Election Countdown

Neither Labour nor the Tories will get many votes

The combined 2024 vote share of the two main parties will be the lowest ever. That makes a Labour second term uncertain

July 01, 2024
Crowd pleaser? John Major during the 1997 general election campaign. Image: Independent / Alamy
Crowd pleaser? John Major during the 1997 general election campaign. Image: Independent / Alamy

Of all the records that are likely to tumble this week, one deserves more attention than it has received. By some margin, the combined share of the vote won by Labour and the Conservatives will be the smallest ever for Britain’s two top parties (Conservative and Liberal until 1922, Conservative and Labour since 1923). 

Before this election, the lowest Britain-wide total was 67 per cent in 2010 (Conservative 37 per cent, Labour 30 per cent). An average of polls in the past week puts the total at 61 per cent (Labour 40 per cent, Conservatives 21 per cent). I expect the final figures to be slightly lower for Labour, slightly higher for the Tories, but the total is unlikely to vary much.

Labour’s share will be one of the lowest to be achieved by any party winning even a small overall majority, and by far the lowest for a three-figure majority in parliament. It is benefitting mightily from the division of the right-of-centre vote between Conservative and Reform. This is why the result will mock those of us who said after the last election that Labour had “a mountain to climb” and doubted the party’s ability to reach the summit in one go.

It’s not that Labour has beaten all records for gaining support. It hasn’t. Instead, the mountain has shrunk. The Tories and Reform have between them made this week’s election easier to win. But they might not be so obliging next time. A landslide this week will be no guarantee of a second Labour victory.

As for the Conservatives, their lowest total since Robert Peel founded almost 200 years ago was 31 per cent in 1857. This week it is likely to fall at least two million short of what it needs to reach even that miserable figure. In short, both main parties will have lessons to ponder once the dust settles after Thursday. What are those lessons? To strive for an answer, we need to understand why this issue has arisen. 

Important clues come from a comparison with the 1997 landslide. Here is a direct comparison of opinions recorded shortly before polling day by Mori in 1997 and by Ipsos (which acquired Mori in 2005) last week.

Every figure—for the outgoing governments and the party leaders—is far worse than 27 years ago. John Major and his government had bad ratings in 1997; Rishi Sunak and today’s Tories have an even worse reputation. Tony Blair had a net rating (satisfied minus dissatisfied) of plus 22; Keir Starmer’s rating is minus 19.

Perhaps the most telling comparison comes from adding together those giving the thumbs up to the two main party leaders. The figures in 1997 were: Blair 51 per cent, Major 32 per cent. That adds up to 83. Not many people would have expressed satisfaction with both leaders, but some would. Allowing for that, I reckon that at least 75 per cent were happy with at least one of the leaders. 

Compare that with the latest figures for Starmer, 33 per cent, Sunak 20 per cent; total 53. Again, allowing for double-satisfieds—surely very few—and Britain is divided down the middle: half are happy with at least one of the two leaders, while the other half withhold a positive verdict from both. In the light of those verdicts, we should not be surprised that the Labour-plus-Conservative percentage is the lowest ever. 

The big lesson for the Conservatives who survive this week’s battering is clear. They need both to revive their reputation and to defeat Reform. The two objectives are linked but not identical. Under first-past-the-post, two parties competing for the right-of-centre territory will continue to condemn both to failure. On the other hand, uniting on Reform’s terms would leave Labour dominating the centre ground. To any Tories who think that fighting the centre from a distance is a recipe for victory, I would remind them of the fates of Michael Foot, William Hague, Michael Howard and Jeremy Corbyn. 

But suppose the Conservatives see off Reform and its brand of nationalism, then Labour’s likely landslide this week might not protect it from a Tory surge at the next election. It may well need to increase its vote, possibly by quite a lot, to ensure the decade in office that it wants if it is to rebuild Britain. Given Labour’s bleak economic inheritance, this will not be easy. It means creating a narrative for the next five years that will persuade voters to stick patiently with the government as it waits, possibly until towards the end of the parliament, for the benefits of Labour rule to improve voters’ everyday lives. 

The conclusion is clear. Starmer’s battle to win the 2029 election begins on Friday.