Every time Labour loses a general election, it does worse the time after. 1983 was worse than 1979, and the same is true of 1955 following Attlee’s 1951 defeat. The only time we bounced straight back was in 1974 and that was on a lower share of the vote than the one that had seen Harold Wilson ejected from office in 1970. And for all the parliamentary headaches faced by the 1974-9 Labour government, you only need to see James Graham’s play, This House, currently running at the National Theatre. These are not good electoral precedents and the fact that this trend has now been repeated in the Scottish parliamentary and London mayoral should be sobering.
Joan Ryan’s analysis of what happened in the seats that Labour lost in 2005 at the 2010 election gives some indication about why this might be the case and how hard it will be for Labour to come straight back, no matter how weak the coalition’s performance since it took office.
Ed Miliband has set the party’s sights firmly on defying our own history. Labour is working to select candidates early and initiatives like Progress’ Fightback Fundraiser kitemark are trying to get money early into those seats we need to win in order to form the next government.
But a consistent 10-point Labour lead in the polls, the unpopularity of this incompetent government, and the apparent demise of the Tories’ attempt to gerrymander the parliamentary boundaries, has made too many people feel we can take all this for granted. We can’t – for one thing, as YouGov’s Peter Kellner notes, no opposition party has gone on to win a general election without at some point notching up a 20 percentage point opinion poll lead. And one of those that did – Neil Kinnock’s Labour party in 1990 – still didn’t manage to win the subsequent election.
Now the Tories have apparently accepted their Liberal Democrat allies won’t be giving them the boundary changes (although they appear to be fishing for votes from Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist party), our counterparts at ConservativeHome have revealed Tories’ ‘Plan B’: a 40/40 strategy for an overall majority. They will focus all of their resources on holding 40 of their most marginal seats and winning 40 of ours.
All those who thought a seat held by Labour in 2010, when we polled our second-lowest share of the vote since 1918, was a safe one, are in for a nasty shock. The Tories definitely don’t think so and now we have had a first glimpse of their strategy and the would-be battleground seats of 2015.
Releasing the first 10 seats that Tories will select in, campaign strategist Sarah Newton MP highlights how the Tories plan to jumpstart small local parties in their key marginals. Conservative associations with less than 100 members will be told to choose between a Conservative HQ-approved shortlist of three or a local primary to select their candidate where party members will shape the shortlist but local Tory voters will get the final say on who stands. These seats include the home of Rover, Birmingham Northfield (majority 2,782); North-east Derbyshire (majority: 2,445 and last held by a party other than Labour in 1931); and Ed Balls’ very own Morley and Outwood (majority: 1,101).
Others to have Tory candidates in place by Christmas include Chorley, Delyn, Hampstead and Kilburn, Harrow West and Vale of Clwyd. The other two early marginals the Tories are targeting are held by their Lib Dem coalition colleagues.
The 40/40 strategy is fundamentally about reducing the poll lead the Tory party needs to hold power (estimated at seven per cent by Kellner and others) and allowing a small numbers of voters and large amounts of Ashcroft cash to decide who wins in 2015.
Labour must respond quickly.
First, we must first check that each of the incumbents in the seat above are standing at the next election. Get the trigger ballots out of the way speedily and, where incumbents are standing down, allow local parties to get candidates in place straight away (maybe also through local primaries) so the Tories can gain no advantage.
Second, we must then urgently start helping these eight seats, and the 30 or so that will follow them, that the Tories will aggressively come after. They should be prioritised for visits, focus groups, listening events, fundraising efforts and campaign days. Each should be twinned with a local safe seat and contact and community-organising targets agreed with the local party.
Third, we must turbo-charge both the selection of our candidates and the support we give to the candidates we have. We have far too few in place now that the half-way point of the parliament has passed.
In a piece for Labour Uncut my colleague Alex White and I called on the party to distribute a list of early-selected PPCs so all MPs can try and help in their own way; twin London boroughs, where there will be no elections next year, with key seats in the south; and ensure funds raised by MPs in safe seats can also be shared with the seats we have selected early to give them a helping hand. MPs like Caroline Flint and Chris Leslie are already leading the way. Let’s hope others follow.
The task of making this a one-term government is so necessary but the challenge is a hard one. As the Tories put their boundary-changing efforts to one side, Labour must wake up to the game-changing reality of the next election. We cannot afford to wait any longer.
Richard Angell is deputy director of Progress. He tweets @richardangell
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