Reforms in our electoral system will mean Labour face an even tougher battle in 2020by John Curtice / May 12, 2015 / Leave a comment
Labour is now coming to terms with the scale of its unexpected defeat. But when it has done so, there is more dispiriting news for it to take on board—the road back to power in 2020 is likely to be steeper than the one it was trying to traverse on 7th May.
Labour went into this general election in the knowledge it could conceivably end up with more seats than the Conservatives even if it were a little behind them in votes. After all, the constituencies it already held contained some 4,000 or so fewer registered voters, while the turnout in them last time was seven points lower than in constituencies currently held by the Conservatives. As a result, Labour votes translated more efficiently into Labour seats.
However, in practice the electoral system proved to be kinder to the Conservatives than to Labour—for two key reasons.
First, Conservative MPs defending marginal seats they had first won from Labour five years ago resisted the general trend (in England and Wales at least) of a small swing to Labour—probably as a result of personal votes they had gained on account of their work as the local MP during the last five years. As a result instead of taking the dozen or so seats off the Tories that would have been expected given the national swing, Labour made a net gain of just two. Many of those marginal Tory seats now look a little less marginal.
Second, while the Conservatives were gaining Liberal Democrat seat after Liberal Democrat seat, Labour was losing all but one of its Scottish constituencies to the SNP. This development reversed a long standing pattern whereby the Conservatives tended to “waste” more votes than Labour on coming second behind a “third” party, most commonly the Liberal Democrats. Now it is Labour that finds itself in that position.
As a result Labour now potentially faces a mountain to climb in its efforts to win power in 2020—at least if it is trying to do so simply by winning over Conservative voters. While it would take only a small swing—just 0.4 per cent—to deny the Conservatives to win an overall majority, it could take as much as a 9.6 per cent swing—or the equivalent of a 12.5 point lead over the Conservatives—for Labour itself to win an overall majority. Even the objective of becoming the largest party would require a 3.7 point lead.
Or at least these are the targets that Labour would face if it were to fail to dent the 50 per cent vote that the SNP now has north of the border. In short, Labour faces a monumental task in its quest for power in the absence of a significant decline in the SNP vote next time around. That implies that any strategy for Labour recovery has to be aimed at lost left-leaning Scottish voters as well as the aspirational voters that Labour supposedly failed to win over in England.
Meanwhile there is another fly in the ointment—the prospect of a boundary review aimed at eliminating the differences in constituency sizes—and thus the advantage that Labour currently enjoy on that front. A review should have been implemented before May 7th, but it was blocked by Labour and the Liberal Democrats after the latter fell out with their coalition partners over Lords reform.
The Conservatives will not even have to use their new overall majority to ensure a review takes place; their opponents only succeeded in delaying the review until after the election. The government may drop the idea of reducing the size of the Commons from 650 to 600 MPs, because that would put Tory MPs’ careers at risk too, but doing so need not compromise the aim of making the constituencies more equal.
Thanks to the very radical changes that were proposed, working out what would have happened on May 7th if the review had not been blocked is not straightforward. But if we take as our starting point estimates prepared by Anthony Wells of what the outcome would have been in 2010 if the new boundaries had been in place and take into consideration the regional variation in party performance this time around, it looks as though the Tories would have won at least 312 seats in the new reduced Commons. If the lower swing in marginal seats was replicated as well the Tory tally might have been as much as 325—or a majority of 50.
Not only did the election leave Labour less well positioned to win next time, but the impending boundary review looks set to make its position even worse. It could require a 4.2 point lead merely to become the largest party—unless, that is, Scotland returns to the fold.