The general elections of 1945, 1979 and 1997 are rightly deemed to be milestones in postwar British political history. But if Ed Miliband leads Labour to victory in 2015, that achievement will instantly earn itself a place in the history books.
Put to one side Labour’s narrow win in February 1974 – when it won fewer votes but a handful more seats than Edward Heath – and there is not a single example in the last 80 years of an opposition party returning to power with an overall majority after a single parliament.
But by having avoided the rancour that normally accompanies its loss of office, and faced with a coalition government lacking in direction and achievement, the goal of winning a majority is one to which Labour can aspire. This is the central premise of the Campaign for a Labour Majority which Progress launches this month.
This is not to deny the gloomy historical precedents or the difficult political terrain which lies ahead. As Peter Kellner of YouGov argues on page 14-21, not only is Labour attempting a comeback which no other opposition has achieved in decades, its polling performance since 2010 remains somewhat short of that required to win outright in 2015. ‘No opposition party has gone on to win without at some point achieving a lead of at least 20 per cent,’ Kellner writes – and even that is no guarantee as Neil Kinnock, who led Labour to a 23-point lead two years before the 1992 general election, discovered to his cost. Sky News’ projections from the local elections – which showed Labour just short of a majority – confirm this analysis.
None of this is to negate the achievements of Ed Miliband’s leadership since 2010. He has united the progressive vote behind Labour and built a consistent lead in the polls. But, as Marginal Difference, Lewis Baston’s pamphlet for Progress last year, noted, ‘merely holding Liberal Democrat converts is enough to make it impossible for the other parties to form a non-Labour government but not enough for Labour to win a working majority’.
From the party’s list of target seats, Kellner concludes that Labour probably needs to take 60 directly from the Conservatives. And, moreover, 57 of them are likely to be defended by Tory candidates standing for re-election for the first time; such incumbents, Kellner estimates, normally receive a ‘bonus’ of 1,000-2,000 votes. These calculations suggest that the party may need a national swing of seven per cent, and a similar size lead in the national vote.
So where does Labour stand two years before the crucial test? Exclusive polling for Progress by YouGov underscores the advances the party has made over the past three years and underlines the challenges it still needs to surmount. On the positive side of the ledger, Labour leads the Conservatives on nine of the 12 issues that YouGov put to voters when it asked what they would expect from either party if it secured a clear majority in 2015. More voters, for instance, expect Labour would be ‘on the side of people like you’; would ensure public services deliver good value for money; and understands the problems Britain faces. However, Labour’s leads on some critical issues – that, for example, it would take the right decisions to help an economic recovery – are perilously small. And on some measures – most importantly, its ability to take tough and unpopular decisions – Labour lags the Conservatives badly. These weaknesses, suggests Kellner, could prove critical in a tight election campaign.
With two years to go until the general election, the Campaign for a Labour Majority will support the next phase in Miliband’s leadership. It will have at its heart two goals.
First, we want to help develop Labour’s case to the country, so we can turn widespread disillusionment with the coalition into positive support for Labour as an alternative government. This can be achieved by a focus on four areas in particular. First, the flatlining economy and George Osborne’s failure to eliminate the deficit by 2015 requires Labour to demonstrate fiscal responsibility and a plan for growth. Second, the tight public finances which an incoming Labour government will inherit demand the maximum return on every pound of taxpayers’ money spent, hence the development of a compelling programme of public service reform and innovation. Third, in place of the coalition’s divisive politics of ‘strivers versus shirkers’, Labour needs to rebuild public confidence in the welfare state. The Beveridge settlement was underpinned by full employment, the contributory principle and conditionality: the notion that all those capable of work must do so. These principles are as relevant today as they were in 1942.
Fourth, Labour needs to demonstrate it has answers to two critical long-term challenges: those of social care and childcare. Each are important in their own right, but, tackled together, a move towards universal child and elderly care will help, respectively, to drive up employment and relieve pressure on the health service.
Second, the Campaign for a Labour Majority will seek to help widen the party’s electoral map by focusing on the seats Miliband needs to win to achieve an overall majority. At the heart of this is the ‘frontline 40’: using Labour’s 106 target seats, we have identified the 40 seats, the first of which, beyond the first 66 gains, will produce a Labour majority of one. Target 67, Norwich North, represents ground zero in the battle for a Labour majority. Win all ‘frontline 40’ seats which follow it and Miliband will lead a government with a majority of 80. The new Campaign for a Labour Majority website – www.labourmajority.org.uk will tell you who the ‘frontline 40’ are, and June’s Progress magazine will provide an in-depth look at these seats.
Labour stands at a crossroads. Its opponents undoubtedly deserve to lose but the possibility of another indecisive election result remains. The party must now earn the right to victory; the Campaign for a Labour Majority aims to help in that endeavour.
See the rest of the May 2013 edition of Progress
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