Election Post #8: What would be a good result for Labour?

June 3, 2017

Labour won 232 seats under Ed Miliband in 2015. When Mrs May called the 2017 election back in April, all the signs pointed to Labour going down to its worst defeat since 1935 in a crushing Conservative landslide. The Labour defeat in the Copeland by-election and the local election results on 4th May seemed to confirm this. The party lost scores of council seats in an unprecedented night for an opposition against an incumbent government in its sixth year of office. Some commentators have suggested that Labour could be on course to win around 150 seats, less than the Conservatives managed under John Major in their 1997 defeat at the hands of Tony Blair. Anything in the region of 150 seats would be the ‘doomsday’ scenario for Labour; it would leave the party too weak to win at least the next election and it would be stuck in opposition in a similar fashion to the 1980s when the Conservatives dominated British politics. For the party that held 418 seats in the not so distant past, it is worth considering what would be a ‘good result’ for Labour on 8th June.

For either of the mainstream political parties it is difficult to describe anything other than 326 seats and an overall majority as a ‘good result’. For Labour, reaching 326 is an incredibly difficult task this time around; Mr Corbyn’s party would have to hold all 232 seats that it won in 2015 and then gain an additional 94. This would require an average swing from the Conservatives of just over 9 percent. If Labour were to achieve this, it would be the third largest swing since World War 2. To become the largest single party, a swing of just over 5.5 percent is required, taking the party’s total seats to the low 280s and only just ahead of the Conservatives. To put this into context, the average swing at general elections since 1945 is just over 3 percent and swings greater than this have only been achieved at 6 of the last 19 general elections; a swing over 5 percent has only been achieved 4 times and over 6 percent only twice. 

Len McCluskey, a prominent supporter of Jeremy Corbyn, surmised that Labour winning over 200 seats would be a good result. At the time the party was around 14 points behind the Conservatives in the opinion polls and McCluskey’s comments were widely seen as expectation management and paving the way for Mr Corbyn to stay on as leader if the party lose the election. Indeed, this kind of result would make a three figure Conservative majority considerably more difficult and would leave the party with a larger base from which to rebuild post-election. There would be little to celebrate however, as this would be the worst result for the Labour party in terms of seats since 1935; the party has won more than 200 seats at every general election since then with its worst result being the famous defeat of 1983 when the party slipped to a post-war nadir of 209 MPs. Anything in this region would not be a disastrous result for the Labour party but would not be a particularly great one either as it would still leave the party with a mountain to climb in 2022. 

Other members of Corbyn’s team may be tempted to look to the election of 1987 where despite going down to a defeat with the Conservatives winning an overall majority of 102, Labour was widely praised for its professional campaign. Neil Kinnock closed the gap with Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives in the week leading up to polling day, not unlike Jeremy Corbyn has done in recent weeks. The big difference is that Labour is expected to make a net loss in terms of seats in 2017 whilst in 1987, the party clocked up a disappointing 20 net gains after a good campaign. Corbyn’s 2017 campaign may be viewed in a similar regard as despite a few headline writing mishaps, most involving Diane Abbot, the party has appeared mostly united (I suspect this may be down to many moderate Labour MPs working to save their seats rather than a sudden enlightenment behind their current leader). If this is the case, it would be easier for Mr Corbyn and his team to make the case for him to remain as leader at least until a fellow left-winger can be guaranteed a place on the ballot in a hypothetical situation where Mr Corbyn relinquishes the leadership of the party voluntarily. If the party does avoid a cataclysmic defeat, this could be the worst possible outcome as with the current ‘selectorate’ it would render it very difficult for a more moderate leader to win a future leadership contest. For many moderate Labour MPs, this could well lead to the formation of a breakaway group in parliament and the end of the Labour party as we know it. 

The trend in current polling suggests that the gap between the Conservatives and Labour has narrowed significantly. If this gap closes further between now and election day, Labour would have a very real chance of making net gains. The number of gains would probably be below 30 and if the SNP manage to hold onto 50 or more Scottish seats, they could deny the Conservatives of an overall majority. This would be a very good result for Labour as it would be difficult for the Conservatives to find a big enough coalition partner to form a government with an overall majority and would more than likely be forced to go it alone. This would lead to an incredibly unstable government and would also render the upcoming Brexit negotiations more difficult, giving Labour more power in parliament. In the post-election rebuild, Labour would be able to present itself as a more efficient alternative to the Conservatives. In this situation, it would also be very difficult for Mrs May to stay on as Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative party. Indeed, if the Conservatives fail to secure a large overall majority, her position would still become questionable. Imagine the embarrassment of calling an election to gain a mandate, gaining one (just about) and then being replaced by someone that doesn’t have a mandate. It is very difficult to imagine Labour in a position to form a coalition if the hung parliament that was suggested by YouGov’s model does occur; letting the Conservatives go it alone for a while might well swing things in Labour’s favour at the next election but would still give Labour a significant amount of power from the opposition benches. Mr Corbyn would probably remain in post following this kind of result and it would be very difficult for the moderate wing of the party to justify breaking away as the party will have improved on its 2015 performance. 

One other area worth considering is vote share. Labour achieved 31.2 percent of the GB vote in 2015. Our polling average currently has Labour in the region of 36 percent. This would be higher than the party’s winning share of the vote in 2005 and would allow team-Corbyn to retain control of the party. The problem is, even a share of this level could lead to Labour making a net-loss of 20 or 30 seats if the Conservatives are in the mid to high 40s as the national opinion polls suggest. Labour could conceivably be piling up votes in safe seats and in seats that they have no chance of winning. One can picture the bar and pie charts that some of the Corbynistas would be sharing on social media- totally ignoring the loss of seats, peddling the myth that the parliamentary Labour Party’s actions last summer led to the defeat and constantly plugging the fact that Labour under Corbyn has done better than Blair in 2005 (if the share really did get that high). If the seat loss led to Labour dropping into the 160s, and that is still possible even with an increased share of the vote compared to 2015, it would be more difficult for Corbyn to stay on and he may take responsibility for the result in a similar fashion to Ed Miliband. Of course, there is nothing to say Labour will outpoll its 2015 share of the vote and with a week to go, the polls could change. It is also worth considering that the polls could simply be wrong as they were in 2015 and there is plenty of scepticism about where Labour’s increased level of support is coming from and whether these voters will actually bother to turn out come polling day.

To conclude, a seat tally above 200 would be a better result for the Labour Party than many were predicting when Mrs May called the election but anything less than the 232 won in 2015 would still be a bad result as it would leave the party with a bigger challenge the next time around. The best case scenario for the party would be to make gains and deny the Conservatives of their overall majority, this would give Labour considerable power in parliament and would also leave a smaller number of required seats for an overall majority in 2022. There is still a week to go and although Labour has had a good week and is in a stronger position in the opinion polls, there is a lot that could change. Come the morning of 9th June, we could still see the party that governed Britain with a majority of 179 reduced to a mere rump no bigger than Major’s Tories in 1997 or Asquith’s Liberals in 1923. One thing is for certain, it isn’t all over for Labour yet and all is still to play for. If the current polling trend is correct, many of the doom-mongers could well be pleasantly surprised.

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