Labour’s road to a UK majority runs through an English majority, as it has not done for a progressive party for more than a century. But the scale of the electoral challenge the party faces in England is daunting. Labour has won unambiguous victories in England in just four past elections, while the Conservatives have won 16 times since 1918. To win a small overall majority on a uniform swing requires a victory in the English popular vote on the scale as the party’s best ever result, 1997.
Labour’s strength in Scotland and Wales has buttressed the party for decades but the Scottish pillar collapsed in 2015 and the Welsh one has been eroded by gradual Conservative gains and the forthcoming boundary changes. A UK majority is now rather harder to win than an English majority, and an English progressive alliance an easier and more workable proposition than a UK-wide version, given the new English dimension to legislation.
It is far from obvious where the English recruits Labour needs for victory are to come from. The Lib Dem and Green votes from 2015 are very little help, and winning over a significant chunk of any of the three that might make a big difference (UKIP, floating voters who chose the Tories in 2015, people who abstained in 2015) without alienating another block of votes is a challenge with which Labour needs to grapple as quickly as possible.
For Labour to win an overall English majority requires 61 English gains. The 61st seat on Labour’s English target list is Gloucester, where the Conservatives gained the seat in 2010 and held it with an increased majority of 7,251 (13.8 per cent) in 2015. Winning Gloucester for Labour requires a swing of just below 7 per cent, and if that swing were uniform across England that translates into an English Labour popular vote lead of about 4.5 per cent.
Winning an English majority is still somewhat easier than winning a UK majority, unless one makes the foolish assumption that the SNP’s position will suddenly collapse. To win in England requires 267 seats (250 under the new boundaries). Assuming Wales swings similarly to England, this means a Labour parliamentary party of around 296 seats currently (270-ish under new boundaries), 30 short of an overall majority. Those either have to come from the SNP or from running up big gains against the Conservatives including some seats Labour has never won before: Basingstoke, Portsmouth South and Canterbury. The swing required is not far short of 10 per cent, requiring a Labour lead in England a bit larger than the party managed in 1997, just to gain a bare overall majority.
The forthcoming boundary changes will make England all the more important to Labour, as Wales suffers a severe reduction in its parliamentary representation (from 40 to around 29-30. The boundary changes will also put the targets a little further away, raising the Conservative majority in 2015 from 11 in reality to somewhere between 23 and 41 on a ‘notional’ basis in a smaller 600-seat parliament.
The shorter route to a Labour government of some sort is co-operation with the SNP and other parties. The Conservatives are short of potential partners in a hung parliament who might sustain a minority or coalition government, so in theory they could be displaced by a broad alliance of opposition parties. Part of the problem is that Labour would have to learn how to manage the inevitable Conservative campaign attack that the choice is between them and a chaotic arrangement in which Scotland bled England dry, which seems to have been a productive argument for them in 2015. Given the new political map, the Tories can repeat this argument more or less ad infinitum.
An additional problem of this sort of broad government is that its writ would not necessarily run in England. On 22 October 2015 the Commons voted for “English Votes for English Laws” (EVEL for short). This was accomplished by a parliamentary resolution rather than statute law. This would mean that English MPs would have a veto over Bills that were ruled by the Speaker as being England-only (with analogous rules for subjects which are, for instance, devolved in Scotland but not in Wales).
While EVEL does not – short of a scenario where Scotland flips back to Labour – make Labour overall majorities less workable, it will mean that a Labour government in a hung parliament will have trouble with its domestic agenda. A Conservative majority of seats in England would be able to exercise a veto (even if it did not reflect a majority of English votes cast in an election) over parts of the programme of a Labour minority government working with the SNP, but be unable to put its own programme into law because the Conservatives could not get a majority for it in the all-UK Commons. This might be possible in a political culture where parties are accustomed to ‘cohabitation’ but there is little sign that Britain could develop a way of handling it.
As long as the current form of EVEL lasts, it is quite likely that the alternative to Conservative rule at UK level is gridlock (which given the extended form of devolution in Scotland may soon start to extend to financial issues). While Labour should aim to get rid of the Conservatives’ unilaterally imposed and scarcely workable version of EVEL, there is a practical necessity for some sort of English dimension to the legislative process. There is value, particularly in amending EVEL, in obtaining an English majority either for Labour alone or for the progressive side generally.
For a wider ‘progressive’ English majority including Greens and Lib Dems the requirement is 50 Labour gains from Conservative – assuming the Lib Dems hold their seats and win four more. Seat number 50, South Ribble, requires a 5.7 per cent swing and therefore a 2-point Labour lead in England (maybe more after boundary changes). While more achievable, it is worth noting that the only election since 1945 to have seen this size of major party swing was 1997.
In the last up-cycle of Labour support in 1987-97 there was a clear pattern in which Labour did better in the marginal seats in 1992 by attracting converts and tactical votes from the defunct Alliance (particularly its SDP element) and also benefited from a tactical distribution of swing between Labour and Lib Dem in 1997. Tactical voting can make the arithmetic of uniform swing less daunting.
However, there are very few Lib Dems left – and those that are will tend to be either unlikely to go Labour (because they are party loyalists, or liked the coalition), or would have a perverse effect on Labour’s prospects of government because they would detract from the Lib Dems’ ability to defeat the Conservatives.
One tempting pool of support given current political circumstances is the 4.2 per cent vote for the Greens in 2015. But this is a mirage; the highest Green votes were mostly in constituencies which are already safe Labour. Even if all Greens switched to Labour, it would tip only 8 seats. The problem, to a lesser extent, also applies to mobilising previous non-voters who are more numerous, and probably more susceptible, in existing Labour seats.
UKIP may seem to be a loose tribe, united mostly by negativity and discontent, but populist anti-immigration parties have become a standard feature of European politics and there is no reason why it should not be a lasting phenomenon in England (and Wales). Bidding for former UKIP voters is likely to help Labour more than fishing for Greens or Lib Dems, but it may be difficult for Labour to offer them what they want, or convince them that Labour can deliver. It is worth noting that it required quite a big move from Labour towards Alliance voters’ positions in the Policy Review to generate tactical votes – though not quite enough of them – in 1992.
Although it is worth looking at how the oppositional energies of UKIP supporters can be channelled towards Labour, the two big categories are those electors who either did not vote in 2015, or voted Conservative on ‘valence’ issues of leadership and economic management. Winning either or both groups (without causing a counter-movement in which Labour loses more core voters, or the Conservatives mobilise their own previous non-voters in fear of Labour winning as they did in 1992) seems an unavoidable necessity. Nobody said it would be easy.
This article is part of a series about how Labour should respond to the particular electoral, social and political challenges of England coordinated by John Denham, Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University.