Labour’s road to victory
This post originally appeared on Progress Online.
Labour’s target list in the 2015 election includes 106 constituencies that the party aims to add to the 258 seats it won in the general election of 2010. If the party were to hit all the targets, it would have 366 seats and therefore a comfortable overall majority of 83 in the House of Commons – more than in 2005 but less than in the next most comparable election, Harold Wilson’s landslide of 1966. This is an ambitious target, but not an impossible one – it is almost identical to the number of gains the Conservatives made in 2010. One has already been made, in the Corby by-election of November 2012, and two seats that were Labour in 2010 no longer are because of a member of parliament losing the whip (Falkirk) and a by-election loss (Bradford West).
There are two intermediate staging-posts on the way to that comfortable overall majority. It would take a gain of 27 seats – this list only as far as Brentford and Isleworth – in order for Labour to become the largest single party in a hung parliament and therefore most likely to lead a government. To win exactly half the seats in a 650-seat House of Commons, a party needs to win 325 seats, which means 67 net gains. If Labour gets to 325 MPs, it will in practice have a tiny overall majority because Sinn Fein MPs do not take their seats and the speaker does not vote unless there is a tie.
However, such a bare majority is insufficient to ensure that a Labour government has the authority to overcome potential obstacles and implement its policies. A solid grip on power requires breaking into the ‘Frontline 40’ that lie beyond the first 66 gains. Even if Labour wins the election with a good majority, there will probably be one or two of the first 66 constituencies that fail to come over because regional and local variations are becoming more important in election outcomes. By crafting an effective national message, selecting good candidates, listening to voters and running intelligent and locally appropriate campaigns, Labour can do a lot to maximise its gains among the first 66 target seats as well as the Frontline 40.
Target seats are to be found in every one of the 11 electoral regions of mainland Britain, from Plymouth in the south-west to Dundee in Scotland and from Preseli Pembrokeshire in Wales to Waveney in the east. Even among the 27 needed to just overtake the Conservatives, there are seats in every electoral region other than Scotland. The richest concentrations of marginal seats, however, are to be found in the north-west and west Midlands, which have traditionally been the swing regions in British elections. One should also note the importance of the east of England, Labour’s worst region in the 2010 election and one where the party has a lot of recovering to do.
As one might expect, the vast bulk of the target seats are currently held by the Conservatives – 86 out of 106. There are 16 Liberal Democrat seats on the list (one or two others, particularly in Scotland, might be worth a shot as well), and four held by other parties. However, the electoral situation varies in these Conservative-held seats. In some, the Tories won in 2010 with a pretty low share of the vote because the vote was split between several parties, as in Northampton North, target number 39, which they won with 34 per cent compared to 29 per cent for Labour. In others, the Conservatives won more convincingly, for instance in Harlow, target number 81, where they polled 45 per cent support and Labour was on 34 per cent. Winning over Liberal Democrats is enough to win in places like Northampton North, but to make deep inroads in the target list requires knocking the Conservatives down a bit in seats where they did well in 2010.
The vast majority of the target seats are urban or suburban. There are some rural targets in Wales (the Carmarthen and Pembroke seats), a couple of vague prospects in Scotland, and some scattered special cases in England such as Stroud, where David Drew gathered a particularly strong personal vote during his time as member of parliament between 1997 and 2010. Back in 1945 Labour was strong in rural Norfolk but those days are long gone. There are also few seats from the big cities of the Midlands and north. These were once battlegrounds – Labour’s majority in 1964 was achieved with four gains from the Conservatives in Liverpool – but the target seats there are now mostly Liberal Democrat outposts, such as Birmingham Yardley and Manchester Withington.
Although each marginal seat has its individual features, there are some broad groups that can be identified. One such group, particularly strongly represented among those seats that make the difference between being the largest single party and having a majority, are constituencies that basically consist of one free-standing town whose demographics are close to the national averages and which therefore tends to reflect the national mood. Most of what one can write about the political prospects for Chester or Worcester can also be applied to Gloucester or Lincoln. There is another group of seats, either side of the Pennines, whose members have the uncanny ability to pick the national winner time after time despite their apparently unusual local politics and social changes brought on by immigration and home-ownership. These include Keighley, Pendle and Colne Valley.
Then there is a group of target seats where Labour’s performance in 2010 was particularly bad. Losing some of these apparently reliable seats, like Thurrock and Cannock Chase, was a bitter and unexpected blow, but in others, particularly in the New Towns of the south and Midlands like Stevenage and Tamworth, the switch to the Tories was no surprise. Labour’s performance in the New Towns has often been disappointing; their voters seem particularly volatile and difficult to convince.
By contrast, some of the seats where Labour was not far behind in 2010 had been considered unwinnable, or winnable only in huge landslides, before 1997. The prospect of seaside areas such as Hove or Morecambe, and northern and London suburbs like Wirral West and Hendon, being ‘must-win’ seats for Labour would have been absurd in 1992.
Most of the target seats were Labour in 2005, with a few rare exceptions mostly to be found in Scotland. A couple of the targets are Liberal Democrat constituencies that have never voted Labour before, including Edinburgh West and Argyll and Bute, although low swings in a couple of marginal seats that went Conservative in 2005 have meant that these retain their place high up the target list. Ilford North and Peterborough fall into this category.
People sometimes ask whether there is one seat that can represent the nation as a whole. There are some that seem to get the winner right most of the time, but one should be cautious. Gravesham still has the best record since 1918, but in 2005 it got it ‘wrong’. South Derbyshire has a perfect record since 1964, but its 14-point Tory margin in 2010 is well above the national average (seven points). If Labour ends up winning narrowly in 2015, one can expect South Derbyshire and Harlow to stay Conservative; likewise, Labour might win Broxtowe, despite its slight Tory lean in the past, or Bury North even if the Tories are staying in power nationally. Pendle got the national shares of the vote as ‘right’ as anywhere in 2005 and 2010, but it is far from typical of the nation.
In conclusion, this is a ‘One Nation’ target list, in terms of its geographical spread and social characteristics. A handful will respond particularly strongly to individual policies, but most need the same sort of thing. Winning the bulk of them is challenging, but not very complicated: having a strong, credible national message that is well communicated; good candidates in place; a dialogue with local voters; and good organisation. Nearly all the candidates have now been selected. The campaign is already under way.