What if Labour Can’t Win? Would pre-Election pacts be the answer?

[NB – The data and analysis presented at the end of this post are preliminary, although I am reasonably confident they are about right. I am double checking them myself and with colleagues].

[NB: I have now slightly updated these figures, but the overall picture hasn’t changed much. I have also added the list of seats that would have been vulnerable to a tactical exercise of this sort in a document. Should make interesting reading for the 43 Tory MPs named!]

The entire Labour Party leadership debate is being framed by the question “how can Labour win again?” But what if it can’t?

There are several reasons for believing it might be impossible for Labour to win an outright majority in the House of Commons again, at least for any foreseeable future whoever the elect as their next Leader. And if so, would the alternative be to form electoral pacts before the next General Election? What can the 2015 Election results tell us about what might happen if they did this?

(Let me quickly add I don’t think the rather freak result in 2015 of the Tories getting a slim majority with just 36.9% of the vote is likely to be repeated either.)

As has been widely discussed, two party politics in Britain has been in decline since the 1950s. In 2015 Tories and Labour managed to get only 67% of the vote, which itself was only a 66% turnout of voters. The “Stay at Home” Party won 34%, coming second to the Tories (37%) and beating Labour’s 30%. The three nationalist parties (UKIP, SNP and Plaid Cymru) won almost 1 in 5 voters (18%) and Scotland became a virtual ‘no go’ zone for both main parties – something few would have predicted a generation ago.

This is clearly more slightly serious for Labour than Tories because the historic coalition that Labour embedded is being eroded in all directions. Scotland is gone. The wider Labour and Trade Union movement is at an historically low ebb, with TU membership largely confined to the public sector. The English working class vote is being eroded towards the Tories and UKIP whilst the Greens (4%) eat away at its more radical supporters.

The only consolation is that there is not (yet) a radical left-wing party to Labour’s left – as has happened to social democratic parties in Europe. All the contenders to be the “Syriza” of Britain received derisory votes, gaining less than 1% between them.

The combination of “first past the post” (FPTP) and the geographical distribution of their votes worked against Labour in 2015 and is set to get worse as the Tory government pushes through reducing the House of Commons to 600 seat (from 650) and boundary reform.

So if Labour cannot win outright, and we are stuck with FPTP, what could or should a new Labour leader do?

One thing they certainly, definitely, should not do is carry on pretending that ‘one more heave’ will get them across the winning line and all will be well again. ‘Forward to the past’ is not a winning strategy.

To say ‘Labour cannot win an outright majority by itself’ is not say it cannot lead a winning coalition, or at any rate one that could a lot better. With politics fragmenting and Humpty Dumpty showing little sign of being put back together again, the only way in which Labour can gain power in the future is by being part of a winning coalition. And moreover FPTP means that this cannot be left until after the General Election but has to be created beforehand.

First, a matter of procedure. The only way a winning coalition can be created under FPTP is to agree in advance of the election who (which party) will stand in which seats.

For those who think this is a fanciful proposal I refer you back to the Tory MPs and commentators who were seriously arguing for just such a procedure to ‘reunite the Right’ when they feared UKIP would loose them the General Election. As it turned out they didn’t need to, but there were plenty of Tories who seriously considered such a maneuver. It’s not impossible that by 2020 it will be back on the agenda as a possibility.

Second, we get to the bit that most Labour activists will find unpalatable – who could Labour ally with?

The most obvious anti-Tory partners who could win back seats through a deal would be the Lib Dems. This would include both LD and Labour seats lost in 2015.

Although such an alliance will receive little support in either Party right now, the combination of the probable shift to the left under Tim Farron, the new LD leader, and the healing power of time on Labour hostility to the LDs for the 2010-15 Coalition.

But what difference would it make?

A caveat: the following figures are simply based on an arithmetical adding of votes for the different parties by individual constituency. In reality an electoral pact would probably produce some losses as voters who didn’t like the alliance deserted, but it could also produce some gains from voters for whom a pact appealed.

Seats based on 2015 votes by constituency

  CON LAB LD SNP Green
Actual 2015 331 232 8 56 1
LAB +LD pact 299 249 23 56 1
LAB+LD+Green pact 288 256 26 56 1

[Source of data: Electoral Calculus (Martin Baxter). Calculations are my own].

A combined LAB-LD vote – where the other Party stood down in favour of the one with the best chance of beating the Tories – would have won about 32 seats from the Tories (15 LD and 17 LAB). That is, the Tory majority would have been wiped out.

I should stress this is based on an constituency-by-constituency analysis – so it’s easy to name the Tories who would not now be MPs if this had happened. Some of the margins are very small (including for some Tories who still scrape in) so the real-world effects of such pacts are likely to be very different.

This analysis certainly makes such a pre-Election pact more appealing for the LDs, who could have had a much more credible 22 seats this time around.

What about if the Greens were added? This adds another 11 Tory losses (making it 43 seats in total) – 2 more LDs and 9 to LAB.

But it produces no gains for the Greens unless Lab and LD ‘gave’ them seats where they were not the ‘lead’ Party.

These numbers are of course purely speculative – but with FPTP it may be the only way forward for Labour and the other parties. It would not stop the Tories forming a minority Government, and as I have previously argued in the British system even a minority Government has extensive advantages because of the power of the Executive.

But these are the 2015 results – it is quite conceivable that an ‘anti-Tory’ pre-Election pact could do better in 2020.

It is hopefully food for thought – or ought to be if Labour (and other Parties) were having any sort of sensible debate about the way forward.

CONSERVATIVE seats that might have been vulnerable

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