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Heading for Labour minority government?

October 1st, 2019

At the time of writing, the Betfair odds for a Labour minority government after the expected election are 3.5 (7-2). After the Tory conference there should be a further Tory bounce, making the odds perhaps 3-1. This is, I think, too long. Here’s why.

It’s generally expected and evidenced by numerous polls that the Conservatives will lose seats in Scotland to the SNP and to the Lib Dems in the south. They hope that these losses will be compensated for by gains from Labour seats in the north of England.

We heard this theory in the last election, epitomised by the “Bolsover strategy”, holding that even the famous Beast’s seat was in reach. What happened? The Tories did indeed gain 16 percentage points in Bolsover, though entirely at the expense of UKIP; Labour’s share was completely unchanged. The Labour vote in the north is famously sticky when it comes to polling day. While UKIP was a busted flush in 2017, the Brexit Party seems to be maintaining a significant chunk of the populist Leaver vote, so it’s not obvious where the Tory gains in the north will come from.

A more plausible-looking target might be Lab/Con marginals in other parts of England and Wales, not because the Conservatives expect to gain votes but because the LibDems are making significant inroads into the Remainer Labour vote. If the Conservatives hold most of their votes while Labour drops by 10 percentage points, lots of Labour seats will go Tory.

It’s true that a recent PB header noted that a third of Lib Dem voters would support Labour if they were the obvious alternative to the Tories, but tactical voting is difficult in Tory seats, since both Labour and LibDems will routinely claim to be the main challengers. For example, in Uxbridge Labour got 40% to Boris Johnson’s 50%, but that isn’t stopping the Lib Dem candidate (based on a share last time of 4%) from claiming to be the main challenger.

However, while voters may be confused in Tory seats, they can’t really be confused in Labour-held seats – if you currently have a Labour MP, he or she is almost certainly the main alternative to the Tories (often with a first term incumbency bonus too). So I expect differential tactical voting – many Labour voters going Lib Dem in southern Tory seats, some Lib Dems supporting sitting Labour MPs, and confusion in other Tory marginals. 

Labour’s strategy should therefore focus on defence. A seat like Portsmouth South (Lab 41%, Con 38%, Lib Dem 17%) is the sort of place to worry about – LibDems strong enough to make a serious effort, but not strong enough to do more than split the non-Tory vote. The more aggressive the Tory campaign, the better for Labour defence – as a floating Labour-leaning Remainer, you might be tempted to stray if you were only risking some Major-style centrist Tory government, but if the alternative is the Johnson/Cummings rampage and you have a sensible Labour MP, probably not.

But might Lib Dem tactical voters go Tory instead? A few months ago, perhaps – but Johnson’s confrontational strategy has made that relatively unlikely. The Tories are clearly trying to squeeze the Brexit Party; it’s frankly hard to gain Lib Dem votes in the same breath.

Why would this deliver a minority Labour government? Well, it’s very unlikely that we’ll see a majority Labour government, and the Conservatives merely have to lose a couple of dozen seats to be  underwater, even after those frightful leftists like Philip Hammond and Amber Rudd are replaced by loyalists. But haven’t the LibDems promised not to enter coalition with Labour under Corbyn? Yes – but they are silent on Confidence and Supply. Ask them, and they say airily “We’re aiming to win outright”. (Do they have the organisation to win 326 seats? No.)

And again as a result of Johnson’s scorched earth assault, it’s very hard to see them offering C&S to Boris Johnson – while pre-2015 memories are starting to fade, most LibDems who I know feel they’ve had enough Conservative pacts for this decade, thanks. Moreover, the Brexit policy of a current Conservative-Lib Dem arrangement would be an artistic creation worthy of Hieronymus Bosch.

By contrast, a Labour promise of a referendum on Brexit with a Remain option that is likely to win is quite appealing for LibDems – not as good as Revoke, but not a total contradiction. The notably cooperative meetings of all the non-DUP opposition parties in recent weeks are a significant straw in the wind.

History abounds with strange bedfellows, and Corbyn/Swinson/Sturgeon must be up there among the most exotic. I doubt if it would last very long – long enough to see Brexit settled, and not very much more – but this is a betting forum. That 7-2 is about the first government after the election. It looks tasty.

Oh, and if you aren’t sure, you can also lay Corbyn as next PM at 3.1 and put a small saver on Labour overall majority at 11. You then only lose if Labour is not a majority or minority government yet Corbyn is somehow PM anyway. I wouldn’t worry about that.

Nick Palmer

Nick Palmer was MP for Broxtowe from 1997-2010 and has been contributing to PB since 2004