The Rochester & Strood by-election may not prove to have been especially damaging to Labour, despite the hoo-ha over Emily Thornberry’s tweet. The party’s disappointing but not humiliating third place was partly due to two different streams of defectors from Labour – to Tory to keep UKIP out, and to UKIP to help defeat the Tories. For what it is worth, there was a nominal, swing of 1.5 per cent from Tory to Labour.
Yet there is no denying that the party has lost ground since Ed Miliband’s underwhelming performance at the Labour party conference. His already dire poll ratings have got even worse, and the Labour lead in the polls, which averaged five per cent since the beginning of the year, has virtually disappeared. Given that governments almost invariably gain ground in the last six months before polling day, what confidence can Labour have of keeping its nose ahead of the Tories, let alone of winning an overall majority?
There are, however, three reasons why we should ignore the conventional wisdom. Firstly, Miliband’s position is by no means unprecedented. It is extremely difficult for opposition leaders to achieve a marked superiority over an incumbent prime minister. The only examples since 1945 have been Wilson over Douglas-Home in the run-up to the 1964 election, and Blair against Major in 1997.
Yet there have been three cases in the same period in which opposition leaders much less popular than their opponents have led their parties to victory. The most recent was in 1979, when Margaret Thatcher, who trailed James Callaghan in the polls by 44 per cent to 25 per cent, romped home with a majority of 43 seats. Nine years earlier, in 1970, Ted Heath, despite being led by Harold Wilson 47 per cent to 31 per cent, unexpectedly won a 30-seat majority. More spectacularly, in 1945, Clement Attlee swept to victory with an overall majority of 148. There were no opinion polls on party leaders in 1945, but nobody has ever contested that Churchill, the great war leader, was infinitely more popular than his opponent, who despite having been deputy prime minister for five years was virtually unknown, and was largely overshadowed by such figures as Ernest Bevin, Herbert Morrison, Stafford Cripps and Hugh Dalton.
The fact that relatively unpopular leaders have won in the past does not mean that unpopularity is not a major handicap, and it may remain so for Miliband. But I suspect that this has already been discounted by the voters, and that this is reflected in the party standings. If Ed was popular one might expect Labour to be hovering around a 10 per cent, rather than a one per cent lead. And it is not at all evident that he faces a highly popular opponent. Cameron’s poll ratings are consistently negative, even though they are much better than Miliband’s.
Secondly, there is a more important factor which is likely to help Labour – the bias in the electoral system, estimated – according to the authors of the 2010 Nuffield election survey – to be worth around 50 extra seats to Labour. Their conclusion is that to obtain an overall majority, Labour would need a lead over the Tories “of a little under three points, the Conservatives would require one of over 11 points”. More recent research, by Professor Ron Johnston of Bristol University, suggests that the Labour bonus was shrunk to 30 seats – still a major advantage.
Finally, the next election will not be a presidential contest between Cameron and Miliband, but rather a messy four- or five-party election. The level of UKIP’s surge is difficult to predict, but it seems highly likely to be at the expense of the Tories rather than Labour. Recent polls, and the two by-elections, at Clacton and Heywood & Middleton, showed that they took three votes from the Tories to every one from Labour. If this trend continues, and UKIP maintains even half of its current level of support, it could have a devastating effect on the Tories’ representation. And Labour will certainly pick up a disproportionate number of Lib Dem switchers. UKIP may indeed represent a serious long-term threat to Labour, but the better it does next May the better it will be for Labour. Recent analysis by YouGov boss Peter Kellner suggests that at worst it may pick up a small handful of Labour seats, if any at all, but apart from its own gains from the Tories, could potentially deliver a far larger number of marginal seats to the Labour party.
Most electoral experts now believe that another ‘hung’ parliament is likely. If that happens, the general belief is that Labour would head a coalition or a minority government only if it turned out to be the larger of the two main parties. That is not necessarily so. Last time the Lib Dems decided to go in with the largest party, rather than that to which they were closer in policy terms. This was perhaps because Nick Clegg had developed a strong aversion to Gordon Brown, and because the parliamentary arithmetic pointed in that direction.
I published an article at the time, predicting that this would be a disaster for the Lib Dems, citing six occasions since 1794 when Whigs or Liberals had gone into coalitions with Tories, and every time were screwed by them. I take no pleasure in being proved right, but would hazard a guess that next time they will make a different choice. And the indications are that both the Scottish Nationalists and, more bizarrely, UKIP, would be willing to support a minority Labour government on a ‘confidence and supply’ basis. So even if the Tories have the most seats, Miliband may well become the next prime minister, despite ‘losing’ the election.
Dick Leonard is a journalist and former Labour MP, and is author of A History of British Prime Ministers: Walpole to Cameron (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).