Tanking Conservative poll ratings and a solid – if unremarkable – performance from Labour in recent months have both contributed to a sense that the next election is Keir Starmer’s to lose.
The wind, if popular wisdom is to be believed, has changed: just over three years ago, Jeremy Corbyn led Labour to its worst defeat since 1935; today, under Keir Starmer, the party looks set to win its first election in nearly 20 years.
Crucially, for the first time in Starmer’s leadership, the public now thinks a Labour majority is the most likely outcome of the next general election, according to polling from YouGov.
Starmer seems to believe it as well – he’s visibly more confident in public and has begun to assuredly set out a vision of what the next Labour government could look like.
His newfound assertiveness does seem to be backed up by the numbers too – Labour’s lead appears to have stabilised in the mid 20s, with one model translating this into a staggering 507 seats.
But while such soaring levels of support might seem unassailable, there’s no guarantee they’ll hold up for the next 18 months, much less withstand the unavoidable squeeze of an election campaign.
And even if Labour manages to cling on to its poll lead, the path to victory under first past the post is winding and fraught with difficulty.
Thanks to our crooked and outdated electoral system, winning the popular vote is not enough to guarantee Labour a majority – or that they’ll even be the largest party. And with several smaller parties now jostling for space in the straitjacket of our two-party system, any election has the potential to throw up unexpected results.
While the polls do give obvious cause for optimism, there is, as Starmer himself keeps warning, no room for complacency. He must recognise that the key to a progressive win lies in pluralism, alliances and support for proportional representation – without them, his victory is far from guaranteed.
Below are six reasons why Labour can’t rely on winning alone, and why without progressive cooperation the next general election might return a hung parliament in place of a Labour victory – or worse.
THE SWING LABOUR NEEDS
Evidence shows First Past the Post produces unrepresentative results and, in recent years, has skewed elections towards the Conservatives Because the current Conservative voting coalition is currently more efficiently distributed across the country than Labour’s, our electoral system makes it easier for the current government to win a majority.
Labour needs an election day advantage of around 12% just to gain a majority of one, while the Conservatives with a 12% lead win a majority of over 100.
This means Labour needs to achieve a huge national swing bigger than either 1945 or 1997 to gain an unprecedented 120 seats – a huge undertaking.
The Boundary Commission has made changes to constituencies across the UK to equalise the number of votes in each seat and is due to report its final recommendations for the 2023 Boundary Review in July this year.
Boundaries are subject to regular review and there has been input from political parties, but opposition parties are rightly watchful for any signs of gerrymandering.
There’s no two ways about it – the new boundaries are bad news for Labour.
As established above, First Past the Post already advantages the Conservatives, but these changes are set to twist things even further in their favour.
Had the 2019 election taken place under the proposed new boundaries, the Conservatives would have gained 6 more seats – 3 from Labour, 1 from the Lib Dems and 2 from Plaid.
These boundary changes have an even larger impact when overlaid on previous election results, with 9 extra seats for the Conservatives in 2017, 15 in 2015 and 12 in 2010.
Under the new boundaries, Labour will have more marginal constituencies, while the Conservatives will have fewer, which means Labour will need an even larger swing to oust the Conservatives and win a majority.
New rules coming into place this year will require people across England to show photo ID when voting at local and national elections.
There are concerns that those without ID, who are more likely to come from disproportionately marginalised communities and groups in society that are more democratically disengaged such as young people, will be disenfranchised by these new regulations.
These people are also more likely to be Labour voters, so many anticipate this will have a net negative impact on the Labour vote – another win for the Conservatives
Many seat projections based on current polling do not factor in the large number of still-undecided voters.
Analysis of these key voters from campaign group Best for Britain has revealed that the bulk of them are likely to be timid Conservatives, due to their age and education profile.
Areas that now have a large number of undecided voters – termed the ‘wavering wall’ by BfB – also previously had a large Conservative vote, suggesting these voters have only recently turned away from the Conservatives.
They may be undecided for now, but they won’t stay that way: 85% of them say they will vote in the next general election.
Given their demographic makeup, it’s possible they will swing back to the Conservatives, which would slash Labour’s seat count and make a hung parliament even more likely.
LACK OF ENTHUSIASM FOR LABOUR
While Rishi Sunak’s personal poll ratings have tanked over the last few weeks amid further sleaze allegations for his party, there isn’t a lot of evidence that the public is particularly enthusiastic in its support for Labour.
This suggests any upturn in support for the government could be decisive.
The PM’s ratings are poor, with 55% dissatisfied with his performance and just 26% satisfied, a poll from Ipsos Mori found last week.
However, Starmer still has a net negative approval rating, with 37% satisfied and 40% dissatisfied.
Polling from Compass in December revealed Labour’s lead is soft and built on shaky foundations.
63% of those polled said Labour’s current poll lead is mostly about anti-government sentiment rather than enthusiastic support for the opposition – meanwhile, just 11% said Labour lead is based on support for the party itself.
GOVERNMENTS TEND TO RECOVER GROUND AT ELECTIONS
We’re currently at mid-term, and still likely at least a year away from the next general election (possibly even two).
Things have been bad – very bad – for the government over the last year or so, but there are some signs in the polling that we’ve already passed the nadir of their unpopularity.
Invariably, governments recoup ground as a general election approaches, and if the Conservatives focus on merely preventing things from getting any worse, they may be able to successfully claim this as competence against global factors.
Reform UK are currently polling in the double digits, according to some organisations, but many of these voters are likely to return to the Conservatives during the squeeze of an election campaign.
Remember – in June 2019 the Conservatives won 9% of the national vote in the European Parliament elections, but six months later they won a landslide at the general election.
The Conservative Party is a brutal election-winning machine and arguably the world’s most successful political party, so there’s every reason to suspect they’ll do better in a general election than current polling suggests.