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The dark cloud on Labour’s horizon: total wipeout

February 25th, 2017

Just where is Labour’s floor for 2020?

One of the best political tips of the 2015 general election was to back Labour for 0-5 seats in Scotland. When William Hill first put the market up – after the independence referendum – they marked that outcome at no less than 125/1. (I apologise for not being able to namecheck the PBer who tipped the bet; I forget who it was.)

That price was a testament to the inertia of thinking as much as the inertia of politics but those who snapped up the long odds were handsomely rewarded. Those who didn’t presumably believed that such voting revolutions could not occur so quickly, ignoring that in fact it already had done. After the Scotland experience and the Copeland result, the question has to be ‘could it happen in England and Wales too?’.

The simple answer is ‘yes, it could’, though of course that doesn’t mean it will. Indeed, the crucial supplementary is ‘and if so, what are the chances?’.

Even so, the rate at which Labour is testing the capability of political commentators to find historic precedents for polling or electoral phenomena is a good indicator of the state of the party. Who would have thought that the Worcester by-election of 1878 would achieve such a renewed prominence?

One factor that makes Copeland (and Stoke) particularly significant is that they validate the opinion polls. These have been returning figures out of line with local by-elections, where the Tories have been doing a good deal worse and the Lib Dems a good deal better. We can now say with a little more confidence that for Westminster, the polling seems the more reliable.

And that polling has been dire for Labour. Close to two years after the last election, the Conservatives have a lead in at least the mid-teens, possibly the high-teens. Only the Blair 1997-2001 parliament is remotely comparable (and of course, that ended in a second landslide). Worse, since April last year – when they averaged about 32% – Labour has lost a steady half-point a month.

Projection is not prediction and we can’t assume that trend will continue but if there’s one thing that the local by-elections do prove it’s that the Lib Dems are no longer toxic. With Farron’s party still only on about 10%, there’s plenty more potential for Labour defectors. As it is, Labour is within touching distance of a post-WWII low in opposition and, though there are no polls from before the war, it’s probable that the 1983 low was the party’s worst in opposition since at least 1915*.

But there has to be a natural floor, doesn’t there? All else being equal, yes, there does. Labour has several firewalls: in London, in parts of Greater Manchester / Merseyside and in former mining or other heavy industrial areas of Yorkshire, the North East and Wales.

However, two spectral presences should stalk Labour minds. The first is 1981-3. The prospect of a formal split has receded in recent months as Corbyn’s leadership falters, his activist supporters have proven paper tigers in anything other than leadership elections and worries of mass deselections have diminished as moderates wait for the chance to go on the attack. Even so, if the left could rejuvenate, perhaps under a new leader, the risk of a formal split would once again become real. Similarly, if the Lib Dems started polling at or near Labour levels, some MPs might wonder whether the bigger risk would be to stay or to jump.

And the second, returning to the beginning, is Scotland 2015. As yet, there’s no party which could do an SNP: make wholesale inroads into the Labour vote and win 20%+ swings across the country. But maybe there doesn’t need to be. Even though UKIP fluffed their chance in Stoke on Thursday, their average national share has edged up over the last three months. The Lib Dems too are on the up. The risk is that rather than being swamped in a one-party tsunami, Labour’s coalition might just dissolve slowly but continually at the edges in all directions. There is no reason to assume that the 2020s could not be unlike what the 1920s would have been had Lloyd George and Asquith not behaved like a pair of squabbling children: a large conservative party, a large liberal one and a smaller, marginalised left-wing socialist party.

You would expect the natural checks in the system to prevent such an outcome. There are good incentives for MPs and activists to use the tools at their disposal to deliver the changes necessary to prevent disaster. However, those tools were ineffective when tried last year. Perhaps it will be second time lucky. Or perhaps Corbyn will get his act together and finally strike a chord with the public, or perhaps he’ll stand down voluntarily. If so, the country will gain an opposition again. Or perhaps not.

Inertia is a powerful anti-force in politics (as in life). Labour has huge built-in advantages that should enable it to survive the odd crisis. That said, Rome once had even bigger built-in advantages and look what civil war and self-indulgence did there. Nothing is forever.

David Herdson

p.s. I ought to apologise for anyone misled by my piece on Monday, where I tipped Labour to hold on in Copeland after my visit there last weekend. As was noted in the comments, I didn’t have chance to visit the inland parts of the constituency, which in retrospect were more staunchly Tory than I’d anticipated. Also, the final Labour leaflets on the NHS were so hard-hitting that they may have proven counterproductive; voters have a sense of fair play.

* Despite their cataclysmic result in 1931, when the National government won a majority of almost 500 and Labour was reduced to just 52 MPs, they actually polled reasonably well, winning over 30% of the vote. As they gained by-elections fairly steadily through the 1930s, it’s unlikely they dipped below that level afterwards. Much the same can be said for the 1920s: Labour polled 30%+ from 1922 on, and made gains in opposition, indicating that they would have polled higher in the interim had polls been taken. As Labour supplied ministers during the coalitions from 1915-22, we probably have to go back to at least 1915 for when Labour last polled below 23% in opposition. The one possible exception would be after the formation to the national government in 1931, when MacDonald ratted on his party. In that confused period and with Labour divided and in disarray, it’s not unreasonable to think that some very low scores might have been recorded. Unfortunately, no contested by-election occurred between the formation of the National government and the 1931 election, so we’ll never know.