Winning in 2020 was never going to be an easy task for any new Labour leader: the 2015 election left the Labour party in its worst position since 1987.
The strategy that seems to be coming out of Team Corbyn for 2020 is to unite the left wing under the red flag and persuade non-voters to turn out for Labour, rather than attempting to woo Conservative voters.
It’s fair to say that a lot of people in the Labour party aren’t sold on this strategy. But can it work? And if so, what will it take? I decided to take a look.
Taking the 2015 result as a starting point, and assuming every Labour voter sticks with the party, I’ve run the numbers on how many seats Labour can win at the expense of other parties.
In each of the 11 scenarios I have run, I have reassigned every single person who voted for other selected parties over to Labour.
The results are stark.
Most of the scenarios don’t provide Labour with a parliamentary majority. In four of them, Labour isn’t even the largest party!
And in the most ambitious left wing-only scenario – where Labour takes every single Green, Lib Dem and Nationalist vote – they are rewarded with a meagre majority of just 25.
This will be a huge concern to those in the Labour party who are worried that Jeremy Corbyn is both unwilling and unable to appeal to right wing voters.
So that’s the potential for Labour in 2020. But what exactly will Corbyn need to do to get into Downing Street? To answer this question, I’ve come up with two scenarios, once again using the 2015 election results as my starting point.
(Please note, the data used in all cases from here on is for Great Britain only, as Labour does not stand in Northern Ireland).
The first is a “surgical” scenario, which transfers exactly the lowest number of votes from other parties in the most efficient manner in each seat that would be needed to push Labour up to a Commons majority of 1 seat.
I then repeated this for each seat, and for different scenarios: where Labour took votes off all parties, just right-wing parties, just left-wing parties and where it attracted non-voters only.
This scenario serves to highlight the absolute bare minimum Corbyn will need to obtain his majority.
It shows that Labour needs to persuade over 460,000 people to switch from left-wing parties to get a majority of one, but would only need to persuade just under 200,000 if they wooed Tories too.
The second scenario is a more conventional “uniform” vote swing.
This transfers an identical proportion of votes across every constituency from opposing parties to Labour, until such a point as a Commons majority is won.
This scenario is designed to provide a more realistic view of what Labour must achieve.
So to get a majority Labour needs a 5.1 per cent vote shift from all parties, but a left wing only approach would require a 24.1 per cent swing vote shift. Such a shift is so high that many constituencies run out of left wing voters long before it is reached.
If that 24.1% figure seems daunting enough on its own, then let me throw this at you.
Only twice since the end of the second world war (1945 and 1997) has Labour seen its vote increase by 5.1 per cent – the “best case” from the uniform scenario.
The results of both scenarios show clearly that courting Conservative voters is by far the easiest route into power.
Jeremy Corbyn has also expressed significant interest in trying to entice those who do not normally vote into voting Labour in 2020.
This approach is marginally more effective than courting left wing voters only in the surgical scenario, and significantly better in the uniform scenario.
Even so, the number of non-voters needed in the uniform scenario amounts to a full 5 million people who need to be persuaded to vote Labour in 2020.
The kind of turnout involved in that scenario hasn’t been seen since 1992, and an increase in turnout of that magnitude at a single election has only happened twice (1950 and Feb 1974) in the post-war period.
The cold reality of the numbers is that Labour needs to win over right wing voters, specifically Conservative ones. Unfortunately, this seems to be exactly the opposite of what Jeremy Corbyn intends to do.
And why would he? Jeremy Corbyn is a man who has held out his ideology from the 1980s: he didn’t wait that long just to start pandering to right wing voters once his moment came.
The wider political reality facing the current Labour party is no more conducive to a strategic shift either, with more moderate MPs facing potential deselection at the hands of Momentum firebrands seeking to install Corbynite candidates.
Likewise, the Labour membership is not on board either. Polling by the LabourList website (whose readership backed Corbyn for leader) found 45% of respondents would prefer to focus on appealing to non-voters.
This was nearly three times the 17% who thought trying to win over Conservative voters should be the priority (a further 35% thought the party should target those groups equally).
An approach focusing on trying to entice left-wing and non-voters is therefore the most likely course of action.
But if the right wing approach is beautiful in its simplicity, the left wing approach is distressing in its complexity.
Mathematically, a strategy that leaves as many Scottish/Welsh nationalists in place makes the most sense, as their continued strength of numbers provides Labour the best opportunity to form a government (albeit in coalition or minority government with nationalist support).
