Monday, 22 July 2013

Labour probably can't win the next election

Recent weeks have seen the UK Conservative Party's confidence rise. Just a couple of months ago, they were in the doldrums. The economy was dire. The Prime Minister was unpopular on his own side, let alone in the country. Social issues such as gay marriage were tearing the Tories to pieces.

Now? Things look much better. One recent poll, from the highly respected ICM outfit, even had the two main parties running neck-and-neck - though the real picture is probably still a modest Labour lead that might easily melt away between now and May 2015. The Prime Minister (above) looks much more confident, swatting Opposition Leader Ed Miliband aside at this Parliamentary year's final Prime Minister's Questions. Mr Cameron has been able to unite his party with a series of well-crafted announcements, for instance over (hard-to-enforce but morally unassailable) tackling the nastier forms of internet pornography. Above all, the economy is looking up. Retail sales are rising. The service sector is growing more quickly. Unemployment is falling (from a very high base). Business confidence is beginning to recover as well. Conservative MPs can look forward to a 2015 election campaign in which they say: it hurt. But it worked. The economy is out of intensive care. Trust us to finish the job. It's not a great cry, but it worked for President Obama, and it did the trick (along with the Falklands War) in 1983.

Even so, Conservatives are suffering from a bit of irrational exuberance during a hot and steamy July. Why? Well, here's where historians can help you. Let's assume that the Conservatives need about 38 to 40 per cent of the UK vote to form a government with a (small) overall majority. That probably won't be enough, actually, because the largest single move of votes and voters next time is likely to be among left-leaning citizens shifting from the Liberal Democrats to Labour. This blog thinks that Mr Cameron might need 42 or even 43 per cent to win outright - if Labour secures a (still fairly low) 35 per cent.

Still, let's assume they need 40 per cent. They'll have to put on about three per cent on how they did last time. Has this ever been achieved before? I've looked over the record since 1945, and zoomed in on every one-term government seeking re-election. This occured in 1950, 1955, 1970 (all right, that was two terms, but the first of those was very short-lived), 1974, 1983 and 2001.

In only one of those cases did the Government boost its numbers. That was in 1955, when a dashing Anthony Eden swept the country with a message of hope and optimism. And he only managed to put on 1.7 per cent. So the answer to our question? No-one's climbed this electoral mountain in modern times.

The conclusion: Labour probably can't win the next election... outright. But it still has an evens (or better) shot at emerging as the largest party.

The crystal ball is still a bit cloudy - inevitably so, at a time when the electorate don't really like any of the alternatives with which they're faced. Expect prognostications to stay vague for now - and well into 2014. But one thing is for certain: Labour's dreams of an overall majority are evaporating, if they haven't already.