No matter what Labour decides to do with regard to a second referendum next week, as things stand it will lose seats. And as a party which has lost half its vote share in a little over six months, it shouldn’t expect to have any target seats, just defensive positions.
Before I explain why, I would like to make the following assumptions:
Assumption 1: all things being equal, the current polling position stays where it is. It could all change next week. Anyone care to predict? No, neither do I. I can only work from what’s in front of me and calculate from there. If things change, I’ll change.
Assumption 2: If Labour chooses to advocate for a second referendum and Remain, it will have a messenger in Jeremy Corbyn with about the worst approval rating in living memory. Appending a difficult message to such a messenger is problematic. Should we assume people will swallow what he and Labour say? Particularly given that they have had two years of triangulation and constructive ambiguity. Worse still, what if they see it as a selfish move simply to win votes? Will it work? The jury’s out, but it’s not clear to me (yet) that people will:
a) listening to what he says
b) believe it and
c) respond in the way Labour would like
So, with those assumptions in mind, and as things stand, if Labour chooses to advocate for a second referendum and/or campaign to Remain it:
a) loses any semblance of neutrality and
b) opens its flank up to attacks from the Brexit party and the Conservatives
That means it will lose seats to the Brexit party whilst heading off some of the losses it may have incurred by activating its more recent recruits from the Lib Dems and Greens. Which, in practical terms means it has a better chance of holding on to seats like London, Bristol and Brighton which are currently projected to fall to the Lib Dems, but will lose seats like Bassetlaw, Keighley, Heywood and Middleton, Chesterfield, Stoke Central and Lincoln to the Brexit party. On current polling it would lose 25 seats to the Lib Dems, around 65 to the Brexit party and less than 10 to the Conservatives.
If Labour advocated for a second referendum it would improve its chances in the seats it would have lost to the Lib Dems, but the 60 or 70 seats it loses to the Brexit party or Conservatives may increase further (see Assumption 1).
If the party chooses to advocate for Brexit and a deal, it again loses its neutrality but this time in a different direction. At that point, it opens up its flanks to advances from the Lib Dems, but the party also turns its face against Welsh and Scottish Labour, both of whom have very different Brexit positions. It will lose seats in places like London, Bristol, Brighton, Reading, Leeds, Canterbury and Sheffield to the Lib Dems, but lose fewer seats to the Brexit party or Conservatives. However, it will hope to fend off challenges from the Conservatives or the Brexit party in its traditional heartlands in the North and parts of the Midlands.
If the party chooses to do nothing and continue to triangulate it should also expect to lose seats. On current projections (Assumption 1 again), I have them losing around a hundred seats if things stay as they are. Doing Nothing is Labour’s very own No Deal strategy. Because it doesn’t really know what to do, it kicks it down the road and hopes for the best, all the while making vague noises to appease whichever flank it needs to keep on side. But Doing Nothing, like No Deal, isn’t a neutral option. It also loses the party seats. Mostly to the Brexit party but also to the Lib Dems and Conservatives.
So, in summary, as things stand (and they could change), the party is losing seats no matter what it decides to do. And even if it does decide to do something, there aren’t any guarantees it will be believed. However, it’s not all doom and gloom for Labour – well, actually it is – but there are ways in which the party can make something work.
Firstly, it’s important to come to peace with the fact that a four-party split means a LOT of seats will be won with around thirty per cent of the vote at the next election. In each seat, parties will need to calibrate how many voters they need to get to that thirty per cent mark. Meaning, the advantage goes to those parties with the machinery to:
a) identify that thirty per cent
b) get it out to vote. Peterborough demonstrated (again) that Labour is miles ahead of the other parties in being able to do just that. The party simply has the most up-to-date and extensive voter ID database, and by some distance (the party has the 2010 to 2015 campaign team to thank for that). I’m skeptical about the impact of ground campaigns ordinarily, but in this context they become a very real advantage.
Second, under our assumptions (and again, I do have to say this could all change) there is no party currently on track to achieve a majority in the House after the next election. What that means in practice is that parties can and will lose seats from their 2017 base, but could still be granted permission to form a government if they are the largest party. In a four-party system, with SNP strength unlikely to change markedly, the next election is a race to be the largest party, not the traditional horse race to win a majority. If that is the case, then Labour can lose seats and still form a government. Not that it would want to, of course.
However, it can choose which seats it wants to defend, on the understanding that it has a number in mind if it wants to be given permission to form a government. Importantly, it can live with the choices it makes on the assumption that the seats it loses fall to any prospective coalition partners. All of which may seem a very negative approach. But, remember, Labour has lost half its vote share in six months, meaning the strategy changes accordingly.
Which brings me on to a final point. On current polling, the very definition of a target seat has changed utterly. Labour, like the Conservatives, doesn’t have target seats it can ‘gain’ any more; it only has defensive seats. And those seats with majorities of less than say 2,000 from 2017? Well, they’re not marginals as things stand.
In 2015, Labour had a list of ‘defence’ seats it needed to defend from the advances of Ukip. This time, it would be wise to help the seats it can defend with majorities of less than say 10,000. A managed retreat is preferable to sending in resources and manpower to defend seats they can’t hope to hold without significant losses. Not that such a decision is easy. But this is where the party finds itself. At twenty per cent in the polls, you’re required to pick your fights and the unions, for all their noises to the contrary, won’t throw good money after bad.
So, there you have it. And one final, final point. On current projections, there isn’t an obvious majority for either Leave or Remain coalitions after the next election. The seat dynamics mean the parties can take seats off each other but we end up with fractious coalitions and a stubborn rump of thirty or so backbenchers from both Leave and Remain positions which frustrate any one side’s hopes of gaining ascendancy. And with that cheery conclusion, I leave.
Note: It could all change.
This article originally appeared on Ian Warren’s Medium page.