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 a former Labour cabinet minister and was MP for Neath between 1991 and 2015 before joining the House of Lords.

Photo: Getty Images
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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.