Whatever move Labour makes on Brexit, it will lose seats

Because the party doesn’t really know what to do, it kicks it down the road and hopes for the best.

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No matter what Labour decides to do with regard to a second referendum next week, as things stand it will lose seats. Any party that loses half its vote share in little over six months shouldn’t expect to have any target seats, just defensive positions.

Assumption 1: All things being equal, the current polling position stays where it is. It could all change next week. Anyone care to predict? No, neither do I. I can only work from what’s in front of me and calculate from there. If things change, I’ll change, always trying to stay ahead of the change.

If Labour chooses to advocate for a second referendum and/or campaign to Remain it a) loses any semblance of neutrality and b) opens its flank up to attacks from the Brexit Party and the Conservatives. As things stand (see Assumption 1) that means it will lose seats to the Brexit Party whilst heading off some of the losses it may have incurred by activating its more recent recruits from the Lib Dems and Greens.

This, in practical terms, means it has a better chance of holding on to seats in London, Bristol, Brighton, etc, which are currently projected to fall to the Lib Dems but will lose seats like Bassetlaw, Keighley, Heywood and Middleton, Chesterfield, Stoke Central, Lincoln, etc. to the Brexit Party. On current polling it would lose 25 seats to the Lib Dems, around 65 the Brexit Party and less than ten to the Conservatives. If it advocated for a second referendum it would improve its chances in the seats it would have lost to the Lib Dems – but the sixty or seventy seats it loses to the Brexit Party or Conservatives may increase further (again, see Assumption 1).

Assumption 2: If Labour chooses to advocate for a second referendum and Remain, it will have a messenger in Jeremy Corbyn with about the worst approval ratings in living memory. Appending a difficult message to such a messenger is problematic.

Should we assume people will swallow what he and Labour say? Particularly given that they have had two years of triangulation and constructive ambiguity. Worse still, what if they see it as a selfish move simply to win votes? Will it work? The jury’s out, but it’s not clear to me – yet – that people will a) be listening to what he says, b) believe it and c) respond in the ways that Labour would like.

If the party chooses to advocate for Brexit and a deal, it again loses its neutrality but this time in a different direction. At that point, it opens up its flanks to advances from the Lib Dems but also the party turns its face against Welsh and Scottish Labour, both of whom have very different positions. However, it will hope to fend off challenges from the Conservatives or Brexit Party in its traditional heartlands in the north and parts of the Midlands. It will lose those seats in London, Bristol, Brighton, Reading, Leeds, Canterbury, Sheffield to the Lib Dems as things stand, but lose fewer seats to the Brexit Party or Conservatives.

If the party chooses to do nothing and continues to triangulate, it should also expect to lose seats. On current projections (Assumption 1 again), I have them losing around 100 seats if things stay as they are. Doing Nothing is Labour’s very own No Deal strategy. Because it doesn’t really know what to do, it kicks it down the road and hopes for the best, all the while making vague noises to appease whichever flank it needs to keep on side.

But Doing Nothing, like No Deal, isn’t a neutral option. It also loses the party seats. Mostly to the Brexit Party, but also to the Lib Dems and Conservatives.

So, in summary, as things stand (and they could change), the party is losing seats no matter what it decides to do. And even if it does decide to do something, there aren’t any guarantees it will be believed.

However, it’s not all doom and gloom. Well, actually it is – but there are ways in which the party can make something work.

Firstly, it’s important to come to peace with the fact that a four-party split means a lot of seats will be won with around 30 per cent of the vote at the next election. In each seat, parties will need to calibrate how many voters it needs to get to the 30 per cent mark. That means that the advantage goes to those parties with the machinery to a) identify that thirty per cent and b) get it out to vote.

Peterborough demonstrated, again, that Labour is miles ahead of the other parties in being able to do just that. The party simply has the most up-to-date and extensive voter ID database, and by some distance (the party has the 2010–2015 campaign team to thank for that). I’m sceptical about the impact of ground campaigns ordinarily, but in this context they become a very real advantage.

Second, under our assumptions (and again, I do have to say this could all change) there is no party currently on track to achieve a majority in the House after the next election. What that means in practice is that parties can and will lose seats from their 2017 base, but would still be granted permission to form a government if they have largest party status.

In a four-party system with SNP strength unlikely to change markedly, the next election is a race to be largest party, not the traditional horse race to win a majority. If that is the case, then Labour can lose seats and still form a government.

Not that it would want to, of course. However, it can choose which seats it wants to defend, on the understanding that it has a number in mind if it wants to be given permission to form a government. Importantly, it can live with the choices it makes on the assumption that the seats it loses fall to prospective coalition partners. All of which may seem a very negative approach. But, remember, Labour has lost half its vote share in six months, meaning the strategy changes accordingly.

Which brings me on to a final point. On current polling, the very definition of a target seat has changed utterly. Labour, like the Conservatives, doesn’t have target seats it can “gain”: it only has defensive seats.

And those seats with majorities of less than say 2,000 from 2017? Well, they’re not marginals any more as things stand. In 2015, Labour had a list of “defence” seats it need to resource against the advances of UKIP. This time, it would be wise to resource the seats it can defend with majorities less than say 10,000. That’s an arbitrary figure of course, but you get the point. A managed retreat is preferable to sending in resource and manpower to defend seats it can’t hope to hold without significant losses.

Not that such a decision is easy. It would invoke a vigorous argument within Labour, I can tell you. But this is where the party finds itself. At 20 per cent in the polls, you’re required to pick your fights and the unions, for all their noises to the contrary, won’t throw good money after bad.

One final, final point. On current projections, there isn’t an obvious majority for either Leave or Remain coalitions after the next election. The seat dynamics mean the parties can take seats off each other, but we end up with fractious coalitions and a stubborn rump of 30 or so backbenchers from both Leave and Remain positions which frustrate any one side’s hopes of gaining ascendancy. And with that cheery conclusion, I end.

Note: It could all change.

Ian Warren is a co-founder of the Centre for Towns and the director of Election Data. This article previously appeared on Medium.