Who will win the next general election?
Paddy Ashdown once said only a lunatic tries to predict an election result. And he is, as on so many other issues, of course correct. But our clients, fellow consultant friends and readers want a little more from us than that. So let’s try and work out which general election we are really facing.
Conventional commentariat wisdom is that Labour is cruising to a resounding 1997 style victory. The REC team think that is unlikely. Why? Because the prevailing political weather bears little resemblance to 1997.
Start point – Looking back at 1997, Blair was starting with the good electoral inheritance that Kinnock had given him which was a party that had come close to winning power in 1992. But that isn’t Keir’s starting point at all. He is dealing with Jeremy Corbyn‘s 2019 catastrophic loss leaving Labour at a 1935 historic low point.
Polls – Tony Blair was miles ahead of the Tory party in 1997 and had been miles ahead for some time. Labour was then regularly well over 40% in the polls and for sustained periods. Right now, Labour has only been around 20+ points ahead for a little over a year while the Tories did their circular firing squad routine during partygate and the thankfully short lived Truss experiment. But Rishi Sunak has pulled things back now to within 15 points of Labour’s lead and counting.
Boundary review – The most recent boundary review has been kind to the Tories and more challenging for Labour. The rough reckoning is that this amounts to a gift to the Tories of something like 10-12 extra Parliamentary seats.
Scotland and Wales – We also must bear in mind that in every general election Labour has ever won it could always count on something like 40+ seats in Scotland and 30+ seats in Wales. These sorts of numbers simply have not existed for Labour for some time now. Currently Labour has one seat in Scotland and even if the SNP continues to implode over the coming months, the most optimistic scenario from Labour’s own projections is that they might manage to scrape together something like 20 Scottish seats.
England – So that means that the Labour Party must win the general election in England. More bad news. The last time Labour won England was at the general election in 2001, at the height of Blairism, ‘cool Britannia’ was in full cry and Oasis were spliffing out in the No 10 loos. The situation today is very different indeed.
Swing – The truly awful statistic that is haunting Labour is that they need a 12% swing in the polls to win just a one seat majority. Some important context: the largest swing in history was recorded by Tony Blair in 1997 at 10.2%. The second highest was Margaret Thatcher in 1983 at 5.5%.
So putting this altogether: those people who believe that Labour is on course to win a big election victory in 2024 are assuming this despite (a) Jeremy Corbyn’s 1935 low start point, (b) being around 70-90 seats down in Scotland and Wales, (c) having not won England since 2001, (d) with the Tories gifted around 10 seats in boundary changes and (e) Starmer needing to deliver a swing equivalent to all of Blair and half of Thatcher in only one electoral bound. If you believe all that, the REC team have a bridge to sell you. Put simply, as at May 2023, this is magical thinking. Unless…the Tories utterly implode. The only way Labour can realistically win a significant numerical victory at the next general election is if the Tory party completely and utterly implodes upon itself. And right now, that doesn’t look like it’s going to happen.
Ready reckoner – History shows us that that oppositions who win power are usually 2000+ councillor seats ahead of the governing party. Labour went into this local election around 1000 council seats behind the Tories. Even if they deliver the Tory party's spin of 1000 Tory seat losses, Labour will still be miles behind the normal benchmark.
So, if it’s not 1997, could it be 2010? That year the Tories squeaked over the line with the help of the Lib Dems, readers will recall. This is a more realistic scenario but has a few snags.
Starmer has, wisely, ruled out any form of deal with the SNP. Why is this wise? Because we all know there will only be one line item in that deal and if Labour ever gave into the SNP’s demand for a second referendum and the SNP won, Labour could probably kiss goodbye to ever forming a majority government ever again. Starmer may be many things, but he’s not dumb.
So his only meaningful ally could be the Lib Dems. But we’re not in 2010. Back then Nick Clegg had dragged the Lib Dems up to 23% in the polls which made them numerically relevant. Right now, languishing at 8-10% in the polls, the likelihood of the Lib Dems delivering Parliamentary seats at any scale which could help Labour into power seems a little remote. Moreover, the only way this could really work would be for Labour and the Lib Dems to do a pre-election deal standing down candidates against each other in numerous parliamentary constituencies to maximise their joint chances of winning. This is of course theoretically possible, but incredibly difficult to deliver in reality, as both sides supporters and MPs would rail against this to some considerable degree.
So right now, the REC team sees a very messy hung parliament as the most likely outcome.
But could it possibly be 1992? If we cast our minds back, we can recall that back then we had a much less popular Tory government almost written off by the commentariat. The electorate saw a decent guy in the form of John Major doing a reasonable job trying to deliver sensible government despite his party being a recent train wreck, having ousted Margaret Thatcher. Quite a parallel there with Rishi Sunak. But we also had a Labour party that seemed to all but assume it was going to be in government. Another similarity to right now. Despite Starmer’s attempts to pour cold water on his own side to keep them from complacency, the parallel is clear.
In 1992, we also had a not overly impressive Labour party manifesto, a bit too woolly and a bit too Lefty for our conservative (small c) electorate. The likelihood is that Starmer will deliver something similar. Which brings us to Starmer himself. It doesn’t matter how much you like the guy, the brutal polling facts are clear: the electorate hasn’t taken to him. His worthy but bland dullness, coupled to his flip-flopping around on almost every previous commitment again and again, has not set the voters alight with enthusiasm. And under the much more forensic media spotlight in the run up to any general election do any of us think Starmer will not rather fray at the edges?
So there is quite a significant similarity to 1992. And what was the result then? Against almost all predictions, John Major won a 21 seat majority. It is not completely inconceivable that Rishi Sunak could do the same, albeit that looks like quite a stretch right now.
As things stand in May 2023, it looks like the next general election will be a very messy affair potentially leading to a minority government with all the instability that brings and the likelihood of a second general election in quite short order. Let’s see how things progress over the coming year.