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.

If Jeremy Corbyn is serious about nuclear disarmament, he needs a strategy

Presented as an in/out choice, it’s unlikely the British electorate would vote to scrap nuclear weapons. This could be a thorny issue if it become a cornerstone policy of a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour party. But a proper strategy, with a timetable for downgrading the UK’s nuclear status could be a better way of winning the argument.

It’s now becoming clear that one of the key pieces of ammunition the Tories will use against Jeremy Corbyn (should he become Labour leader) is that his anti-nuclear weapons position is a threat to the UK’s security.

Much of the British public are resigned to the belief that nuclear weapons are a necessary evil – ensuring no enemy would ever dare attack us for fear of nuclear retaliation. This view persists as the status quo – regardless of the fact that nuclear weapons have been of little value in any British military conflict in the last 30 years.

A YouGov poll from 2013 found that only 29% of the public were in favour of scrapping nuclear weapons altogether. One reason the pro-nuclear view has taken hold so firmly, is because the possession of nuclear weapons is usually presented as an ultimatum – you either have them or you don’t. And as one of the five NATO nuclear-weapon states and a permanent member of the UN Security Council, it’s long been taken as a given that the UK will always remain a nuclear-armed country.

However, there is another way this issue can be approached – one that specifically side-steps the in/out conundrum. Instead, a roadmap to British nuclear disarmament could be presented as a staggered, strategic process that could see the UK gradually downgrade its nuclear weapons status over a number of years.

A framework for this already exists (albeit in a patchwork fashion) within NATO. Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey are all part of NATO’s nuclear weapons sharing programme. Under this agreement, the United States loans weapons and launch equipment, but the equipment remains the property of the US. Considering Britain’s Trident missiles are already wholly manufactured by a US company (Lockheed Martin) and the nuclear warheads are co-manufactured by the USA and UK – this move to weapons sharing rather than weapons owning would not be as dramatic a shift as it sounds. Most importantly, it would be highly symbolic of Britain’s aspiration towards disarmament.

Germany’s participation in NATO’s nuclear weapons sharing programme is the most useful precedent though. The German reunification treaty of 1990 made it a permanent Nuclear-Weapons-Free Zone. This means that the Germans take the weapons sharing relationship a step further than the other four members – with the German army being a non-nuclear force (US-loaned or otherwise). It does however, posses a number of weapons systems that could be adapted to deliver nuclear weapons. If war was declared and a decision was made, Germany could very quickly take delivery of nuclear weapons from another NATO state or even manufacture its own – Germany certainly possess the resources and technological expertise to do so.

The German scenario shows how Britain can continue to present itself as an effective part of NATO, even without nuclear weapons stored and armed on its soil. This ability to quickly go from non-nuclear to nuclear-armed in a relatively short space of time, would appease the more hawkish voices in Britain but still be a dramatic step away from the current status quo.

The above suggestions could seem like a big set of compromise to those fully committed to complete nuclear disarmament, but small steps in the right direction are better than no steps at all. And considering how entrenched in British minds this issue is, a complete overnight disarmament would never take hold with voters. But a strategic downgrading – first moving to a NATO weapons sharing arrangement, then to maintaining only launch systems (with no weapons) and finally a removal of the launch systems all together – represents the kind of journey the British public could conceivably take. And in this case, a slow journey is preferable to a quick ultimatum – especially when you know the answer will be no.

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.

Why Jeremy Corbyn could win in 2020

Initially viewed by the right-wing establishment as a lefty dinosaur, Jeremy Corbyn’s unique appeal to both disgruntled former Labour voters and disengaged non-voters could deliver a Labour win in 2020 – especially when competing against a slim Tory majority.

Amongst all the criticism being thrown at Jeremy Corbyn by his detractors, the claim that he is ‘unelectable’ is perhaps the most significant one. The argument being that, while his politics and approach might go down well with the broad left (who have propelled him to the front of the pack in the Labour leadership contest), their numbers are still insignificant when compared to the voting population of Britain.

