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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The 11 things we know after the Brexit plan debate

Labour may just have fallen into a trap. 

On Wednesday, both Labour and Tory MPs filed out of the Commons together to back a motion calling on the Prime Minister to commit to publish the government’s Brexit plan before Article 50 is triggered in March 2017. 

The motion was proposed by Labour, but the government agreed to back it after inserting its own amendment calling on MPs to “respect the wishes of the United Kingdom” and adhere to the original timetable. 

With questions on everything from the customs union to the Northern Irish border, it is clear that the Brexit minister David Davis will have a busy Christmas. Meanwhile, his declared intention to stay schtum about the meat of Brexit negotiations for now means the nation has been hanging off every titbit of news, including a snapped memo reading “have cake and eat it”. 

So, with confusion abounding, here is what we know from the Brexit plan debate: 

1. The government will set out a Brexit plan before triggering Article 50

The Brexit minister David Davis said that Parliament will get to hear the government’s “strategic plans” ahead of triggering Article 50, but that this will not include anything that will “jeopardise our negotiating position”. 

While this is something of a victory for the Remain MPs and the Opposition, the devil is in the detail. For example, this could still mean anything from a white paper to a brief description released days before the March deadline.

2. Parliament will get a say on converting EU law into UK law

Davis repeated that the Great Repeal Bill, which scraps the European Communities Act 1972, will be presented to the Commons during the two-year period following Article 50.

He said: “After that there will be a series of consequential legislative measures, some primary, some secondary, and on every measure the House will have a vote and say.”

In other words, MPs will get to debate how existing EU law is converted to UK law. But, crucially, that isn’t the same as getting to debate the trade negotiations. And the crucial trade-off between access to the single market versus freedom of movement is likely to be decided there. 

3. Parliament is almost sure to get a final vote on the Brexit deal

The European Parliament is expected to vote on the final Brexit deal, which means the government accepts it also needs parliamentary approval. Davis said: “It is inconceivable to me that if the European Parliament has a vote, this House does not.”

Davis also pledged to keep MPs as well-informed as MEPs will be.

However, as shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer pointed out to The New Statesman, this could still leave MPs facing the choice of passing a Brexit deal they disagree with or plunging into a post-EU abyss. 

4. The government still plans to trigger Article 50 in March

With German and French elections planned for 2017, Labour MP Geraint Davies asked if there was any point triggering Article 50 before the autumn. 

But Davis said there were 15 elections scheduled during the negotiation process, so such kind of delay was “simply not possible”. 

5. Themed debates are a clue to Brexit priorities

One way to get a measure of the government’s priorities is the themed debates it is holding on various areas covered by EU law, including two already held on workers’ rights and transport.  

Davis mentioned themed debates as a key way his department would be held to account. 

It's not exactly disclosure, but it is one step better than relying on a camera man papping advisers as they walk into No.10 with their notes on show. 

6. The immigration policy is likely to focus on unskilled migrants

At the Tory party conference, Theresa May hinted at a draconian immigration policy that had little time for “citizens of the world”, while Davis said the “clear message” from the Brexit vote was “control immigration”.

He struck a softer tone in the debate, saying: “Free movement of people cannot continue as it is now, but this will not mean pulling up the drawbridge.”

The government would try to win “the global battle for talent”, he added. If the government intends to stick to its migration target and, as this suggests, will keep the criteria for skilled immigrants flexible, the main target for a clampdown is clearly unskilled labour.  

7. The government is still trying to stay in the customs union

Pressed about the customs union by Anna Soubry, the outspoken Tory backbencher, Davis said the government is looking at “several options”. This includes Norway, which is in the single market but not the customs union, and Switzerland, which is in neither but has a customs agreement. 

(For what it's worth, the EU describes this as "a series of bilateral agreements where Switzerland has agreed to take on certain aspects of EU legislation in exchange for accessing the EU's single market". It also notes that Swiss exports to the EU are focused on a few sectors, like chemicals, machinery and, yes, watches.)

8. The government wants the status quo on security

Davis said that on security and law enforcement “our aim is to preserve the current relationship as best we can”. 

He said there is a “clear mutual interest in continued co-operation” and signalled a willingness for the UK to pitch in to ensure Europe is secure across borders. 

One of the big tests for this commitment will be if the government opts into Europol legislation which comes into force next year.

9. The Chancellor is wooing industries

Robin Walker, the under-secretary for Brexit, said Philip Hammond and Brexit ministers were meeting organisations in the City, and had also met representatives from the aerospace, energy, farming, chemicals, car manufacturing and tourism industries. 

However, Labour has already attacked the government for playing favourites with its secretive Nissan deal. Brexit ministers have a fine line to walk between diplomacy and what looks like a bribe. 

10. Devolved administrations are causing trouble

A meeting with leaders of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland ended badly, with the First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon publicly declaring it “deeply frustrating”. The Scottish government has since ramped up its attempts to block Brexit in the courts. 

Walker took a more conciliatory tone, saying that the PM was “committed to full engagement with the devolved administrations” and said he undertook the task of “listening to the concerns” of their representatives. 

11. Remain MPs may have just voted for a trap

Those MPs backing Remain were divided on whether to back the debate with the government’s amendment, with the Green co-leader Caroline Lucas calling it “the Tories’ trap”.

She argued that it meant signing up to invoking Article 50 by March, and imposing a “tight timetable” and “arbitrary deadline”, all for a vaguely-worded Brexit plan. In the end, Lucas was one of the Remainers who voted against the motion, along with the SNP. 

George agrees – you can read his analysis of the Brexit trap here

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.