Ignore the pessimists, Labour is well-placed to win in 2015

With the return of Lib Dem defectors and the Tories haemorrhaging support to UKIP, Ed Miliband is looking increasingly like the Prime Minister-designate.

Although Eastleigh was dire for the Tories, most commentators were wrong in suggesting it was also bad for Labour's prospects at the next election. In fact, it confirmed why Labour can still win in 2015, despite its terrible defeat in 2010, because these are times that defy psephological orthodoxy.

First, the Tories took office on a historically low base for a governing party. Their vote had been stuck over nearly two decades, inching up painfully slowly from a dreadful low of 30.7 per cent in 1997, to 31.7 per cent in 2001, then to 32.4 per cent in 2005 and finally to just 36.1 per cent in 2010 – in government without having won. And that despite facing a Labour Party with an unpopular Prime Minister, which had lost trust, and which had carried the can for the worst global economic crisis for 80 years.  Not only did the Tories fail to win, they managed to gain a mere five per cent in the thirteen years after their landslide defeat in 1997.

Furthermore, just 23.5 per cent or 10.7 million of the electorate actually voted for them. David Cameron became Prime Minister on a pitifully low base. Apart from when Tony Blair led Labour and despite a significant population rise in the meantime, Cameron achieved the third lowest number of Tory votes since 1931 and the lowest Tory percentage of the electorate since 1918.

Second, Labour under Ed Miliband has quickly recovered its natural vote which had, stage by stage, defected, in the main to the Liberal Democrats, after the introduction of student fees and, above all, the Iraq War. That vote felt utterly betrayed by the Lib Dem leadership’s enthusiastic embrace of a right wing economic agenda which makes Margaret Thatcher look moderate; it will very likely stay with Labour and not easily go back to the Lib Dems except, perhaps, as in Eastleigh, where Labour cannot win.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, the Tory-Labour duopoly of British politics seems broken. Since its high point in 1951, when 97 per cent voted Tory or Labour, it has collapsed to just 65 per cent – that nadir the culmination of a long trend in the rise of smaller parties, reflecting progressive disillusionment with British politics and declining turnout. UKIP's stunning performance at Eastleigh confirms that this will not easily be reversed. 

Furthermore, in the past, people might only vote every four years in a general election and for their local council, often on the same day. Now there are five-yearly European elections, annual elections for multiple layers of local government in many parts of England, and elections every four or five years for devolved institutions in Wales, Scotland, London and Northern Ireland.  

The more opportunities people have to vote for different bodies or posts, the more politically promiscuous they become. The Lib Dems have been the main beneficiaries but also UKIP, Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National Party. Once people break the habit of a lifetime by not voting either Labour or Tory, they were more likely to do so again and it has become much harder to win them back, even at a general election.

In addition, some people have started to vote for different parties at different elections. In Wales, for example, significant numbers have voted Labour in a general election, Plaid for the Welsh Assembly and Lib Dem or independent for their local councillor. People have started to mix and match, enjoying greater choice and liking the idea of politicians having to work together in power.

As the political scientist John Curtice has persuasively argued, "the hung parliament brought about by the 2010 election was no accident. It was a consequence of long-term changes in the pattern of party support that mean it is now persistently more difficult for either Labour or the Conservatives to win an overall majority."

Coalition politics may become a semi-permanent fixture at Westminster, just as it has in local government.  In which case, coalition needs to be done a lot better than under the Cameron-Clegg government, where it has become a byword for broken promises, betrayals and sheer incompetence.  

By joining with the Conservatives on an agenda that repudiated all their long claims to progressive credentials, the Liberal Democrats lost, if not forever, then for at least a generation, their niche as the ‘anti-politics’ party – the reservoir for the growing group of disaffected British voters.      

But, the recovery by Labour of its natural supporters apart, there is no reason to suppose that the two main parties will bounce back to their previous hegemony. Some of the anti-politics vote the Lib Dems attracted has gone elsewhere, especially to UKIP and the Greens. Given the crisis in Europe and the fault line in the Tories, UKIP are likely to poll well at the next general election, mainly at the Tories' expense.

All of this means – and Eastleigh confirmed –  that David Cameron won't win the next election.  Even on a bad day, and doubtless after a relentlessly negative and well-resourced Conservative assault, Labour is well-placed. On a good day, the party could well defy the odds and win outright in 2015.  But it is at the very least realistic for Labour to be the largest single party, able to form a government. The question then is: with whom?  And the major answer would come if, as also seems likely, the Orange Book Lib Dem leadership – which hijacked the party and took it into bed with the Tories – is repudiated by a membership desperate to restore the tradition embodied by Asquith, Lloyd George, Keynes, Beveridge, Jo Grimond, David Steel, Paddy Ashdown, Charles Kennedy and Ming Campbell.

That assumes, of course, that there are sufficient Lib Dem MPs remaining after a probable battering in 2015. In constituencies where they are well dug-in against the Tories, such as Eastleigh, the Lib Dems will hold their own, although they will certainly lose seats to Labour.

On the same night as Eastleigh, most pundits missed Labour's spectacular victory in a council by-election in a ward where a Tory councillor resigned. It was in the Tory-held seat of Wirral West, a key marginal which Labour lost last time. 

Although he still has ground to make up, the new context for British politics means Ed Miliband is looking increasingly like the Prime Minister-designate. 

Peter Hain is MP for Neath and a former Labour cabinet minister. His memoirs Outside In are published by Biteback

Ed Miliband walks through Hyde Park after addressing TUC members at the end of a march in protest against the government's austerity measures on October 20, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

Peter Hain is MP for Neath and a former Labour cabinet minister

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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide