Labour must watch out for pitfalls

Poll gains should not be overestimated.

Whispering about Ed Miliband’s leadership seems to have given way, in some Labour circles, to a new-found confidence that the party is heading to victory in 2015. The government’s post-budget woes and the British economy’s unwelcome return to recession have certainly helped Labour to impressive local election results. Moreover, the polls are looking increasingly positive for the party, with a recent YouGov poll giving Labour a 14 point lead over the Tories. Indeed over the weekend the Fabian Society sounded a distinctly up-beat tone, arguing that hoovering up disgruntled Lib Dem voters would be sufficient to take Labour into government.

Labour strategists, however, have displayed a more measured response to the last few weeks. The tone of the reaction to local election performances was “a step forward, but much further to go”.  An objective analysis of British politics suggests they are right to be cautious. Electoral history is littered with examples of incumbent governments bouncing back from their mid-term blues. And for Labour the economy, which will of course dominate political debate until 2015, remains its Achilles heel: as Peter Kellner points out the public still tend to blame Labour for Britain’s current economic malaise and say they trust the Tories more than them to manage the nations’ finances.

What is more, as leading psephologist, John Curtice argues in Juncture,  IPPR’s new journal – the chances of any party becoming the largest party after 2015 should not be overstated. There are underlying political trends which mean that coalition government in Britain is more likely to be the norm than the exception in the future. This is because, as Professor Curtice explains:

"If single-member plurality is to deliver overall majorities for one party on a regular basis then two conditions have to be satisfied. First, the system needs to deny anything much more than token representation to third parties. Second, there have to be plenty of seats that are marginal between the two largest parties, such that a narrow lead for one party in the polls can be readily translated into a majority of seats."
 

Neither of these conditions holds as true as they once did. At the last three elections, on average, no less than 86 seats were won by parties other than Labour and the Conservatives. In contrast, over the course of the seven elections between 1950 and 1970 the average level of third-party representation was just 11 seats. Meanwhile, at the last three elections rather less than one in five seats has been closely fought between Labour and the Conservatives, compared with well over a quarter in the 1950s and 1960s.

Curtice goes on to show how proposed boundary changes look set to do little to change this trend. Had the 2010 election been fought under the proposed new boundaries fewer than one in six seats would have been marginal between Labour and the Tories, and third parties would still have won around 72 seats.

If anything the boundary changes will increase the likelihood of a hung parliament in 2015 because they will make it harder for Labour to achieve an overall majority. Assuming a uniform swing across the country based on the 2010 results, Curtice calculates that with the new boundaries Ed Miliband would need a lead of 4.3 points to secure a majority, up from 2.7 under the current boundaries. While recent polls are reasonably healthy for Labour the lead has only been above four points for three out of the 23 months since the 2010 election – and as we have already noted polling leads can start to evaporate as an election approaches. His analysis leads Curtice to conclude that the most likely outcome of a general election is “Labour being the largest party in a hung parliament.”

Another assumption underpinning some Labour supporters’ optimism is that the Lib Dems haemorrhaging votes will automatically benefit Labour. But this position misses a crucial point: because of the relative concentration of Lib Dem votes in predominantly Tory territory, the bigger winner from a poor Lib Dem performance would in fact be the Tories. Curtice argues that in a closely fought contest:

“the Conservatives would be the main beneficiaries of any collapse in Lib Dem support – thereby making it much easier for the Tories in particular to win an overall majority.”

This analysis suggests that Labour strategists are right to keep their feet on the ground despite the mid-term blues for the government. But another significant implication of John Curtice’s analysis for Juncture is that Labour also needs to rethink its current hostility to the Liberal Democrats.  Given the prospects for another hung parliament, Labour should be thinking about how best to reach out to Nick Clegg’s party. Better personal chemistry and understanding between figures at the top of both parties would help Labour with any potential re-run of the 2010 coalition negotiations. But ultimately for any such a relationship to be really meaningful it will need to be built not on the narrow demands of political expediency but on shared values and a progressive agenda for responding to the challenges Britain faces.

Guy Lodge and Will Paxton are the joint editors of Juncture, IPPR's new journal of centre-left thinking. Details about the first edition, including John Curtice’s full article, can be found at www.ippr.org/juncture
 

Is Labour's future with the Lib Dems looking woolly ?Photograph: Getty Images

Guy Lodge and Will Paxton are the joint editors of Juncture, IPPR's new journal of centre-left thinking.

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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.