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Labour’s woes are far deeper than its leader

Labour's problems are worse than you think. 

By David Lipsey

This week, the House of Lords narrowly failed to block the government’s attempt to rush through individual electoral registration this year instead of 2016 as presently prescribed by law. The change had been condemned by the impartial Electoral Commission because it could lead to up to 1.9 million voters being excluded from the register. Most will be young voters. Most are more likely to vote Labour rather than Tory.

It is another nail in Labour’s electoral coffin. Is the lid now shut for ever?

Labour’s coming demise has been long predicted. In 1960, two leading academics, Richard Rose and Mark Abrams, published a much-discussed book: Must Labour lose? Within four years Harold Wilson said “no” by winning (just) in 1964. A quarter of a century years later Tony Blair did the same, much more decisively. So is the party’s 2015 defeat just another in the repeating loop of rise and fall? Or has something more fundamental happened this time,that means Labour is stuffed for ever? Unfortunately psephological study of the 2015 result increasingly suggests the latter.

Let me be clear: this article is not about Jeremy Corbyn. I have my views on him as have the great majority of Labour parliamentarians. But the hard psephological truth goes deeper than personalities. In truth had Labour chosen a leader who combined the best qualities of Keir Hardie, Clem Attlee and Jim Callaghan – I am not entirely sure that one such was available – it would still have been in existential crisis.

Why so? Of course the result fell short of Labour expectations, which were fuelled by statistically unsound opinion polls trumpeted by journalists who wouldn’t know a margin of error if it came round the corner and hit them over the head. Still, the Tories had an overall majority of only 12. In England, there was actually a small swing to Labour. One more crisis of capitalism, such as occurred after 2008 and Labour might surely be swept into power.

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Only, as the psephologists rake over the embers of May’s fire, that looks less and less likely. In September, Ron Johnston of Bristol University addressed the All Party Statistics Group (which, with Kelvin Hopkins MP, I co-chair) and his work with David Rossiter and Charles Pattie, unveils the unplumbed depths of Labour’s plight.

First, the party lost 40 seats in Scotland to the SNP. Of course the SNP could falter. But its underlying political position is a strong one. Following the referendum, for Scots the optimum outcome is to remain in the union, while using the threat of withdrawal to screw endless subsidy and limitless devolution out of Westminster. Canny Scots will vote accordingly.

The bouleversement in Scotland is part of the reason why the bias in the electoral system has turned against Labour. Bias is a measure of who does best under the electoral system, by calculating how many seats each big party would have if they had an equal percentage share of the national vote. From Blair’s time onward, that bias has been strongly pro-Labour – over 100 seats in both 2001 and 2005, though rather reduced since. Johnston calculates it as being worth 64 seats to Labour in 2010 and expected before the election that it would be 35 seats in 2015. In fact the 2015 bias was not 35 to Labour but 59 to the Tories.

This was partly due to Scotland where large numbers of “wasted” votes for Labour yielded just one seat. But not entirely so, for in England there was a similar phenomenon. Labour piled up more big majorities in its safe seats (in large part because of the collapse of the Liberal Democrat vote in the seats they formerly contested with Labour but where in 2015 they came either a poor second or even worse), without adding to its total tally of seats. However it did poorly in the marginal constituencies held by the Conservatives, with the result that Johnston calculates that, in England and Wales alone, the bias in favour of the Tories amounted to 28 seats.

The mountain Labour has to climb will get yet steeper. In the last parliament the Lib Dems scuppered the Tory attempt to push through a constituency redistribution that would have meant a net swing of seats to the Tories of around 20, despite the number of constituencies overall being reduced from 650 to 600. A similar redistribution with very probably the same consequences will, barring a miracle, go through for 2020.

Finally, fatally, the number of marginal seats – the seats Labour needs to win – has shrunk. With the number of seats being reduced the exact number of gains Labour needs is uncertain, but it would be around 100.  There simply aren’t the marginal available now to make that plausible. Johnston again: in 2010 the number of Tory seats with a 10 per cent or less Tory lead and thus vulnerable to a 5 per cent swing was 81 . After 2015 there were only 56 such seats. The picture that emerges is of the Labour party being pushed back into its traditional strongholds while losing out in the seats that really matter. That is the cul de sac out of which Jeremy Corbyn is the party’s choice to lead it.

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