Paul on Twitter and check out his website, Political Gambler.

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Thursday 2 May, 7.00am

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