Why the odds are still on a Labour victory in 2015

The electoral system, UKIP and the strength of the Labour brand all mean that the party is still likely to be the largest after the next election even after a fall in support.

In recent weeks a new mood of pessimism has taken hold among Labour MPs and a new mood of optimism among the Tories. Labour's double digit poll lead has shrunk to around eight points, with the party ahead by just five points in the last two YouGov surveys. Since governing parties almost always recover support in the months before the general election (as the opposition comes under greater scrutiny and as voters start to view the election as a choice between competing alternatives, rather than a referendum on the government), a lead of five is not enough for Labour to be confident of winning a majority in 2015 or even of becoming the largest single party.

Among MPs, a hung parliament, rather than a Labour majority, is now viewed as the most likely outcome of the election, with some even speculating that the Tories could go all the way and achieve the majority that eluded them in 2010. But for good reasons, the odds (literally) are still on a Labour victory in 2015 (in this case, defined as becoming the largest party). It's true that oppositions rarely return to government at the first attempt of trying - the last time was in February 1974 - but Britain's new electoral landscape means Labour is well positioned to do so. Here are five of the reasons why. 

1. Labour can win big on a small lead

The key point in Labour's favour is that it requires a far smaller lead than the Tories to win a majority. Based on a Lib Dem share of 15 per cent, Labour needs a lead of just 1 per cent to win an overall majority, while the Tories require one of 7 per cent. In 2005, Labour won a majority of 66 sets with a lead of three points but in 2010 the Tories fell 20 short with a lead of seven. This apparent bias has less to do with the unreformed constituency boundaries than it does with the fact that Labour's vote is far better distributed than the Tories' and that it benefits disproportionately from tactical voting. 

It's important to remember that uniform swing calculations are an unreliable guide to election outcomes since they don't take into account factors such as the incumbency bonus and above-average swings in marginal seats. Had there been a uniform swing in 2010, the Conservatives would have won 14 fewer seats, Labour eight more and the Lib Dems five more. But even if, as seems likely, the Tories perform disproportionately well in their existing seats, they will still to struggle to establish the lead that they need over Labour to even remain the largest party. 

2. UKIP will still be a force in 2015

While UKIP's support is almost certain to fall heavily before May 2015 (they are currently polling around 12 per cent in YouGov surveys), it's likely that it will poll above 5 per cent, a level of support that is large enough to have a significant influence on the outcome of the election. With UKIP drawing around 60 per cent of its support from 2010 Tory voters, it is the Conservatives who will lose most from the rise of the Farageists.

The split in the right-wing vote will make it easier for Labour to dislodge the Tories in the marginals it needs to win to become the largest party. At the last election, with a UKIP share of just 3 per cent, there were 20 constituencies in which the party's vote exceeded the Labour majority (one shouldn't make the error of assuming that all those who supported the party would have backed the Tories in its absence, but many would have done).

3. Most Lib Dem defectors are likely to remain loyal to Labour

The main reason why Labour has led the Tories in the polls for more than two years, despite suffering its second worst defeat since 1918 at the last election, is the mass defection of left-leaning Lib Dems to the party in protest at the coalition. Significantly, as Lord Ashcroft's recent poll of the party's supporters noted, they are less likely to return to the Lib Dem fold than other voters. Ashcroft observed that "those who have moved to Labour are the most likely to say they are sure how they will vote (78%). This compares to just over a two thirds of those who say they would vote Conservative (69%), just under two thirds of those who say they would vote UKIP (62%) and less than half of those who would vote Green (42%)."

The decision of the Lib Dems not to replace Nick Clegg with a more left-wing figure such as Vince Cable or Tim Farron makes it more likely that these voters will remain loyal to Labour in 2015. 

4. Labour's brand is strong even if Miliband's isn't (and that may not matter)

Of the three main parties, it is Labour that is the least toxic, with 46 per cent of voters saying that they would "consider" voting for the party compared to 40 per cent for the Tories. While 35 per cent say that they would "definitely not" vote for Labour, 43 per cent say that they would "definitely not" vote for the Tories, placing a notable cap on Conservative support. Labour, by contrast, is fishing in a larger pool. 

Faced with this disadvantage, the Tories console themselves with the thought that Ed Miliband's unpopularity will deny his party victory (the Labour leader is known as their "secret weapon"). Miliband's approval rating is currently -33 compared to Cameron's -18 and the Tory leader has consistently led as "the best prime minister" (most recently by 35-20). 

But while Cameron's greater popularity could save the day for the Tories, it is complacent of the party to assume as much. History shows that a well-liked (or, more accurately, less disliked) leader is no guarantee of electoral success. In the final poll before the 1979 election, Jim Callaghan enjoyed a 19-point lead over Margaret Thatcher as "the best prime minister" but that didn't stop the Conservatives winning a majority of 44 seats. Similarly, in the 1970 election, Harold Wilson's personal lead over Ted Heath (a 51 per cent approval rating compared to one of 28 per cent for Heath) didn't stop Labour going down to a decisive defeat. 

In 2010, David Cameron's lead over Gordon Brown wasn't enough to deliver the Tories a majority. In 2015, his lead over Miliband may not be enough to deny Labour victory. 

5. The Lib Dem incumbency bonus will hurt the Tories

More than any other party, the Lib Dems benefit from an incumbency bonus, with their MPs typically polling between 5 and 15 per cent more than the party's other candidates. As the Eastleigh by-election demonstrated, in those seats where the party is well organised and where it can appeal for tactical votes from Labour supporters, it can still win. In 2015, this will largely be a problem for the Tories, who are in second place in 37 of the Lib Dems' 57 seats. The potential for the Tories to make large gains from the Lib Dems to compensate for the marginal seats they will lose to Labour is limited. 

