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