A careful read of political trends and polling shows us that a hung Parliament, as matters stand, is more likely than a Labour majority government at the next general election (and that Rishi Sunak could become the comeback kid of British politics).
Why? Because there are several factors at play, spanning electoral arithmetic and party politics.
First, for Starmer to secure a working majority he needs to outperform his counterparts in Opposition at the ‘sea-change’ elections since World War Two: Clement Attlee, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair.
Starmer’s distinguished predecessors read and responded to the mood of the country with a policy agenda equal to the level of change being demanded at the time.
Admittedly, the next election is 22 months away, but after 30 months as Labour Leader, voters struggle to cite what Starmer stands for (or a policy agenda). History suggests such vanilla personalities and platforms do not go hand-in-hand with ‘sea change’ electoral moments.
Second, due to parliamentary arithmetic, any Labour landslide needs a record-breaking swing so they can form a Government without a coalition partner. The consensus has been that Labour needs a swing of at least 12.5 per cent to secure a technical majority.
However, some psephologists, such as John Curtice argue that this figure could be higher than 13 per cent and almost 14 per cent (due to the constituency boundaries on which the 2024 General Election will be contested). This makes Starmer’s task even more challenging and requires him to significantly outperform Tony Blair in 1997, who recorded an historic 10.2 per cent swing.
Third, by-election performances are like polls – good at conditioning opinion but not so good at forecasting general elections. Labour’s performance at the City of Chester and Wakefield by-elections was ten points lower than the average of the big by-election wins during the Blair years in opposition.
Despite these two contests straddling the Truss administration, the recorded swings were very similar (in the low-teens). The swing to Labour in the Stretford and Urmston constituency, last week, was lower still, at 10.5 per cent. Confirming, if anything, that Labour is far from being on course to form a majority government in 2024.
Fourth, the lessons from previous electoral cycles show that simply not being the Government does not deliver an election victory. Even when the governing party presides over downturns and recessions they do not always prove to be terminal for a Party’s electoral prospects.
The Conservatives had a string of bad ratings during the early premiership of John Major, polling some 17-24 points behind Labour in 1990, from February, March and April respectively (ref, Ipsos). Two years later, after a recession and against a backdrop of faltering recovery, John Major won an historic fourth term.
Equally, Gordon Brown as a relatively new Prime Minister was confronted with a recession – and his very mixed 13 year legacy – but managed to stave off electoral collapse at the ensuing General Election in 2010. (Arguably, some nimble footwork by Brown might even have delivered a deal with the Liberal Democrats and another term in office.)
Fifth, party politics may be entering a period of convergence. During the last century, the electoral system produced only one hung Parliament. Voters have delivered two during the first two decades of this one.
The political strategies of Starmer and Sunak, by default or design, are currently reducing political differences. This can reduce the starkness of choice for voters and history suggests, the likelihood of big swings, or surprise results.
Sixth, there are two years of this parliament to run – during which external shocks could intervene and decisively disrupt the narrative of UK politics, again. What we have learnt from recent experience is that the impact of a dramatic shock prompts voters to tack towards the current administration (‘a flight to incumbency’). We saw this in the UK at the onset of Covid pandemic, when both approval for the Conservatives and the then Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, rose to record levels.
In a year’s time, the extent to which the prospects for the Conservative Party are coloured by the Truss legacy and tied to future economic events will become clearer. Equally, if the economic forecasts of the OBR come good the UK should be experiencing low inflation and rising growth as it enters the second half of 2024. This could bode well for Team Sunak and not so well for Team Starmer.
The Labour Party’s rapport with Stamer is shallow. The greater the sense that victory is illusory, the uneasy truce that exists at the top of the Party will fall apart and the fallout could be devastating for their cohesion, credibility and electoral prospects.
As the date of the next general election comes into view, if pollsters predict that a ‘hung Parliament’ is the most likely outcome, it could impact upon and alter voter behaviour. The Conservatives may highlight the prospect of a Liberal Democrat power share with Labour and a push for closer ties with the EU.
The Party may also highlight that an inconclusive outcome could hand the Scottish Nationalist MPs the balance-of-power at Westminster. ) As they did during the 2015 General Election, “Vote Miliband Get Sturgeon”). We could expect this narrative to be replayed in 2024 – with the constitution being a much larger issue than previously anticipated, both before and after the election.