Forty years ago this month, Harold Wilson led Labour back to power and ejected Edward Heath from Downing Street. It was hardly a resounding victory: Labour won fewer votes but a handful more seats than the Tories, and Wilson was 17 seats short of a majority, forcing him to call a second general election only eight months later. Nonetheless, it was a historic one: there is not a single other example in the last 80 years of a new government being ejected from office after a single term.
So, while the general elections of 1945, 1979 and 1997 are rightly deemed to be milestones in postwar British political history, if Ed Miliband leads Labour to victory in 2015, that achievement will instantly earn itself a place in the history books.
This guide by Lewis Baston, a contributing editor to Progress magazine and senior research fellow at Democratic Audit, profiles the 106 seats on Labour’s target list and maps the party’s path to power. It is part of Progress’ Campaign for a Labour Majority, launched last May. That campaign is both optimistic and ambitious for Labour, while realistic about the challenges the party faces.
As Peter Kellner, the president of YouGov, argued in Majority Rules, the pamphlet with which we launched the campaign last year, 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 wrote – 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. None of this is to negate the achievements of Miliband’s leadership since 2010. He has kept the progressive vote united behind Labour and the party has largely avoided the kind of rancour and internecine infighting into which it fell on previous occasions when it lost office.
Nonetheless, with less than 15 months until polling day, Labour has three principal challenges. First, as Baston noted in Marginal Difference, an analysis of marginal seats published by Progress in 2011, ‘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’. Indeed, from the party’s list of target seats, Kellner concluded that Labour probably needs to take 60 directly from the Conservatives. And, moreover, 57 of these are likely to be defended by Tory candidates standing for re-election for the first time; such incumbents, Kellner estimated, 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-sized lead in the national vote. The metric for Labour’s next phase has to be the number of those who voted Tory in 2010 who can be persuaded to vote Labour in 2015.
Second, both polling for Progress by YouGov last May and a special series of workshops in four of Labour’s target seats conducted for us by BritainThinks after the party conference season last year confirms that, while the party is seen as ‘on the side of people like you’, its ability to take tough and unpopular decisions is still called into question. This weakness, suggested Kellner, could prove critical in a tight election campaign. To tackle these perceptions, Progress believes Labour must do four things. First, demonstrate that it has a credible plan to both grow the economy and deliver Miliband’s pledge to eliminate the deficit.
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 childcare and elderly care will help, respectively, to drive up employment and relieve pressure on the health service.
This policy prescription is, however, not simply about winning, it is also about governing. Since the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008, the European centre-left has had a torrid time, defeated in election after election. And in two of those rare instances in which social democratic parties have triumphed – in Denmark in 2011 and France in 2012 – the failure to prepare voters for the tough times and choices which lay ahead has provoked disillusionment and a rise in support for far-right parties.
The final challenge facing Labour is to widen the party’s electoral map to focus on the seats Miliband needs to win to achieve an overall majority. As part of the Campaign for a Labour Majority, Progress has sought to throw a spotlight on 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.
As Baston suggests in his introduction to this guide, ‘this is a “One Nation” target list in terms of its geographical spread and social characteristics.’ In order to succeed, Labour needs a strategy, message and vision that are similarly broad. Recalling the events of 40 years ago reminds us just how high, and historic, the stakes are.
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