Despite the promising poll lead, Labour’s path to election victory is daunting

Posted on October 2, 2022Comments Off on Despite the promising poll lead, Labour’s path to election victory is daunting

Twelve short months ago, Boris Johnson’s Conservatives were riding a vaccine high, and Tory commentators were speculating about another decade in office. Now it is Labour who are buoyant.

A disastrous mini-budget from the new Truss administration has unleashed economic and political turmoil, crashed confidence in the new government and sent Labour poll numbers skywards, as the Opinium poll published in the Observer today confirms. Some in Labour now dare to dream big. Could their party rebound from the worst performance in 80 years straight to a Commons majority?

Veterans counsel caution. During the coalition, leads for Ed Miliband’s opposition evaporated come polling day. But history never repeats itself exactly. Unless the economic weather changes fast, the next election will be fought in the wake of inflation, recession and home repossession. The Conservatives’ ratings on economic management are already the worst in a generation, with much of the real pain still to come. The last time they were so bad, after the ERM crisis, Labour won a landslide. Time to start humming Things Can Only Get Better?

Perhaps. But the opposition has not yet matched the popularity of the New Labour peak. And, crucially, the electoral map today is much tougher. Labour starts further behind, first past the post is a bigger obstacle, and once deep-red Scotland is a fortress for the SNP. Labour holds just over 200 seats and may suffer a net loss from upcoming boundary changes. It needs to match the 145 seats gained by Tony Blair in 1997 just to secure a slender majority.

The first job is getting to power. Labour needs a seven- to eight-point swing from the Conservatives to deliver the 80-plus gains needed to become the largest Commons party. A swing on this scale – larger than Thatcher’s in 1979 – will win back the bulk of the “red wall” seats lost in 2019, deliver the lion’s share of traditional marginals like Ipswich and Milton Keynes, plus a cluster of hitherto true blue, but strongly Remain seats such as Kensington, Chingford and Woodford Green, and Wycombe, which have been trending away from the Tories since 2015.

A minority Labour government could then emerge, but it would depend on SNP support. To free itself, Labour will need at least another 30 gains, and a further 30 on top of that for a Commons majority. These two objectives require breakthroughs in tougher territory.

If Scotland is beyond reach, Labour has to take the fight into deep-blue parts of middle England where the party has not been competitive since the Blair landslide. The 110 gains needed to govern without SNP support would require an English swing of over 10 points, larger than Blair achieved in 1997, with 10,000-strong Tory majorities in seats such as Welwyn Hatfield and Stevenage overturned. Securing an outright majority without Scotland would require swings of 14 points, surpassing even Clement Attlee’s 1945 performance. A red tidal wave on this scale would return Labour MPs in places such as Chelsea and Fulham, Banbury and North Somerset which have been true blue for generations.

A Scottish recovery would make everything easier. An eight-point swing from the SNP to Labour could deliver a dozen gains; a double-digit swing could take Scottish gains to 20 seats or more. A Scottish breakthrough would be doubly beneficial for Labour – lowering the bar for victory and making it easier to ignore SNP demands once in power. But winning big in England requires Labour to reclaim the centre ground from an unpopular right-wing government; victory in Scotland means reclaiming the progressive mantle from a popular centre-left incumbent. Seeking to look radical in Scotland and reassuring in England risks appearing incoherent.

A cautious, conventional campaign can deliver Keir Starmer to No 10. But he risks returning Labour to minority government, unable to deliver major reform. To govern with a majority, Labour will have to gamble, chasing landslide gains on the scale of Blair or Attlee in England, and overturning a generation of SNP dominance in Scotland.

Soaring poll numbers encourage high hopes, but the logic of a daunting electoral map remains: if Labour wants to retake the Commons, it will have to bet the house.

Robert Ford is a professor of politics at Manchester University

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