Labour needs a lead of just 1 per cent to win a majority, compared to a lead of 7 per cent for the Tories. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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Cameron needs to decide what he thinks about Russia

David Cameron's words suggest one thing, his actions quite another.

David Cameron needs to decide whether he takes Russia seriously.

He certainly talks a good game, calling Vladimir Putin to account for crimes against Ukrainian sovereignty and for supporting the wrong side in Syria, claiming credit for bolstering the post-Crimea sanctions regime, and demanding that Moscow’s behaviour change. And the new Strategic Defence & Security Review, published last week, puts Russia front and centre among the threats Britain faces.

The problem is, his government’s foreign policy seems calculated to make no one happier than Putin himself.

At fault is not a failure of analysis. It has taken Whitehall 19 months since Moscow annexed Crimea to develop a new Russia policy, replacing the old aspirations of “strategic partnership based on common values”, but the conviction that Russia be treated as a significant threat to the U.K.’s security and prosperity is solid.

Five years ago, when the coalition government published the last Strategic Defence & Security Review, Russia was mentioned once, in the context of rising global powers with whom London could partner to help solve planetary problems, from nuclear proliferation to climate change. The new SDSR tells a very different story. Russia gets 28 mentions this time around, characterised as a “state threat” that “may feel tempted to act aggressively against NATO allies.” Russia’s annexation of Crimea and instigation of a separatist civil war in eastern Ukraine are mentioned in the same sentence with Assad’s chemical weapons attacks on Syrian civilians and the rise of the Islamic State as key examples of how the world is becoming a more dangerous place.

How that threat will be countered, however, is not a question Whitehall can answer: it is a question for Westminster, and it gets to the heart of where this government sees its place in the world, and in Europe in particular. What Whitehall cannot say – but what the politicians must recognise – is this: the best bulwark against the Kremlin is a strengthened European Union, with more integrated markets and the force to push a concerted foreign policy in the Eastern Neighbourhood. And that recognition requires Cameron to decide whether Putin poses a greater challenge than Nigel Farage.

The SDSR is right to note that the danger of a military confrontation with Russia is remote. Just in case, the Government has committed to bolstering aerial defences, contributing to NATO’s rapid reaction capabilities and maintaining the sanctions regime until a full settlement is reached that restores Ukrainian sovereignty. These are all reasonable measures, which will go some distance to ensuring that Moscow understands the risks of further escalation in the near term. But they do nothing to address the longer term problem.

From a hard-security perspective, Russia is a nuisance. The real danger is in the threat Moscow poses to what the SDSR calls the “rules-based order” – that system of institutions, agreements and understandings that underpin stability and prosperity on the European continent. That order is about more than respecting national borders, important as that is. It is also about accepting that markets are impartially regulated, that monopolies are disallowed and political and economic power reside in institutions, rather than in individuals. It is, in other words, about accepting rules that are almost the polar opposite of the system that Russia has built over the past 25 years, an order based on rents, clientelism and protected competitive positions.

Russia, after all, went to war over a trade treaty. It invaded Ukraine and annexed part of its territory to prevent the full implementation of a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement that was designed to make Ukraine function more like Europe and less like Russia. From Moscow’s point of view, the European project is a very real geopolitical threat, one that promises to reduce the territory in which Russia can compete and, eventually, to increase the pressure on Russia itself to change. In somewhat less pernicious ways Moscow is seeking similarly to derail Moldova’s and Georgia’s European integration, while working hard to keep Belarus and Armenia from straying.

This is not a problem of vision or diplomacy, a failure to convince Putin of the value of the European way of doing things. For Putin and those on whose behalf he governs, the European way of doing things carries negative value. And unless the basic structure of politics and economics in Russia shifts, that calculation won’t change when Putin himself leaves the Kremlin. For the foreseeable future, Russia’s rulers will be willing to go to extraordinary lengths to prevent the widening of Europe, at the cost of instability and dysfunction in the region.

European willingness is another question. A chorus of euro=sceptics both left and right have demanded that Europe stop provoking the Russian bear, leaving the Eastern Neighbourhood countries to fend for themselves – sacrificing Kiev’s sovereignty to Moscow in order to bolster their own sovereignty from Brussels. Cracks, too, are emerging in the centre of the political spectrum: as French President Francois Hollande pledged to work with Moscow to fight ISIS in Syria, Prime Minister Manuel Valls declared that such an alliance would necessitate the lifting of sanctions on Russia, thus trading stability in Syria for instability in Ukraine.

As a member of the EU, London has a role to play. Together with Berlin, London could exert pressure on Paris and keep the margins of the political spectrum marginal. London could through its weight behind a common energy market, forcing Gazprom to play by EU competition rules. London could bolster anti-corruption systems and ensure that ill-gotten gains have no safe haven in Europe. London could insist on the legitimacy of the European project from one end of the continent to the other.

Instead, London is threatening Brexit, relinquishing any leverage over its European allies, and seeking EU reforms that would eviscerate the common energy market, common financial regulation, the common foreign and security policy and other key tools in the relationship with Russia.

In their February 2015 report on EU-Russian relations, the House of Lords raised the question of “whether Europe can be secure and prosperous if Russia continues to be governed as it is today.” To be sure, Europe can’t change Russia’s government and shouldn’t try. But by insisting on its own rules – both in how it governs its internal markets and in how it pursues its foreign policy – Europe can change the incentives Russia’s government faces.

The question, then, to Cameron is this: Whose rules would Westminster rather see prevail in the Eastern Neighbourhood, Europe’s or Russia’s?

Samuel A. Greene is Director of the King’s Russia Institute, King’s College London.