Ed Miliband speaks with David Cameron before listening to Angela Merkel addressing both Houses of Parliament on February 27, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Why the odds still favour Labour with a year to go

In Westminster, it is seats that count. And Miliband's party is still best-placed to win the most. 

Talk to Labour and Tory MPs and it is easy to forget that somebody has to win the general election a year today. Members on both sides are resolutely pessimistic about their side's chances. All they agree on is that, in the words of one Labour source, "it's going to be bloody close". 

After the recent narrowing of the polls, with Labour's average lead down to four points, senior Conservatives are increasingly confident of at least remaining the single largest party next May. But this hope collides with the reality that, though ever-smaller, the opposition's stubborn advantage remains. Not since March 2012, in advance of the omnishambles Budget, have the Conservatives led in an opinion poll. 

Were Labour to win by a single point next year (the party's lead in two surveys today), Ed Miliband would almost certainly become prime minister. In 2005, with a vote share of just 35 per cent and a lead of just three points, his party achieved a majority of 66 seats. Five years later, the Tories fell 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. 

Uniform swing calculations can, of course, be an unreliable guide to election outcomes, failing to 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, Miliband has a good chance of retaining the lead he needs to win. Crucially for Labour, polling by Lord Ashcroft suggests that it is winning an above-average swing in its target constituencies. One possibility increasingly discussed in Westminster is that the Tories win the most votes, while Labour wins the most seats (an outcome last seen in February 1974). 

The Tories' fortunes are likely to improve as the economic recovery accelerates and as Labour comes under ever-greater scrutiny. But as long as Miliband retains parity with the Conservatives, he has reason to hope. One of the key points in Labour's favour is the unusually low level of switching between the two main parties (just 5 per cent of 2010 Tory voters currently back Labour), with most of the increase in its vote share due to Lib Dem defectors. Unlike in the past, this means that falling support for Labour doesn't automatically translate into rising support for the Tories. In large parts of the country, the Conservatives simply remain too toxic for voters to lend them the support they need to defeat the opposition (no matter how strong the economic recovery). As recent polling by Ipsos MORI showed, 40 per cent would never consider voting for them, compared to 33 per cent for Labour. Miliband is fishing in a larger pool than Cameron. 

The Lib Dem collapse, the Ukip surge, the death of the coalition's boundary changes and Labour's superior ground game are all reasons for Miliband's continuing confidence. Against this is the fact that no party has ever won while trailing on both economic management and on leadership. Cameron leads by 15 points as the "best prime minister" and the Tories lead by 14 points on the economy (the highest level so far this parliament). But in this era of stagnant living standards and four-party politics, Labour could yet defy history. The only iron rule of the next election is that there aren't any. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Could Labour lose the Oldham by-election?

Sources warn defeat is not unthinkable but the party's ground campaign believe they will hold on. 

As shadow cabinet members argue in public over Labour's position on Syria and John McDonnell defends his Mao moment, it has been easy to forget that the party next week faces its first election test since Jeremy Corbyn became leader. On paper, Oldham West and Royton should be a straightforward win. Michael Meacher, whose death last month triggered the by-election, held the seat with a majority of 14,738 just seven months ago. The party opted for an early pre-Christmas poll, giving second-placed Ukip less time to gain momentum, and selected the respected Oldham council leader Jim McMahon as its candidate. 

But in recent weeks Labour sources have become ever more anxious. Shadow cabinet members returning from campaigning report that Corbyn has gone down "very badly" with voters, with his original comments on shoot-to-kill particularly toxic. Most MPs expect the party's majority to lie within the 1,000-2,000 range. But one insider told me that the party's majority would likely fall into the hundreds ("I'd be thrilled with 2,000") and warned that defeat was far from unthinkable. The fear is that low turnout and defections to Ukip could allow the Farageists to sneak a win. MPs are further troubled by the likelihood that the contest will take place on the same day as the Syria vote (Thursday), which will badly divide Labour. 

The party's ground campaign, however, "aren't in panic mode", I'm told, with data showing them on course to hold the seat with a sharply reduced majority. As Tim noted in his recent report from the seat, unlike Heywood and Middleton, where Ukip finished just 617 votes behind Labour in a 2014 by-election, Oldham has a significant Asian population (accounting for 26.5 per cent of the total), which is largely hostile to Ukip and likely to remain loyal to Labour. 

Expectations are now so low that a win alone will be celebrated. But expect Corbyn's opponents to point out that working class Ukip voters were among the groups the Labour leader was supposed to attract. They are likely to credit McMahon with the victory and argue that the party held the seat in spite of Corbyn, rather than because of him. Ukip have sought to turn the contest into a referendum on the Labour leader's patriotism but McMahon replied: "My grandfather served in the army, my father and my partner’s fathers were in the Territorial Army. I raised money to restore my local cenotaph. On 18 December I will be going with pride to London to collect my OBE from the Queen and bring it back to Oldham as a local boy done good. If they want to pick a fight on patriotism, bring it on."  "If we had any other candidate we'd have been in enormous trouble," one shadow minister concluded. 

Of Corbyn, who cancelled a visit to the seat today, one source said: "I don't think Jeremy himself spends any time thinking about it, he doesn't think that electoral outcomes at this stage touch him somehow."  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.