CHAPTER
7

The Scale of the Challenge

CHAPTER
7

The Scale of the Challenge

  • Labour cannot afford to be complacent about the seats it currently holds 
    To win a parliamentary majority of one at the next election, Labour needs to gain 123 additional seats across the UK 
  • We should not assume we will be rescued by demographic or geographical trends
  • Labour needs to identify and build a coalition of voters that spans generations, geographies and outlooks
  • Our potential voting coalition shares much common ground on economic issues
  • There is a much broader range of viewpoints on cultural and values-based issues

Labour cannot afford to be complacent about the seats it currently holds

A key element in the story of this election was Labour’s insufficient recognition of the threat it faced in dozens of marginal seats. 

Despite now representing fewer constituencies than at any time since 1935, Labour cannot afford to be complacent about the seats it currently holds.

The pattern described in Chapter 1 – of Labour support dropping and remaining at a lower level, followed after some delay by cumulative increases in Conservative vote share – can be seen not only in seats lost in recent elections, but also in those we still hold but which now look much more marginal. 

There are 58 seats across the country that would be lost with a further swing of 6 per cent to the Conservatives. There is no evidence, yet to date, that the long term trends described in Part 1 are yet abating.



At the same time, it would be wrong to imagine that Labour’s new areas of concentrated support amount to a new “core” or “base” that it can count on to stick with it. 

Many city-based and academic seats were lost by Labour to the Liberal Democrats and even the Conservatives in 2005 and 2010. High levels of switching and tactical voting among these electorates mean Labour cannot take for granted advances it has made in these areas over recent elections.

To win a parliamentary majority of one at the next election, Labour needs to gain 123 seats across the UK 

To win a parliamentary majority at the next election, Labour needs to gain 123 seats on top of its 2019 result. This would require a swing of over 10 per cent. In doing so, the party would need to win seats in every part of the UK and from other parties as well as the Conservatives. For example, without winning seats from the SNP or Plaid Cymru, the swing required in England and Wales would need to be over 12 per cent. If a boundary review goes ahead as now seems certain, it has been estimated that the net effect would probably be to increase the required swings by at least another percentage point.[157]

According to analysis by the Fabian Society[158], on current boundaries, if the seats Labour needs to win are ordered simply by the swing required relative to the 2019 result:

  • Most (63 per cent) of these seats are in the North, Midlands and Wales, and over 80 per cent are in what the Fabian analysis classifies as “towns” rather than cities. Most are now held by the Conservatives and are in areas where Labour has been losing support for many years as part of the long term decline we have discussed. There is no route back to power - even a minority government - without winning these seats.
  • Winning back seats in the North, Midlands and Wales is essential, but will not be sufficient to rebuild a majority. Around a quarter (24 per cent) of these seats are in the South, and 30 per cent voted Remain. If it is to form a Government again, Labour also needs to win more seats in London, commuter suburbs and towns like Swindon.[159]
  • 13 per cent of these seats are in Scotland (16 seats), 15 of them held by the SNP, and 14 are in Wales, 2 held by Plaid Cymru. Winning back seats in Scotland and Wales is essential to win a majority. Unless Labour wins seats from the SNP and Plaid Cymru, winning a majority would require us to win everything up to and including Jacob Rees Mogg’s seat of North East Somerset, which has a Conservative majority of 26.2 per cent.[160] 

Winning 123 seats would give Labour a majority of one. A majority that could see a radical, reforming Labour government through a full parliamentary term would need to be larger than this, entailing an even more profound electoral advance.



We should not assume we will be rescued by demographic or geographical trends

Labour’s advantage over the Conservatives among younger voters and those living in cities might lead us to hope that the Party’s position will be helped by increases in the relative weight of younger cohorts or more urbanised constituencies in future elections.

The effect such trends may take is highly uncertain, however. There is no guarantee that the political preferences and allegiances of today’s younger voters won’t shift as they grow older[161] - indeed, as we show below, there are signs that support for Labour policies among younger voters is highly variable. Nor is there strong evidence that the spread of conurbations to outer suburbs will automatically increase Labour’s vote share in those constituencies.

Even if there are trends that could work in Labour’s favour, they are not moving fast enough to tilt the balance by 2024, and would take several electoral cycles to bring a decisive benefit. One of the most important lessons of this review has been that losing political ground can be cumulative and increasingly difficult to reverse: the loss of councillor networks, closure of MSP or AM offices, and erosion of CLPs’ membership and links with the community, can reinforce each other and reduce the Party’s presence and campaigning capacity below the critical mass needed to maintain visibility and relevance.

