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.