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14 September 2016

After boundary changes, Labour needs a 1997-style swing for a majority of one

The party's already-fraught path back to Downing Street has grown more treacherous after boundary changes.

By Stephen Bush

What do boundary changes mean for Labour’s chances of getting back into power next time?

Well, the short version is: it’s not good.

Although there will be small tweaks, it seems highly likely they will pass into law, as the changes were in the Conservative manifesto and will therefore cannot be vetoed by the House of Lords, so we now have a pretty good idea about what the House of Commons will notionally look like at the 2020 election (or indeed, at any election held after 2018): the Conservatives will have 320 seats, and Labour will have 204. (The Liberal Democrats will have four.)

To be the largest party, Labour will now need to take 59 seats from the Conservatives – up from 51 from before boundary changes, and up 32 from the 2010 election. To do that, Labour would need a six-point – half a point more than pre-boundaries – swing from Tory to Labour – bigger than the swings gained by David Cameron in 2010. (To put the scale of Labour’s task in perspective, that swing netted the Tories 97 seats.)

Nor is there an easier path back to power in Scotland, where boundary changes are announced  in October. Even pre-boundary changes, a six-point SNP-to-Labour swing would gain just two seats, East Renfrewshire and Edinburgh North and Leith.

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In 1997, a 10.3 per cent swing from Conservative to Labour yielded a Commons majority of 179. An equivalent swing now would produce a majority of just three. Indeed, Labour now needs a 10-point swing merely to get a majority of just one. Amber Valley, the staging-post on that metric, has a Conservative majority of over 10,000.

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To secure a majority of 10, Labour would need a swing greater than that of 1997 – 10.7 per cent – and to gain Amber Valley, Redditch, Loughborough and Rushcliffe South, Beckenham, West Staffordshire, Weaver Vale, Basingstoke, Filton and Bradley Stoke, and Stafford. All have majorities over 10,000, seven of them have never been won by Labour at any point in its history, not even in 1945 or 1997. All are Conservative-held.  

But the important thing to remember is that it highlights that while the 2015 election produced a relatively close result in terms of the Conservative majority, it left Labour with an uphill battle as far as winning back seats and power is concerned. Before boundary changes, I wrote that the 2015 election more closely resembled not 1992, when it took Labour just five years to return to power. It was far closer to 1983, when it took Labour 14 years to get back to office. And that, regrettably, might be the optimistic scenario.