Labour Party Leader Keir Starmer has a mountain to climb to guide the UK opposition to victory in the next general election, facing double the challenge that confronted Tony Blair ahead of the 1997 landslide.
(Bloomberg) — Labour Party Leader Keir Starmer has a mountain to climb to guide the UK opposition to victory in the next general election, facing double the challenge that confronted Tony Blair ahead of the 1997 landslide.
Starmer heads into Labour’s annual conference in Liverpool on Sunday buoyed by a storming win in a Scottish special election last week and sitting on a polling lead over the governing Conservatives that’s hovered around 20 points for months.
But the electoral math he inherited from his left-wing predecessor Jeremy Corbyn is stark. In 2019, Corbyn led the party to its worst defeat since 1935, winning just 203 of the 650 House of Commons seats. That leaves Starmer needing another 123 constituencies to secure an outright majority. By comparison, Blair required 59 in 1997.
“It shouldn’t be understated the task that is required for Labour to overturn some of these Conservative majorities,” Jack Peacock, a researcher at the polling company Survation said in an interview. “This would be a historic moment.”
To achieve a majority, Starmer would have to increase his party’s vote share by over 10 percentage points compared to 2019, according to UK political think tank Labour Together. That’s not been achieved by any party since before the Labour party was founded over a century ago.
It’s already a feat that in just over three years, Starmer has restored his party to a level where they’re genuine contenders to win the national vote that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak must call by January 2025. After the 2019 vote, electoral experts lined up to point out that no UK party had ever rebounded from a defeat of that magnitude to win the following election.
But Starmer purged the parliamentary Labour Party of left-wingers including Corbyn and Diane Abbott, and tore up the party’s 2019 manifesto commitments in a tilt to the center ground. Aided by Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves, a former Bank of England economist, he also burnished ties with business.
To be sure, he’s been helped by the implosion of both the Tories, who last year ousted two prime ministers, and the Scottish National Party, which is embroiled in a police investigation into its finances.
Indeed Scotland could hold the keys to No. 10 for Starmer. As recently as 2010, Labour won 41 of its 59 seats. But a surge of nationalist sentiment carried the SNP to victory in all but three Scottish seats five years later, with Labour sinking to a solitary win — a result it replicated in 2019.
The general election will be the first since Nicola Sturgeon, one the UK’s most popular politicians, stepped down as SNP leader and head of Scotland’s semi-autonomous government in March. Polling suggests SNP support remains high.
“It’s entirely possible that when we wake up after the next general election, one of the reasons Labour doesn’t get a majority was because the SNP vote there was more resilient that expected,” said Keiran Pedley, Director of UK Politics at Ipsos.
But Labour won Rutherglen and Hamilton West on a 20.4 percentage-point swing from the SNP in Thursday’s by-election, a result that also saw the Tory share of the vote hammered. Starmer hailed it as “seismic,” and given the size of the shift, Labour may be able to dream of taking even more than the 16 seats strategists were targeting.
“If this kind of swing were to be replicated across Scotland as a whole, you’ll be talking about the Labour Party quite clearly being the dominant party,” John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University, told the BBC last week.
But Labour don’t just have to win in Scotland. They need to recover a swathe of “Red Wall” seats in their northern heartlands that were lost to the Tories in 2019, while also making inroads further south, where the Conservatives traditionally dominate.
“Labour’s got to try and win seats in the blue wall and in the south of England with very different appeals to the ones that it will need to defeat SNP MPs in Scotland,” said Survation’s Peacock.
So-called Multilevel Regression and Post-stratification modeling by Survation last month suggested Labour would storm to victory, taking 426 seats on current polling. The technique came to prominence in 2017, when MRP polling correctly predicted Theresa May would lose her majority — an outcome other surveys failed to predict. But Peacock said polling is only a snapshot of the current mood and can’t be used as a guide for what may happen in a year’s time.
Despite strong voter support heading into its annual conference — YouGov gives Labour a 21-point lead in its most recent survey — party members will also be wary of its history of under-performing at the ballot box. While the 1992 defeat is the clearest example of that, more recently in 2015 the Tories secured an unexpected outright majority, when polling suggested Labour would run them closer.
Even in their landslide 1997 win, Labour was polling around 50% in the months leading up to the vote, but ended up with 43% of votes. That’s about the same share the party needs to win the next election, but there’s less room for under-performance.
In 1997, Blair ended up gaining 146 seats in a huge landslide. If Starmer gains that many, he’ll have a slim majority of just over 20, making it tough to get big legislative changes through the Commons. And if he falls short of a majority, the country’s traditional third party, the Liberal Democrats — who are also eyeing gains from the Tories — may be “a very important factor in holding the balance of power,” according to Pedley at Ipsos.
“For punters it’s becoming a bit of a two-horse race, and it’s not between Labour and the Conservatives,” said Sam Rosbottom, a spokesman for the bookmaker Betfair. “It’s between Labour and a no overall majority, which would obviously mean a hung parliament.”
–With assistance from Stuart Biggs.
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