In the aftermath of its 2019 defeat, Labour confronted an electoral Everest. To win a majority of one, it was often said, the party would need a uniform swing larger than that achieved by Tony Blair in 1997 (10.2 per cent).
At least according to one definition this remains the case. A recent academic analysis of the new constituency boundaries for the BBC suggested that Labour would require a record swing of 12.7 per cent to win a Commons majority.
Yet there are good reasons to believe that the party’s path to victory could be less fraught. To start, focusing on the Tory to Labour swing ignores the descent of the SNP. In Scotland, Labour is now hopeful of winning 20-25 seats (up from just two at present).
New polling by YouGov for the Fabian Society also bodes well for the party. While Labour leads the Conservatives by 24 points nationally, it has an even bigger lead of 34 points in the 150 marginal seats that it needs to win for a stable majority. In other words, Labour is gaining votes where it matters most.
The party’s strategists regard the increased efficiency of Labour’s vote as a crucial sign of progress. 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. Labour has twinned “non-battleground” seats with battleground ones and is using detailed data to determine which receive the most resources.
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.”
The recent YouGov/Telegraph poll that so spooked the Conservatives demonstrated how Labour’s vote has become better distributed. It showed Labour achieving a swing of 13 per cent but winning a majority of 120 seats (as opposed to merely one). To understand the next election, focus less on uniform swing – the traditional method beloved of pollsters – and more on proportional swing.
By doing disproportionately well in target constituencies, Labour will gain more seats than its raw vote would suggest. The pollster Matt Singh estimates that Labour would need a lead of just one to two points to be the largest party and seven-eight points for an overall majority. Similarly, the concentration of the Liberal Democrat vote in southern Blue Wall constituencies means the party is likely to outperform its vote share. In 2010, the Lib Dems won 23 per cent of the vote but just 57 seats. The recent YouGov poll has them winning almost as many seats (48) with only 12.5 per cent of the vote.
Anti-Tory tactical voting is another factor inflating Labour and the Lib Dems’ potential gains. In the ten seats the Conservatives have defended in by-elections since 2019, voters have usually rallied behind the most viable anti-Tory challenger, whether Labour or Lib Dem.
While the YouGov poll sought to account for tactical voting it is unlikely to reflect its true potential. It found just two seats where the Tories’ vote exceeds the combined Labour/Liberal Dem/Green share. Once subjected to “squeeze” messaging – “only Labour can beat the Tories here” – voters are likely to behave differently.
If just a third of Labour/Lib Dem/Green voters in England and Wales vote tactically for the best-placed party, Labour would gain an extra 78 seats (taking it to 463) and the Lib Dems would gain an extra 22. The Conservatives, meanwhile, would be left with a mere 69 seats. It’s for reasons such as this that some Tory MPs are asking not whether it is 1997 but whether it is 1993: when the Canadian Conservatives were reduced from 154 seats to just two. (A rival right-wing party – named Reform – won 52.)
First-past-the-post is often a good friend for winning parties but it can be a terrible enemy for losing ones. While there is no limit to how far a party can rise, there is also no limit to how far it can fall. In 2015, the Lib Dems were left with just eight seats; Scottish Labour was left with just one (despite winning 24 per cent of the vote).
At that election, an unusually favourable map allowed the Tories to win a majority with just 36.8 per cent of the vote. Now, at every turn, they confront a perilous electoral landscape: a Labour recovery in the Red Wall, a Lib Dem recovery in the Blue Wall, a sea of anti-Tory tactical voters.
Labour’s path to victory has eased – and so has the Conservatives’ path to apocalypse.
[See also: Michael Gove’s £30bn trap for Labour]