Even now, unbelievably, some Labour people seem to be complacent about the next general election. The argument goes that the Conservatives, because of electoral system bias against them, need to be 11-points clear of Labour in the national share of the vote to have a majority. This is true only if the swing is uniform, ie the same across the country. While uniform national swing is usually the best rule of thumb for translating poll figures into seats in the House of Commons, it is only an assumption, not a rule. For instance, Labour did significantly better in 2001 than uniform swing predicted because Labour MPs first elected in 1997 often boosted their majorities.
The local elections in June 2009 were a test of how far ahead the Tories really need to be to win an election. The ‘national equivalent vote’ of the parties (ie the local results translated into what they would mean in an election across the whole country) was, depending on whose projection you look at, the Conservatives on either 35% or 38% and Labour on 22% or 23%. This means a swing of 8% or 9% from Labour to Conservative, slightly more than the 7% they need to win a majority under the uniform swing assumption. Given that governments rarely repeat their worst mid-term performance in a general election, some people assume that an overall Conservative majority is unlikely.
The results in the key marginal constituencies where there were local elections in June should explode any such complacency. While the national swing appears to have been 8-9%, it is much higher in most of the marginals.
In the constituencies where more or less any swing will switch the seat to the Tories or LibDems, it seems about average – although 8% or 9% is easily enough to do the job. The ominous finding is from the constituencies where the Conservatives need a bit more of a swing to gain from Labour. In these cases the average swing is 13% or thereabouts, which would cut a swathe through Labour’s parliamentary representation. There were 61 Labour-held seats with county elections in June. Only four would have survived an election like the county elections. This is because the Conservatives seem to be getting the big swings where they need them.
In some of the target seats, the Conservatives are simply blowing Labour away – swings of 18% in South Ribble and 17% in Tamworth are extremely large by any comparison, and reflect a particular loss of support in areas where New Labour did particularly well in 1997. In others, Labour’s traditional vote has also melted away, as in Leicestershire North West where the BNP won what had been the safe Labour ward of Coalville, while the Conservatives have stood still or gained slightly. In this set of elections in the new towns, where Labour has done poorly for years in local elections, the swing may not appear quite so bad, but this often reflects the Conservatives losing votes to the right – UKIP, BNP and English Democrats – which might not help in general election conditions. Some coastal areas where Labour prospered in 1997 also have high swings – Dover, Morecambe and Waveney all have swings in the 15-16% bracket.
The Conservatives are not stupid in matters of political strategy, and know that they need either a 7%-plus national swing, or to do better in the marginals. They have focused their energies, campaigning messages and money (from Michael Ashcroft and elsewhere) on the marginals they need, and it seems to be paying dividends.
Local elections, although they are strong evidence, do not automatically reflect what would happen in a general election. People sometimes vote differently in local and national elections, and a different range of parties and candidates stand in each election. Turnout is also a lot lower, and the voters who stay at home in local elections but vote in general elections may not share the views of those who vote in council elections.
Labour needs to do two things in the short term – recover ground in the national polls, and raise its game in the marginal seats. In the longer term, Labour also needs to scrap an electoral system where pouring resources into a tiny number of seats can win party control over the government, and replace it with one where there is a genuine national dialogue.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.