Soft-pedalling the campaign is a sign of both weakness and strength
Conventional wisdom says that general elections are won or lost based on the decisions of a few tens of thousands of swing voters across the country’s marginal seats. As an assertion, it was never entirely true – those voters made next to no difference in 1983 or 1997 for example – but in an increasingly fractured party system, the assumptions on which it rests become more and more questionable.
Those assumptions (and indeed, the whole concept of ‘swing’), go back to a time when there were only two main parties and there were high and stable turnouts. A lost voter for one party was a gained voter for the other. While we shouldn’t over-egg the death of Uniform National Swing, it’s far from the psephological rule it once was. Indeed, perhaps not coincidentally, as campaigning techniques have become ever more sophisticated in targeting, so the extent to which those voters ‘decide’ elections has declined: you can’t expect a uniform swing if you don’t have a uniform campaign.
Which brings us to Newark. On one level, Labour not campaigning too hard there was understandable: they were starting well back and while the principal party of opposition has won by-elections before on the sort of swing required, not with a poll lead in low- to mid-single figures. A gain would have been nice for them but it was never on the cards. There’s an attractive argument that it’d be much better to spend the money saved on the target seats instead.
Not being distracted by the tempting but unlikely opportunities Newark offered is in that sense a sign of strength from the Labour campaign HQ: that they will keep their eyes on the important priority, namely winning the seats they actually need to form a government.
On the other hand, it’s not a strategy without risk. Soft-pedalling always brings with it the possibility of a much worse result than anticipated as the parties who are going for it squeeze the rest out. Reports of natural Labour supporters voting Con to keep UKIP out are therefore unsurprising. As it’s also entirely possible that some voted UKIP to inflict a defeat on the Tories (the desire for such a result having been initially put forward as one reason Labour didn’t try too hard in the first place), one has to question whether the net effect was worth the sacrifice.
That kind of tactical leakage is in microcosm, symptomatic of the bigger problem: which are the target seats? UKIP are up over ten per cent since 2010 and the Lib Dems down by even more. With considerable differences in how that will play out across the constituencies, what might be winnable (or losable) becomes a lot harder to call than a simple application of UNS would make it.
The important thing about Newark was that Labour chose not to pursue their claim as chief challengers to the Tories, despite starting in second (and despite audaciously, but falsely, claiming to represent a One Nation tradition). Newark might have been a challenge too far but if Labour can soft-pedal a by-election, they can and probably will soft-pedal plenty of constituencies at a general election.
That’s fine as long as you pick and choose correctly, though it risks the party atrophying elsewhere. Get it wrong though – and with the vote-churn there’s been since 2010, it’s far easier to get it wrong – and you could both miss out on makeable gains and, even worse, lose seats previously assumed to be safe.