This does not mean that the Party should not take a long-term view that looks beyond the immediate electoral cycle. Given the long running trends described in Part One, we should be using data analysis as well as political judgment on the ground, to develop strategy for building our support in constituencies over time horizons that reach beyond the next election cycle.[162]

Labour needs to identify and build a coalition of voters that spans generations, geographies and outlooks

Chapter 3 cited analysis by Datapraxis of polling data which maps the UK electorate into fourteen different clusters, each with a prevailing set of views, values and behaviours, and different socio-economic, demographic and regional distributions.


Looking at how these groups vote, Datapraxis found that 13 of them, together accounting for 88 per cent of the total electorate, contained significant numbers of Labour voters in 2019.

Four “core” groups together comprised 29 per cent of the total electorate, of whom 50 per cent or more voted Labour in 2019: 

  • Two of these, the “Green Left” and “Progressive Cosmopolitans”, both predominantly ABC1 and relatively concentrated in London, the South East and Scotland, proved relatively resilient in 2019. 
  • However, support for Labour among “Centre-Left Pragmatists”, mostly ABC1s in the North West, Scotland, and Wales, and “Anti-Tory Heartlands”, mostly C2DEs in Scotland and the North, fell significantly between 2017 and 2019.

These are the Labour voters we are most familiar with, and among whom it should be easiest to rebuild support. However, it is worth stressing that, even in the unlikely scenario of Labour winning the support of all of these voters, it would give it a vote share of less than 30 per cent.

Labour’s core support was augmented in 2019 by three young groups, together comprising 18 per cent of the total electorate, many of whom were eligible to vote for the first time in 2019.

  • Labour approached majority support among one of these groups, “Young Insta-Progressives”, predominantly ABC1s most commonly found in London and Scotland
  • Two others, “Young Apathetic Waverers” and “The Younger Disengaged”, mostly C2DEs spread throughout the UK, a fifth of whom voted Labour in 2019

The other key groups whose decisions have determined the outcome of recent elections are six groups of “swing” voters, together making up 41 per cent of the electorate, each of which includes voters who have supported Labour in the past and will be important to building a winning coalition.

  • Three of these, “Older Brexit Swing Voters”, “Anti-Establishment Hard Brexiteers”, and “The Older Disillusioned”, are most commonly found in the North, Midlands and Wales and tend to be middle aged or older voters in the C2DE social grades. 
  • Another three “centre-right” swing groups, “Older Establishment Liberals”, “Older Moderate Traditionalists” and “Pragmatic Tories” are more likely to be found in the South and fall within the ABC1 social grades

Of these, the most decisive in the last election may have been “Older Brexit Swing Voters”, relatively concentrated in the North East, Yorkshire and Humberside, and the Midlands, and less represented in London. In 2017 Labour won the support of 35 per cent of this group - up on 2015 (26 per cent) and 2010 (23 per cent). However, in 2019 support for Labour among this group fell to just 13 per cent.

The final group, labelled “Establishment Tory Brexiteers”, amount to 12 per cent of the electorate, and included no significant numbers of Labour voters in recent election.

Our potential voting coalition shares much common ground on economic issues

Datapraxis found that across all the thirteen groups from whom Labour has been able to draw support, there was little opposition to most of the Party’s key economic policy positions, from redistribution and corporate regulation to nationalisations, a higher minimum wage, and intervention in the housing market and the economy more generally. 

This is consistent with data reported in Part One, indicating that many of Labour’s economic policies were broadly supported, individually and in principle. However a critical issue, as we have seen, is the overall credibility and deliverability of the package.

Digging deeper into the responses helps us to see some important patterns and differences within this broad context. 

Views of this agenda are particularly variable among the three younger groups: clear majorities of “Young Insta-Progressives” support these positions but most “Young Apathetic Waverers”, and a significant minority of the “Young Disengaged”, say they don’t know or are neutral. This suggests that support for such policies among younger voters is not as solid as might be inferred from headline polling, and reinforces the case for caution in expecting Labour’s job to get easier as these cohorts make up a larger share of the electorate.

On a more optimistic note, attending to the distribution of “strong” support for different policies also offers indications of what may be most useful in winning over significant shares of key “swing” groups:

  • 56 per cent of “The Older Disillusioned” express strong support for a much higher minimum wage; 42 per cent strongly support a lot more redistribution of wealth; and 31 per cent strongly support a wealth tax
  • 43 per cent of “Anti-Establishment Hard Brexiteers” strongly support nationalising rail and 40 per cent strongly support nationalising utilities
  • 39 per cent of “Older Moderate Traditionalists” express strong support for much more government intervention in the housing market

Geographical patterns will also be worth investigating. Messages around NHS privatisation may be less resonant in Scotland and Wales, for example, given the devolution of relevant policies in those nations.

