The party has a history of picking the wrong person for the jobby Peter Kellner / May 23, 2017 / Leave a comment
Here is a thought experiment. Suppose that the recent narrowing of the Conservative lead continues. The four polls conducted since the launch of the Tory manifesto report an average Conservative lead of 11 per cent. Some, perhaps all, of the narrowing may be a short-lived response to the “dementia tax” headlines. Maybe the gap will widen again, following the prime minister’s “clarification”—or U-turn—on capping social care costs; we shall see. But suppose we end up on 8th June with the Tories seven points ahead of Labour—the same margin as two years ago. What then?
The most immediate consequence will be a modest increase in the Conservative majority. My scenario implies a 43-36 per cent division of the Tory-Labour vote. I reckon that around ten Labour MPs will lose their seats in the Midlands, North and Wales, where the Tories will benefit from the collapse of a large Ukip vote. The Conservatives may also pick up a few seats in Scotland, as well as regaining Ukip’s sole seat, Clacton. If the Conservatives gain 15 seats overall, this will lift their majority from 12 two years ago to 42. It will not be the Tory-rebellion-proof majority that Theresa May wants, but she will have more room for manoeuvre than she has today.
What about Labour? It faces the bitter-sweet prospect of more votes (36 per cent, compared with 31 per cent in 2015) but fewer seats. Jeremy Corbyn will doubtless claim it as a mandate to continue as party leader.
There is, however, another way to view such a result—as the third election in succession that Labour could have won with a different leader.
Should Brown have resigned in 2009?
As chancellor, and in his early months as prime minister, Gordon Brown enjoyed high personal ratings and a reputation for economic competence. Fairly or unfairly, his ratings on both counts fell sharply after Britain’s economy fell into recession in 2008. After the 2009 local elections, James Purnell resigned as a cabinet minister, having lost confidence in Brown’s leadership. Had two or three other cabinet ministers followed suit, Brown’s position could have become untenable.
A new leader would have given Labour a fresh start and called an early election (something Brown famously decided not to do when he became PM in 2007). Labour might not have won an overall majority; but in 2010, just ten more seats could have allowed Labour to govern in coalition with the Liberal Democrats. So, to keep the Conservatives out of power, a new leader would have needed to do slightly better than Brown did.
The wrong Miliband?
Now let’s wind the clock on to 2015. Ed Miliband lagged well behind David Cameron when voters were asked who would make the best prime minister, and the Tories enjoyed a comfortable lead on the vital issue of economic competence. This was despite the fact that the economy was mired in austerity, spending on public services was being cut, living standards were stalled and the coalition was miles adrift of its own deficit-reduction target. Here was an election that an opposition should have won.
Would Labour have won had David Miliband defeated his brother in the 2010 party leadership contest? Nobody can be sure: the whole complexion of the 2010-15 parliament would have been different. But YouGov surveys found consistently that David was more highly rated than Ed. There is a good chance, if no certainty, that the older brother would have exploited the economic and social weaknesses of the Cameron-Clegg government more effectively.
What a narrow Tory victory would tell us
By the same token, we cannot be absolutely certain that another Labour leader today would do better than Corbyn. But his ratings are truly dreadful. It is perfectly possible that a more effective leader would have been able to challenge May more effectively.
Suppose such a leader would have made Labour sufficiently attractive that it won an extra five percentage points in the national vote, at the expense of the Tories. Then, continuing my thought experiment, the vote shares would have been Labour 41 per cent, Conservatives 38. Labour would be short of a majority; it would be touch-and-go whether it would even be the largest party—Labour and the Tories would probably have around 280-290 seats each. But, together with the SNP, Lib Dems, Plaid Cymru, Green and Social Democratic and Labour Party MPs, there would have been a substantial anti-Conservative majority.
Instead, if the Tories regain the leads they enjoyed a week or two ago, they will win by a landslide. In that case, a different Labour leader making a five-point difference would still end up as leader of the opposition. The balance of forces in the House of Commons would be different, but the party in charge of Britain would not be.
In short, a narrow Conservative victory, unlike a landslide, could be viewed in two quite different ways: as evidence that Corbyn’s brand of socialism has greater appeal than most of us thought—or a sign that this is an election that Labour could have won, and failed to do so because it chose the wrong leader yet again.
How the drama, or melodrama, of Labour’s leadership pans out after 8th June, will depend on which narrative appeals to more party members: Corbyn-did-better-than-expected, or Corbyn-prevented-Labour-from-doing-better.