“A win is a win”.
On the cusp of the football World Cup, these words, favourites of former England coach Sven Goran Eriksson, should be repeated by Labour supporters and strategists every day from now to the general election.
There are many who believe winning at the polls in 2015- becoming the largest party in parliament- is not enough for Labour. We need to strive for something greater, they say. We need a strong mandate to govern, a programme for reform backed by a clear majority of the electorate. They conveniently forget that even Tony Blair’s 1997 landslide was secured by barely 30% of all eligible voters (13.5 million out of 43.7 million).
When it comes to football, I’m a Chelsea fan. The team is famed for grinding out boring results, 1-0 snorefests, but they’ve won 13 pieces of silverware in 10 years. Neutral parties (and even some of the fans themselves) bemoan the lack of invention evident in some of the team’s performances. For them, it is not enough for Chelsea to win. They have to win in style.
The same attitude applies to the doom merchants gleefully spinning out stories on how inevitable Ed Miliband’s defeat is come 2015. The party lacks pop, the leader lacks sex appeal, and there’s no way Labour can win with the polls so tight this close to a national election, they say.
In response, I say that not only can we win in 2015, but it remains very likely that we will win, even taking on board current trends. Why? Three reasons:
1) The electoral math: When it comes to national elections, the odds are stacked in Labour’s favour. Thanks to the distribution of seats across the UK and the quirks of the first-past-the-post voting system, Labour can lose the popular vote but still return the most MPs to parliament. As George Eaton at The Staggers blog explains, on a uniform swing with the Tories winning 34% of all votes cast and Labour 32%, Labour would become the largest party, with 307 seats to the Tories’ 293. Yes, Labour wants an outright majority both in the popular vote and in number of MPs, but the required margin for a technical victory is much narrower than some expected.
2) Voting intention: Voters are a fickle bunch. Some days they’ll vote out of principle, on others they’ll vote out of spite. What this means in practice is that you cannot say with any certainty whether someone who voted Conservative, UKIP, or Liberal Democrat last time round will do so again. UKIP spanked Labour (and the other established parties) in the European elections. However, only 51% of those who voted for Farage and co last week intend to do so at the general election. In fact, 10% of them say they will vote Labour! As Peter Kellner of YouGov enumerates, 7 million have switched their voting preference since 2010. However, Labour retains the most loyal support base, suggesting the party’s recorded vote share is stickier than its opponents. Only 64% of Tory voters and a pathetic 27% of Liberal Democrat voters in 2010 would vote the same way today, compared to 74% of Labour voters.
3) Cameron’s majority woes: In only three elections in the last 100 years has the governing party increased their vote share in subsequent elections. Anthony Eden’s Conservatives in 1955 boosted Churchill’s 1951 return by 1.7%, while Harold Wilson and Labour managed it twice, increasing their share by 3.9% in 1966 and in October 1974 by 2%. In no other elections have sitting Prime Ministers- even popular ones like Thatcher or Blair- been able to increase their initial majority. This is bad news for Cameron and the Conservatives, considering they need to grow their own vote share to keep their current number of seats, let alone an actual overall majority.
These facts suggest Labour will still win on current projections. Yes, the polls could tighten even further between now and then. Yes, to win with the barest majority wouldn’t be a ringing endorsement of Ed Miliband’s leadership. Yes, we would win “dirty”.
Yet a win is a win.