At the start of the year, Fabian Society research suggested that Labour was on track to win just 140 to 200 MPs at a future general election, whether it took place in 2017 or 2020. That would be the party’s worst result since the 1930s. Now, with the election called, it is the moment for Labour to prove that this gloomy forecast need not turn into fact.
The top end of our projection would equate to Labour losing around 40 MPs and reflects the party’s current performance in the opinion polls. The lower end could come about if Labour’s support were to decline between now and election day, as has happened in the past when mid-term polls have given false hope.
But these projections are only extrapolations of polls and past trends. In our new political age where precedent is no guide to the future, Labour’s task is to show that the history books are wrong again. Predictions are there to be disproved and the party must aim to gain not lose support.
In this Labour is likely to be aided by the worst kept secret of this election – its chances of beating the Tories are very low. This is not a criticism of Jeremy Corbyn, just a statement of the grim electoral maths. To win the 94 seats required to secure a majority of one, Labour needs a swing from the Conservatives of around 9 percent, almost twice as much as Ed Miliband had to gain in 2015. It is a feat only achieved by Tony Blair at the 1997 election.
Labour’s distance from power matters, because it will affect how people vote. Labour will say it is seeking office, but its job in this campaign is mainly to persuade people to vote for strong, principled opposition, not Corbyn as Prime Minister. If the party plays its cards right, it will be able to convince sympathisers and recent supporters that a vote for Labour is a check on the Tories, regardless of whether they would prefer Theresa May or Corbyn leading the country.
To neutralise the inevitable Tory attacks on the Labour leader, the party must present its opponent as the party that is truly divisive, ideological and extreme. Labour can point to a referendum and then an election held only for reasons of party management. It can show how the Conservatives offer families an increasingly insecure future even as they chase their 1950s fantasies of grammar schools and blue passports. And it can present Theresa May as a prime minister who rules only for people who voted Leave, not the country as a whole.
But to do this, the party will also need to square the circle on Brexit. Labour cannot be the party of Remain, because it respects the majorities that voted Leave in most Labour constituencies. In different parts of the country, large numbers of potential Labour voters back both leaving and remaining. The party therefore has no choice but to appeal to people who voted in both directions.
It should make a virtue of necessity and present itself as the only political force that can heal the wounds of Brexit and bring the nation together. Labour’s formula should be to say that the party accepts Brexit, but not Brexit at all costs. It should promise to oppose a cliff-edge hard Brexit, and hold open the possibility of a second referendum if necessary. This middle-way is a high stakes path – the Tories will be seeking to win every Leave vote in the Labour-Conservative marginals (expect Ukip to be squeezed). But Labour has no other choice that is true to its principles or stands any chance of keeping its broad electoral coalition together.
If Labour’s Brexit triangulation works, the party can survive unscathed in areas that voted both leave and remain. And its campaign will also open the nation’s eyes to the dangers of a “no deal” Brexit. No matter how Corbyn fares in the weeks ahead, Labour will have served Britain well if it succeeds in alerting voters to the dangers of hard Brexit and holding to account this divisive, destructive and over-mighty Conservative regime.