You need more votes than your opponents, not predecessors

First published on LabourList

Elections are simple affairs in a first-past-the-post country. The task of the candidate is to get more votes than their opponent. Not 50 per cent of the vote, nor a reliance on being enough people’s second preferences to deny your adversary victory. Just more – one will suffice – than the other person standing.

The role of the party leader is not dissimilar. More votes than the party on the opposite benches and you invariably get more seats in the House of Commons. This has been true in every election for time immemorial bar, February 1974 when the Conservatives beat Labour by more than 200,000 votes, but had four fewer seats, and 1951 when the reverse was true. 2015 was no close run thing. Labour polled two million fewer votes than the Tories.

The job of the party leader is to beat your opponent not your predecessor, or predecessor but one, for that matter.
It is going around that ‘Ed Miliband in 2015 got more votes in England and Wales than Tony Blair in 2005′.

I do not dispute this fact – I campaigned in 87 targets seats in the preceding 18 months trying to win many of those votes. Kinnock in 1992 also got more than Blair in 2005. But it is how they are distributed that matters. The fact that Blair got more votes than his opponents in every election he fought matters even more. This was not the case of his predecessor but one, nor his successor but one.

The crude number of votes the party received in 2015 had three factors in their favour. The numbers are worth looking at.

First, turnout was higher. 2005 was the second lowest turnout on record with just 61.3 per cent of the electorate actually voting. In 2015, it was 66.1. The available voters was therefore considerably higher. Blair’s 35.2 per cent of the vote still beats 2015’s measly 30.4 regardless of how many votes were cast.

Second, the population, and therefore available voters, was higher. In 2005, 44.2 million people were eligible to vote. In 2015, it was a massive 46.4 million. A higher percentage turnout on a bigger number of people will always give a larger pool of voters from which to get your vote. If you control for population size Miliband did worse than his party a decade before.

Third, the Liberal Democrats. In 2005 the Liberal Democrat vote had gone up by 3.7 per cent, largely taking their vote from the incumbent of the day. In 2015 it was 15.2 per cent down and Labour were no way near the beneficiary of this decline in the way the authors of the ’35 per cent strategy’ had predicted. Again those pesky Tories shot a hole through this potential for Labour. They did better against the Nick Clegg’s party than anyone would have ever expected. In addition, the upsurge in support gained from the minor coalition party was offset somewhat by the fact Labour actually lost – I repeat, lost – votes to the Tories.
But back to the politics of this remark and why it matters now.

Comparing Blair’s low watermark – after eight years of what the proponents of this point seem to regard as a disaster – to Miliband’s bringing in of a new dawn is just ridiculous. Governments, other than David Cameron’s when up against Miliband, lose support. The scale of Miliband’s reforms that I very much hoped would be enacted were so huge that biggest party status or leading a minority or coalition government would not have sufficed. More importantly, change of this magnitude, is most likely to have required at least two terms. Even harder to achieve where your electoral strategy aims so low.

There is an element to this lame ‘fact’ that feels like ground hog day. In 2010 we had the ‘5 million votes’ nonsense. Blair was good but expecting an incumbent government to replenish the votes of the 3.5 million people who voted Labour in 1997 had died in the intervening years is madness. This feels the same.

Some in our party just cannot face up to the electoral reality for Labour because it mean acknowledging up that, as this month’s Progress magazine editorial says, “there is no alternative to winning than going to the people who voted Tory last time”. Fabian Society analysis shows that four out of five votes needed to win in 2020 must come from those who voted Tory in 2015. Those who want a Labour government again must aim to beat the Tories not Tony and, simply put, aim to get more than votes than our biggest opponent.

Richard Angell is the director of Progress

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