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  1. Election 2024
  2. Labour
5 May 2024updated 07 May 2024 11:35am

Why Labour is confident of a majority

Hung parliament projections ignore the efficiency of Labour’s vote, tactical voting and the party’s recovery in Scotland.

By George Eaton

The Conservatives set the bar low – and still fell below it. Potential consolations – Andy Street winning in the West Midlands, Susan Hall running Sadiq Khan close in London – evaporated. The only result Rishi Sunak has to celebrate is Ben Houchen’s victory in Tees Valley and the 16.7 per cent swing there would see the Tories lose all five of the seats they hold in the region. 

Faced with all this, the Conservatives have one thing left to cling to: the notion that a hung parliament is possible or even probable. This belief has been lent academic legitimacy by the metric known as projected national vote share. Had the entire country voted on Thursday, professors Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher calculated, Labour would have won just 34 per cent of the vote, while the Tories would have won 27 per cent. The outcome would not be the super-majority suggested by recent polls but no majority at all. 

This projection has been received gleefully by two groups: the Conservative leadership (who want to quell rebellious MPs) and left-wing critics of Keir Starmer. But it is a flawed metric for a simple reason: last Thursday was a local election, not a mock general election. The Liberal Democrats are not going to win 16 per cent of the vote (their projected national share) and “others” (the Greens et al) are not going to win 23 per cent of the vote. 

Far from being fearful, Labour strategists are confident of winning a majority – and with good reason. The party is gaining votes where it matters most: in the bellwether seats that traditionally determine general elections. Labour won councils such as Redditch, Nuneaton and Bedworth and Tamworth and gained seats in those it already holds such as Milton Keynes, Reading and Swindon. Most revealingly, it won Rushmoor, an area that has never had a Labour majority council before and that includes the home of the British Army. 

All this points to a crucial trend I wrote about back in January: the increased efficiency of Labour’s vote. Rather than piling up wasted votes in big cities and university towns, the party is advancing in the pro-Leave, working-class areas that delivered a Tory landslide in 2019. (Starmer’s team regard his decision to back the government’s Brexit deal in 2020 as a crucial early choice.)

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Examples from history help illustrate how crucial vote distribution is. In 2005, under Blair, Labour won 355 seats (a majority of 66 seats) with just 35.2 per cent of the vote. In 2017, under Jeremy Corbyn, the party achieved 40 per cent of the vote but won just 262 seats. As one Labour aide put it: “Focus on the map, rather than the margin.”

At the start of this parliament it was often said that to win a majority, Labour would need a uniform swing larger than that achieved by Tony Blair in 1997 (10.2 per cent). But Morgan McSweeney, the party’s campaign director, believes that the party could now win a majority with a lead as small as six points. 

As well as a ruthlessly efficient vote, there are other factors that will work in Labour’s favour: in Scotland, which is excluded from the hung parliament projections above, the party is hopeful of winning 20-25 seats, up from just one at present. A poll by Norstat (formerly Panelbase) published last night gave Labour its biggest lead in Scotland for a decade with 34 per cent of the vote to the SNP’s 29 per cent. 

Then there is tactical voting. In seats where Labour is the strongest challenger to the Conservatives, the party will be able to squeeze the Lib Dems and the Greens’ vote share. We’ve seen this repeatedly in by-elections in this parliament and we saw it in the London mayoral election where Sadiq Khan won 43.8 per cent of the vote (up four points) as the Greens’ share fell two points to 5.8 per cent. 

Labour is losing votes in some areas but there is no evidence that this will make a material difference at the general election. The Greens appear increasingly likely to win Bristol Central (as I wrote last month) having gained all council wards in the seat. But they are not yet a national force and are not competitive in any other Labour-held constituencies. 

Starmer’s party also lost two councils, Oldham and Kirkless in West Yorkshire, seats where the war in Gaza was a factor. But the notion that the general election will see a raft of Galloway-style independents or Workers Party candidates elected remains far-fetched. 

Labour’s confidence should not be confused with complacency: we live in an age of electoral volatility (as McSweeney regularly reminds the shadow cabinet). Swing voters can swing back. But there is no evidence that they are currently doing so. Instead, the election results, as much as the national polls, point to one conclusion: Labour is heading for a majority.

[See also: Mapped: The 2024 local election results]

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