We are told that when ‘white van man’ and the rest of middle England are presented with this ‘scruffy socialist’ they’ll run a mile – straight into the waiting arms of the Conservatives.

It’s certainly true that Corbyn looks and sounds completely different to the politicians we’re used to seeing fronting a mainstream political party in Britain. And yet, we’re constantly reminded that the electorate are fed-up with career politicians, who all look and sound the same and speak in corporate jargon. Indeed, much of UKIP’s success has been down to Nigel Farage’s public persona – the ‘normal bloke down the pub’ image that he has successfully constructed (regardless of the fact that he’s actually a privately educated banker).

The main problem is that the media and the political establishment are still behaving as if the 2015 election was ‘business as usual’ for British politics – where Labour and the Tories compete to decide who will form a majority government. But that wasn’t the case – regardless of how much the Tories would like to believe that they won a landslide majority victory thanks to a resurgent wave of British Conservatism.

In reality, neither of those things happened in 2015. The Tories won a narrow majority of 12 seats, thanks primarily to the collapse of the Lib Dem vote (27 of the seats the Tories gained in 2015 came from the Lib Dems). Meanwhile Labour haemorrhaged seats in Scotland due to the SNP’s landmark victory.

The Lib Dem collapse and the SNP’s surge were the real stories of the 2015 election – take those two things out of the equation and you have an election result remarkably similar to the 2010 election (with a couple of losses for the Toires and a couple of gained seats for Labour). Meanwhile, two of the smaller parties received more votes than ever – UKIP got nearly 4 million votes and the Greens took over a million. Conversely, the Tories managed to win a Commons majority by getting only 24% of the electorate to vote for them.

If the 2015 election proved one thing, it’s that a significant number of the British electorate are more willing than ever to vote for an alternative – which, in 2015, manifested itself as support for UKIP, the Greens and the SNP.

Of course under first-past-the-post, it’s still incredibly difficult for these small parties to turn their votes into seats in parliament (UKIP’s millions of votes translated to a single seat). But if that outsider/man-of-the-people alternative suddenly finds itself as the leader of the opposition – the story is dramatically different.

Under Corbyn, Labour could win back disgruntled former Labour voters from the Greens, SNP and UKIP – people who abandoned Labour because it had become nothing but a watered down version of the Tories. That alone could net them a couple million more votes – enough to put Labour level with the Tories (who polled 11 million votes compared to Labour’s 9 million in 2015).

But winning back disgruntled former voters from smaller parties isn’t the only prospect of a Corbyn-led Labour party. He is also the is only the leader in years who stands a chance of engaging some of the 33% of the electorate who didn’t vote – those famously disengaged from politics.

This is both Corbyn’s secret weapon and the Tories biggest threat. If just a fifth of the people who didn’t vote in 2015 could be persuaded to vote Labour, that would be enough to not just draw level with the Tories but decisively beat them. Meanwhile, traditional Tory election strategy continues to deliberately ignore non-voters. Tory strategy operates on shoring up their vote with the key groups who traditionally come out and vote in large numbers while ignoring those who don’t.

With his appeal to both disgruntled former-Labour voters who left to smaller parties and traditionally disengaged non-voters, Corbyn finds himself in a unique position – a Labour leader who may be able to beat the Tories without having to pander to middle-England (at least not as much as previous Labour leaders).

That’s precisely why the right-wing establishment have now stopped treating Corbyn as a joke and are instead viewing him as a genuine threat. Undoubtedly their attack on him (should he become Labour leader) will be unparalleled – they will attempt to portray him as a Socialist terrorist, determined to burn Britain to the ground. And yet, the establishment’s war of words may end up falling on deaf ears, as (for once) the people with biggest say in the outcome of the 2020 election may not be the ones reading the Daily Mail, The Sun or The Telegraph – and for Corbyn that could be decisive.