On his tour of the Sunday politics shows, David Lammy did two things: he claimed Labour is now on course for a “comfortable majority” at the next election and ruled out any deals with any other parties. David is one of the more thoughtful politicians in Labour’s shadow cabinet, he writes good books as well as reading them, but such pronouncements could come back to haunt him, the party and the country.
Let’s take the comfortable majority claim first. Yes, the Wakefield result was good. But it was not spectacular – only enough to put Labour on course for a very narrow outright win. Remember that this is the lowest of low midterm points for the Tories. Could there have been a worse time for them? With low turnouts and intense media focus around who is the best placed challenger, by-elections often spring back to the previous incumbent come the next election. Wakefield might not, but Labour has won by-elections like this midterm and seen them lost at the next general election – see Corby in 2012. If Labour was heading for a comfortable majority, it would be winning by much greater margins and racking big national opinion poll leads. Labour’s lead has been as little as three percentage points in recent polls.
Of course, we don’t know what’s round the corner. Boris Johnson might continue to be a catastrophe, in which case at some stage the Tories will replace him and then all bets are off. He might revive or it might be the Labour leader who goes over ‘beergate’? What matters in all this is the underlying political electoral position – which is that, despite everything, Labour is not yet close to comfortable majority status. Saying it is does not make it more likely, rather it enables you to temporary dodge difficult but imperative political decision – until that is, it’s too late.
But what of the other statement from Lammy – that there will be no deals? This is in Labours hands, but would this be a wise move? The first point is that there is clearly a deal between Keir Starmer and Ed Davey over by-elections – neither sides’ frontbenchers now campaign in places where the their party is not best placed to win. Labour left the Lib Dems a free run in Tiverton and Honiton, and the move was reciprocated in Wakefield. Implicit or explicit, there is a deal and everyone can see it. To deny it is to want your electoral cake and eat it, and look evasive.
Lammy went on to say Labour will fight for every vote in very seat at the next election. But it won’t. It will target its resources as ruthlessly as possible. The dragon the Shadow Foreign Secretary and the leader’s office are trying to slay is talk of pacts and coalitions. But those charges are real and will be made with force all the time Labour doesn’t have a 20% poll lead. If the outcome looks like a hung parliament then it is legitimate to claim that there will be a coalition of chaos if progressive party leaders behave in a chaotic way, deny the obvious and refuse to plan accordingly.
The Tories are setting a trap and Labour are running headlong towards it. What they fear is tactical voting that leads to a hung parliament, in which proportional representation (PR) is enacted. If this happens, then the game for the Conservatives is up. So, they are attacking now: Savid Javid was at it in The Mail on Saturday, to get Labour and the Lib Dems to deny doing what the Tories must fear they will do. And it is working, as Lammy’s intervention attests. Indeed, he seemed to even back away from his long term support for PR. It wont stop the Tory attacks.
What should Labour’s response be? First, be honest with itself. It is not in ‘comfortable majority’ territory. Labour needs a swing of 12% to win a majority of one, but there only needs to be 3.5% swing to progressive parties to deny the Tories a majority. Allowing the Lib Dems to just focus on the Tories in the 80 seats where they are the main challenger is not just electorally smart but politically acute as Labour doesn’t have to out-Tory the Tories on policy.
People are voting tactically now, on an industrial scale, to get the Tories out – which speaks volumes to the bankruptcy of the first-past-the-post system. To replicate such smart voting at a general election requires Labour to not say it is fighting for every vote in every seat. Doing so just lets the Tories through. It necessitates a dialogue with other progressive parties, like Labour did in 1997, to show that there is a broad anti-Tory agenda and majority. And that, if there is a hung parliament, there is an ability to make it work for the country.
Labour is doing better, but not well enough. The Tories are in a mess, but we can’t count on that continuing. Labour doesn’t need wishful thinking but a hard-headed plan to ensure the progressive majority in this country triumphs at the next election. Everything about tactical voting, tactical campaigning, shared policy agendas and how to run a hung parliament isn’t easy – but it is doable and it is what the Tories fear most. The alternative is to lose again.