As they adjust to the strange new world of a Conservative majority, Labour MPs’ minds have quickly turned to how they win next time. The belief of many that the last election was lost in the opening months of the 2010 parliament – when the party elected Ed Miliband and failed to rebut the Tories’ account of the crash – means the coming leadership contest is regarded as particularly crucial. A fierce debate is underway over whether a short, six-week election should be held or whether, as in 2010, the party needs an extended debate about its future. Which option is favoured partly depends on the preferred candidate. MPs believe that a short contest would favour Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper, the most experienced contenders, over relative newcomers Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Dan Jarvis and Tristram Hunt (all elected in 2010 or, in Jarvis’s case, in 2011). A longer contest would give the “clean skins” more time to establish themselves.
Labour’s NEC will meet on Wednesday to agree a timetable for the leadership and deputy leadership contests. Under the party’s rules, MPs need to be nominated by 15 per cent of the PLP (up from 12.5% in 2010) meaning there will be a maximum of six candidates (each needing to win over 35 of Labour’s 232 MPs).
For whoever wins, the challenge is a formidable one. Labour needs 94 gains to achieve a majority, a feat that only the Liberals in 1906 and Labour in 1945 have achieved from a starting point so weak. To add to this arithmetical Everest, the Tories will use their new-found majority to pass the boundary changes previously vetoed by the Lib Dems, increasing their standing by around 20 seats. At the next election, whether in 2020 or earlier, Labour will also have to contend with a new Conservative leader, most likely Boris Johnson or Theresa May, who may revive the party’s support just at the moment it is flagging (as John Major did in 1990). The final great obstacle to a Labour victory is Scotland, where most believe it will take a generation, rather than merely a single term, to end the SNP’s hegemony.
But MPs are consoling themselves with the knowledge that if a week is a long time in politics, five years is an eternity. Just months after their triumph in 1992, the Tories’ economic reputation was destroyed overnight by Black Wednesday. The scale of cuts planned over the new five years, the risk of a housing or banking crash and possible EU withdrawal all mean that a similarly epochal event cannot be ruled out. And if, as in 1994, Labour elects a leader with wide-ranging appeal, there is no reason it cannot win a majority. The lesson of this election, in which Cameron defied prediction by increasing the Tories’ vote share, is to never dismiss what is thought impossible.