A coalition may be Labour’s best hope of winning in 2020

With a virtually impossible 40% target and a quarter of voters now supporting smaller parties, Labour may need to consider a formal coalition deal if it is serious about defeating the Tories in 2020.

A recent analysis of the 2015 election result by Lewis Baston claims that in order to win even a small majority  in 2020, Labour will need a bigger swing than it achieved in its 1997 landslide victory.

That’s a sobering fact to absorb. It means that rather than the 35% vote share that Labour targeted in 2015, it’s going to need to aim for 40% instead.

The problem is, the evidence is starting to suggest that NO party in Britain now stands much chance of winning at least 40% in an election – chiefly because of the the rise of smaller parties.

Consider that the Tories won only 36.8% of the vote in 2015. A result this low would have lost them every election prior to 2005. With the economy still on thin ice, the deficit still unpaid and many unanswered questions around EU membership, immigration and Cameron’s successor, it would seem unlikely that they are in a strong position to better their 2015 result in 2020. Their win last May was no landslide and did not happen because of a resurgent wave of English conservatism amongst the electorate (it had more to do with the collapse of the Lib Dems and the success of the SNP).

Meanwhile 25% of the 2015 vote went to smaller parties (i.e. not Tory/Lab/LD). Back in 1997 that figure was less than 10%. With the continued levels of support that the SNP and UKIP seem to be enjoying, there’s every reason to think that this trend will continue. Indeed, the continuing success of nationalist parties across Europe as a whole shows no signs of abating.

It’s futile to imply that there is a magic strategy that Labour can employ to win over voters from such a disparate range of parties (Green, SNP, UKIP, Lib Dem) while also winning Tory/Labour swing voters. Labour can’t appeal to all those groups (who want and represent different things) and have coherent policies.

This challenge would exist for whoever took over as Labour leader last year – swapping Corbyn for Burnham or Cooper would not change or solve the problem.

Instead it may be time to genuinely start thinking about coalitions and alliances. Labour’s natural ideological allies are the Lib Dems and the Greens – parties who are unlikely to do well on their own, but if voters know they are part of an alliance (and could end up in government) could perform much better (especially if deals are made to not stand against one another in key seats).

But all this would need to happen well in advance of the 2020 election. Without a plan and a proper agreement, the right-wing press would use the opportunity to sow seeds of fear amongst the electorate – just as they did last year when the possibility of a Lab/SNP coalition became apparent.

Some within Labour may wince at the idea of shacking up with the Lib Dems (probably less so the Greens) but the idea is not without precedent. Prior to the 1997 general election, Labour held talks with the Lib Dems about a potential Labour-Lib Dem coalition. Back in those dark days of the early 90s (after John Major’s surprise 1992 victory) there was a view among the broad left that nothing could budge the Tories from power.

Fast forward 20 years and we find ourselves in a surprisingly similar situation – an unpopular, ideological Tory government presiding over damaging cuts and a teetering economy – shoring up their position by gerrymandering the UK’s democratic process (boundary review, electoral register changes, etc.) There are fears among the left that the Tories will engineer a political status quo whereby it’s almost impossible for them to be removed from office (barring a catastrophic economic disaster on their part).

If Labour is serious about defeating the Tories in 2020, then a coalition may be the answer they are looking for. It’s an uncomfortable truth to accept – but as many of the anti-Corbyn wing have said: Labour should primarily be seeking to govern, by any means necessary. And in the 21st century, that probably means making alliances with smaller parties, not playing a game of leadership musical chairs.

Britain was looking for for an alternative in 2015, not for English Conservatism

A conventional election strategy and a First-past-the-post voting system worked well for the Tories in 2015 and badly for Labour. To succeed in 2020, Labour must mount a new kind of campaign that speaks to those who want something different – not more of the same.

After Labour’s catastrophic defeat this year, the Conservatives continue to behave as if they won a landslide victory – rather than a slender majority of 12. And as Labour stumbles through a very public and increasingly embarrassing leadership contest, the Tories still act as if they are the benefactors of a modern day ‘divine right of kings’. Nothing encapsulated this better than Iain Duncan Smith’s fist-pumping glee during the announcement of a national ‘living wage’ at this year’s budget.

But far from a tale of overwhelming Conservative support, the real story of the 2015 General Election was the British public demonstrating that they were more willing than ever to vote for an alternative. The SNP, UKIP and The Greens took over 21% of the vote between them. In 2010, these smaller parties barely managed to get 5%.

And yet, the right-wing press has already constructed a self-gratifying narrative for the 2015 Election: That the Tories rode a wave of resurgent English Conservatism to a ‘landslide’ majority victory – and that the Labour Governments elected in 1945, 1964, 1974 and 1997 were merely blips in an otherwise unbroken run of Conservative rule. But this mis-reading of events could prove fatal for the Tories.

A genuine public shift towards the Tories in the UK would have meant a significant number of seats changing hands from Labour to the Tories in 2015 – and yet the Conservatives actually made a net loss of 2 seats to Labour.

Most of the Tories new seats in 2015 came from their old coalition partners the Lib Dems. But this had more do with the peculiarities of the First-past-the-post voting system than a shift to the Conservatives from former Lib Dem supporters.

Of those who voted Lib Dem in 2010, their 2015 vote roughly split into equal thirds: A third moved to Labour, another third moved to other parties (primarily Tory, Green and SNP) and a third stayed with the Lib Dems. Under proportional representation this would have benefited Labour, yet under First-past-the-post, the Tories gained 27 former Lib Dem seats compared to Labour’s 12.

This happened because two thirds of former Lib Dem seats had the Tories in second place already, so former Lib Dem voters shifting their vote to a third place Labour candidate simply bumped the Tories up into first place (leaving Labour second or third).

Without the 27 seats gifted to them by the Lib Dems, the Tories would have won 304 seats – short of the 326 needed for a majority in parliament and 2 seats less than they won in 2010. Conversely, with the addition of the 39 seats that Labour dramatically lost to the SNP, they’d have finished with 271 – 13 more seats than they won in 2010.

Take away the unprecedented SNP surge and Lib Dem collapse and the 2015 General Election would have been a rerun of 2010 – with a small loss of seats for the Tories and a small, but slightly more significant gain for Labour.

Fighting the 2015 election using conventional strategies paid off surprisingly well for the Tories and very badly for Labour, though it may not have the same result in 2020. The 21% of the electorate who voted for smaller parties aren’t going to change their minds if they are offered more of the same by the big two parties and the 33% who didn’t vote will remain largely unengaged without something new to connect with.

If Labour approach the 2020 election with a conventional strategy of winning over Tory swing voters in marginal seats, it’s likely to see a similar result to 2015. But under a new leader, Labour now has the opportunity to change its tune and reach out to a wider group of the electorate – especially the half of the electorate who are either already voting for an alternative or waiting for one to present itself. A Labour campaign of real hope and vision, offering a rejection of Tory austerity and a proper alternative could do that. By comparison, the Tory election machine has only one gear – shore up the vote with those who traditionally come out and vote Tory and ignore those who don’t. In 2015 that was enough to cross the finishing line but in 2020 it could fail dramatically.