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The next Labour leader will struggle to persuade that they can do more than fail better

The arithmetical Everest facing the party means Miliband’s successor may find it even harder to convince anyone they can become prime minister. 

The more the general election result is studied, the worse it looks for Labour. Rather than assuaging the emotional trauma of defeat, the data has merely reinforced it. The loss was even greater than it first appeared. The party piled up wasted votes in safe seats and went backwards in target constituencies. There are just 25 ­marginals (23 Conservative-held) with majorities below 3,000. After the Tories’ forthcoming boundary changes, the Fabian Society has calculated, Labour will need to win 106 seats to achieve a majority. By grim coincidence, that is the same as the number it targeted in 2015 – but with the hope of winning a majority of 78. Now, with the Scottish collapse, the “missing marginals” and the decline of centre-left tactical voting, an electoral system that previously favoured Labour (allowing it to win outsize majorities from 1997 to 2005) is aiding the Conservatives. On 7 May, one MP reflects, “we lost two elections”.

Should the party fail to gain ground in Scotland, where just three SNP MPs have majorities below 6,000, it would require a swing of 11.4 per cent in England and Wales – larger than the 10.3 per cent achieved across the UK in 1997. With typical cunning, the Tories intend to use their newly acquired power to consolidate their advantage. The boundary changes vetoed by the Liberal Democrats in 2013 will be implemented, to Labour’s cost and the Conservatives’ benefit. The decline in the electoral roll since the introduction of individual registration (most notably in urban and socially deprived areas) will make the new constituencies favour the Tories.

Expatriates, a disproportionately Conservative-aligned group, will win the right to vote for life through the abolition of the current 15-year limit. Trade union members will be required to opt in to paying the political levy, eroding Labour’s main source of campaign funding. Before the election, the opposition boasted that the Tories “had the money” but it “had the people”, a reference to Labour’s superior activist pool. Yet its “ground game” proved an ineffective counter to the Conservatives’ financial muscle. Defeated candidates testify that the Tories’ micro-targeted direct mail overwhelmed them.

This psephological and political ­horror show has deepened Labour’s moroseness. The mood contrasts with 2010, when the pain of losing office gave way to the realisation that a route back to power was available. The party had won a 1992-style share of seats on a 1983-style share of the vote. The subse­quent collapse of the Liberal ­Democrats and the rise of Ukip was thought to have redrawn the landscape in its favour. Until the moment the exit poll was published, few dismissed the possibility of Ed Miliband becoming prime minister as an arithmetical absurdity. Now, there is no consolation available, including of the false kind.

The next Labour leader will find it even harder to convince anyone that they can become prime minister. Opinion-poll leads (should they be achieved) will be dismissed as fool’s gold after the debacle of 2015. ­Labour will be permanently harried to concede that the best it can hope for is to reduce the Tory advantage. It is not unthinkable, however, that it could gain power with the aid of the SNP and the Lib Dems, as the second-largest party in a hung parliament (through a swing of 5 per cent). The leadership candidates should start considering now, if only in private, how they would handle the treacherous politics of deal-making.

The potential trump card that the ­Tories hold is the planned anointment of a new leader before the next election. As in 1990, when John Major succeeded Margaret Thatcher and resurrected his party’s fortunes, this could sate the public desire for change. Should they thrive in office, the Tories have a continuity candidate available in George Osborne, who even his detractors acknowledge has evolved into one of our most substantial politicians. Should they falter, they have change candidates available in Theresa May and Boris Johnson, who have shrewdly differentiated themselves from David Cameron. The options open to the Conservatives for a new leader are far greater than for Labour in 2007.

No one can yet say who will lead either of the two main parties at the next election. The current Labour leadership contest is the most open since 1976. Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall could all plausibly triumph. It is Burnham who remains the front-runner, having secured the most MP nominations and topped the early activist polls. After banking the left, he has wisely gravitated towards the centre. As one Burnham ally observed of his socialist supporters: “Where else do they have to go?”

The shadow health secretary’s positioning has made it harder for Kendall to frame him as the unreformed candidate of the left and for Cooper to offer a moderate third way. The greatest obstacles for Burnham are his role in the last Labour government and the desire among many party members for a female leader (which the expected victory of Tom Watson as deputy leader will strengthen). It is Cooper who has assembled a formidable campaign team, including the revered organisers Sheila Murphy and Caroline Badley, and who some senior figures believe could win through second-preference votes. Kendall’s status as the only post-2010 MP in the race allows her to argue that only she can provide the clean break that a twice-defeated party needs.

But as supporters of all three candidates concede, none of them promises to be an electoral talisman in the mould of Tony Blair. The numbers amplify the need for a figure of comparable or even greater stature – yet none is available. “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” The next Labour leader will have to fight to prove that they can set their sights higher than this.

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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 04 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The myths of Magna Carta