Twelve short months ago, Boris Johnson’s Conservatives were riding a vaccine bounce, and high-spirited Tory commentators were speculating about another decade in office. Now it is Labour who are buoyant, as their poll numbers surge to record highs after a disastrous mini-budget from the new Truss administration unleashed economic and political turmoil. Some in Labour now dare to dream big. Could their party rebound from the worst performance in 80 years straight to a Commons majority?
Veterans counsel caution. Labour has been burned before. Ed Miliband’s opposition posted regular big poll leads during the coalition only for these to evaporate come polling day. But history never repeats itself exactly. Unless the economic weather changes fast, the next election will be fought in the wake of inflation, recession and home repossessions. The Conservatives’ ratings on economic management are already the worst in a generation, with much of the real pain still to come. When their reputation was last torched like this, by the ERM crisis, the next result was a Labour landslide. Time to start humming Things Can Only Get Better?
Perhaps not. Labour’s reputation is much improved, but it has not yet matched the extraordinary popularity of the New Labour peak. And, crucially, the electoral map today is much tougher than in 1997. Labour starts further behind, first past the post is a bigger obstacle, and once deep red Scotland is now a fortress for the SNP. Labour holds just over 200 seats and may suffer a net loss from boundary changes due before the next election. The party will need to match the 145 seats gained by Tony Blair in the 1997 landslide just to secure a slender majority. This massive task can be broken down into three parts.
The first is getting to power. Labour need a seven- to eight-point swing from the Tories to deliver the 80-plus gains needed to become the largest Commons party and, in all likelihood, form a government. A swing on this scale – larger than Cameron’s in 2010 or Thatcher’s in 1979 – will win back the bulk of the “red-wall” seats lost in 2019, deliver the lion’s share of traditional marginals, such as Ipswich and Milton Keynes, and put Labour over the top in a cluster of hitherto true blue, but strongly remain, seats such as Kensington, Chingford and Woodford Green, and Wycombe, which have been trending away from the Tories since 2015.
A minority Labour government would probably then emerge, but it would depend on SNP MPs’ support, or at least forbearance, in order to govern. To free themselves of SNP influence, Labour will need at least another 30 gains, while securing a Commons majority requires a further 30 on top of that. These next two tasks require breaking through in tougher territory.
If the SNP’s popularity leaves Scotland largely beyond reach, Labour have to take the election fight into deep blue parts of middle England where the party has not been competitive since the Blair landslides. Getting the 110 gains needed to govern without SNP support would require an English swing of more than 10 points, larger than Blair achieved in 1997, with 10,000-strong Tory majorities in seats such as Welwyn Hatfield and Stevenage overturned.
To secure an outright majority without Scotland would require swings of 14 points, a post-war record surpassing even Clement Attlee’s 1945 performance. A red tidal wave on this scale would return Labour MPs in places such as Chelsea and Fulham, Banbury and North Somerset, which have been true blue for generations.
A Scottish recovery makes everything easier. An eight-point swing from the SNP to Labour could deliver a dozen gains in Glasgow and the central belt, while a double-digit swing could take Scottish gains to 20 seats or more. A Scottish breakthrough would be doubly beneficial for Labour – lowering the bar for victory and making it easier to ignore SNP demands once in power.
But the necessities of Scottish and English politics pull Labour in opposite directions. Winning big in England requires Labour to reclaim the centre ground from an unpopular rightwing government; victory in Scotland requires reclaiming the progressive mantle from a popular centre-left incumbent. While Labour can try to tailor its message to different audiences, seeking to look radical in Scotland and reassuring in England risks appearing incoherent to everybody.
With the economy on the rocks and the Tories imploding, a cautious and conventional campaign can deliver Keir Starmer to Downing Street. The risk is he returns Labour to government as a minority, dependent on unreliable partners, unable to deliver major reform, and at risk of collapse in a crisis. Yet to govern with a majority, Labour will have to gamble, chasing landslide gains on the scale of Blair or Attlee in England, and overturning a generation of SNP dominance in Scotland. Soaring poll numbers encourage high hopes, but the brutal logic of a daunting electoral map remains: if Labour want to retake the Commons, they will have to bet the house.
Robert Ford is professor of political science at Manchester University and co-author of The British General Election of 2019