Politically, though, there are many reasons why such an approach would be impossible. It was the prospect of a Labour/SNP coalition that helped contribute to the Conservatives’ surprise victory in 2015 – this is hardly likely to be any more appealing to voters a second time around. In any case, there is no chance that Scottish Labour will co-operate with any strategy that gives Scotland up for the SNP.
Additionally, an alliance with the SNP would likely doom any chance of doing a deal with the Northern Irish unionists (who have shown willingness to engage with Corbyn). In the event of a hung parliament, this may compromise Corbyn’s ability to form a government.
So Corbyn will have to go on the attack in Scotland (I’m talking primarily about Scotland as Labour nabbing the nationalist vote in Wales will deliver only 7 seats at best, only 3 of them from the Tories).
This means that a huge amount of time and resource will be spent on a strategy that doesn’t put Corbyn any closer to Downing Street: taking votes from the SNP can only deprive the Tories of one Scottish seat.
It also pushes up the number of parties that Labour needs to be taking voters from, making it harder to find policy and messaging that will work for everyone without scaring voters off.
And without broader Labour success in England, as far as the Conservatives are concerned it doesn’t make a difference whether seats in Scotland are held by Labour or the SNP: both parties are equally hostile to them, and their seats unlikely to switch to the Tories.
Compounding this, not only must they fight in Scotland, but they must do incredibly well there too. Remember, the best majority Corbyn can hope to reach by winning votes from just left wing parties is 25 seats.
This means that failure to win seats in Scotland must be compensated for by victories in England. And pickings here are slim: of England’s 533 seats, only 254 of them could have been won on the backs of left wing voters alone in 2015 (plus, Labour already won 206 of those seats). This leaves just 48 seats from which Labour must make its gains.
|Theoretically winnable seats that Labour doesn’t already hold|
|Right wing parties only||325||14||12||351|
|Left wing parties only||48||43||10||101|
There’s a perverse upside to these bleak figures in England.
If it’s possible to win only a few seats there, then that does allow for an incredibly targeted campaign (doubly necessary if resources are being sent to the meatgrinder that will be the Scottish battleground).
If Labour can join and rig nascent plans among progressive parties to not stand candidates in certain seats in an effort to beat the Tories, then this will amplify their chances.
Of England’s 48 winnable seats, the biggest left wing party in 41 of those are the Lib Dems and the Greens in the other seven.
The Greens are the only party from which Labour has seen a net flow of voters post-Corbyn’s election, so it’s worth any English strategy focusing on the Lib Dems instead.
That’s my best take on how Corbyn wins the 2020 general election.
Set a strategy early
But why is it important for Labour to be talking about this now, in early 2016? Why not wait until closer to the election? Simple: because as Phil Cowley and Dennis Kavanagh revealed in their book The British General Election of 2015, Labour campaigners during the election:
“struggled to convince voters of the manifesto’s economic responsibility because ‘the rhetoric used in the first half of the parliament shaped public and media perceptions of our final policy offer’.”
If Jeremy Corbyn is willing to do what it takes to win, that means he’s going to have to set out his appeal to right wing voters now, before it’s too late.
This doesn’t just mean finding policies that will win him right wing voters. He will need to stop external forces binding him to a left-wing manifesto: he will need to avert a Momentum coup in seats held by moderate Labour MPs, and he must abstain from using Labour membership votes to dictate manifesto policies years in advance (as he reportedly seeks to do with Trident).
Ultimately though, in the real world the left wing only strategy is completely doomed. For a start, the scenarios have all been based on the assumption that Labour has not lost any support. Corbyn will almost certainly have lost Labour voters, and probably more than he has gained.
As if this wasn’t bad enough, no major party has ever achieved a shift in votes as high as the one Corbyn’s left wing only strategy would need.
Even the sainted Clement Attlee “only” gained a 10.2 per cent vote shift in 1945, and that was from a far more conducive set of circumstances.
Nor can Corbyn rely on gaining non-voters. For a start, non-voters are harder to get to the polls for your party than people who are motivated to vote. And it would be unwise to assume that non-voters have political allegiances that are more radically pro-Labour than the rest of the electorate.
Additionally, the shift to individual voter registration will make Labour’s task of increasing turnout that much harder still, with students – a highly Labour-leaning group – the most likely to have been affected.
One more thing
Finally, the boundary changes due to be announced this autumn will only make things even harder still, with Labour set to lose 24 seats – 10 more than the Tories, and as many as all British parties put together.
If Jeremy Corbyn is genuinely, truly, serious about winning the 2020 general election, so that he can exercise the levers of power to help the citizens of the UK, Labour’s strategy must therefore not only involve courting the Conservative vote, but make it the key focus of the entire enterprise.
Somehow, with this leader, and this membership, I just don’t see it happening. Do you?