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David Herdson says the electoral battlefield has never favoured LAB so strongly

April 19th, 2014

Is 35% Labour’s new bedrock support?

It’s better to be lucky than to be good, so the saying goes – and in politics, success or failure frequently turns on the timing of events over which those involved have little or no control: their luck, in effect.  What they make of that luck is a different matter.

To that end, the Lib Dems going into coalition with the Conservatives delivered Ed Miliband a very great slice of luck.  Not only did it enhance his own leadership prospects (a Con minority government would have been less stable and could easily have swung the Labour electorate behind his brother as a more proven option), but it led to the biggest voter realignment since the early 1980s; one that Labour benefitted greatly from.  Indeed, so great has been that shift that the question has to be asked whether it’s enough by itself to deliver him victory next year.

On some measures, Labour is performing very poorly.  Questions of leadership perception and economic competence consistently put Cameron or the Conservatives ahead.  Labour’s own voting intention rating has steadily drifted downwards from the mid-forties in 2012 to the mid- to high-thirties now.  Indeed, were it not for the Lib Dem to Lab switchers, Labour would be frequently polling in the twenties.  As the only major Westminster party opposing a government that’s been making cuts for four years, that’s shockingly poor.

Yet that current weakness demonstrates just how strong Labour’s underlying position is.  Gordon Brown polled disastrously in 2010: only once in the previous three-quarters of a century had his party received so few votes at a general election, and then only just – so those who did turn out for them must be a pretty firm base of pro-Labour support.  Add in the Lib Dem to Lab switchers – who seem well motivated against the parties of both Clegg and Cameron – and that base rises to around 35%: only just below where Labour is right now.

So the simple question is: can Labour actually fall any further?  Bar a point or two at most, the only way the figures could decline further is if other parties start eating into those who voted Labour in 2010, or into the Yellow-to-Reds – or if people from either of those groups sit it out altogether.  That’s not impossible: Labour in 1983 and the Conservatives in 2001 both went backwards after losing power, and from a weak starting point in the case of the Tories.  However, neither election was held in circumstances as favourable to the opposition as now.

    If Labour is at or near its new rock-bottom core support, then that puts it in an extremely strong position for 2015 given how that support is distributed (assuming a Scottish ‘No’ vote in September).  The Conservatives would need to poll well into the forties just to hold their current seats.

 That’s only really possible if UKIP’s support collapses and if it goes overwhelmingly Blue: two mighty big ‘if’s.  To look at it another way, is the improving economy really likely to switch many votes from Lab to Con when Labour’s hardly gained any swing voters from the Tories since 2010 anyway?

It could have been very different.  Had Cameron won enough extra seats to form a majority government – even one with a small majority – Clegg and the Lib Dems would never have become tainted to those on the left and it’s quite possible that Labour would be scrabbling with the Lib Dems for second place in the polls.  But that’s not what happened and the consequences of what did are that lucky Ed’s been handed a solid electoral coalition on a plate sufficient for him to cruise towards Downing Street.

David Herdson