There is a much broader range of viewpoints on cultural and values-based issues

The cluster analysis conducted by Datapraxis confirms the divergence on social and cultural issues, highlighted in Part One of this report as an underlying tension and weakness in Labour’s potential coalition. 

It is important to recognise that there are areas of relative consensus - some of them hard fought for. Equal marriage is comparatively uncontroversial, consistent with other polling data indicating that views around sexuality, as well as gender and race, have converged over recent decades.

A key fault line runs between the three most “socially liberal” groups - “Progressive Cosmopolitans”, “Younger Instagram Progressives”, and “The Green Left” - and the rest of the electorate on many currently salient issues:

  • tighter immigration restrictions are opposed by these three groups, but supported by every other group across the electorate
  • “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” is a statement that these three groups (and the centre left pragmatists) tend to oppose but which finds widespread agreement among other groups
  • similarly, these three groups are less likely to agree with the statement “I am proud to be British”, but large majorities in every other group do

There is a range of views within every group, so these divisions are not absolute. However, the broad analysis makes clear the challenge Labour faces in this area: the three groups with the most “socially liberal” views across all questions make up the majority of Labour’s “core vote”, but just 21 per cent of the total electorate - barely half of the proportion needed to achieve a winning vote share. Disagreement with these three groups on some social issues is particularly sharp among the three “Brexit swing groups”, who are closest to them on many economic issues and are likely to be key to winning back seats in the North and Midlands.

Managing these differences will require a careful mediation, understanding and bridge-building between different groups, while not departing from Labour’s values and principles. As John Denham, who held a marginal seat for Labour for many years, has observed in the past “Labour does not need to agree with the voters on everything, just that we should not disagree with them on everything”. How this is achieved in terms of Labour policy is not a matter for this review; however, in the next chapter we set out how the Commission believes the party should strategically approach the challenge of coalition building between these different groups.

OUR COMMISSION CONCLUSIONS AND KEY FINDINGS

  • This Commission does not think the task of rebuilding a majority for Labour at the next General Election is impossible, but no-one should underestimate the scale and nature of the change that is necessary within our Party and in how we interact and engage with the public in order to achieve that.
  • Labour should not be complacent that our vote share can only go up, at the next election. There are 58 seats across the country which only require a small swing away from Labour to the Conservatives to be lost. Given the long-term trends set out which are particularly stark in some places, there is no evidence that these trends are abating. This should be of primary concern.
  • Moreover, there is no guarantee that our new ‘core vote’ will stick with us, given that this is concentrated in areas where other parties have held seats in the last 10 years, and this electorate is particularly volatile.
  • Labour faces a substantial challenge at the next election. To be the largest Party we would need a swing to Labour of 1997 proportions. To win a majority of 1 we would need to increase our number of MPs by 60 per-cent up by 123 seats, something no major Party has ever done. 
  • If Labour does not reverse its fortunes in Scotland in a significant way, it would need to win North East Somerset from Jacob Rees Mogg to form a majority government.
  • Labour needs to build a winning coalition of voters which spans generations, geographies and outlooks. This requires holding on to our current voter base (which should not be taken for granted), mobilising and inspiring more younger voters to turn out for Labour, as was achieved in 2017, while at the same time building a bridge with former Labour voters who are very distant from Labour presently, and attracting more swing voters. 
  • The next chapters lay out a potential basis for how Labour can go about building a winning coalition for the future (Chapter 8), and building a Party and movement that can meet this challenge (Chapter 9).
  1. Greg Cook research for Labour Together
  2. Another Mountain to Climb: Labour’s electoral challenge in the 2020s, The Fabian Society: https://fabians.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/Another-Mountain-to-Climb.pdf
  3. Sebastian Payne, ‘UK’s Labour faces a battle to retake its southern territory too’, Financial Times, 12 February 2020: https://www.ft.com/content/bc2d233e-4cae-11ea-95a0-43d18ec715f5
  4. Greg Cook research for Labour Together
  5. James Tilley, ‘Do we really become more conservative with age?’, The Guardian, 3 November 2015: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/nov/03/do-we-become-more-conservative-with-age-young-old-politics
  6. Momentum, written submission
FOREWORD
PART ONE: A HISTORIC DEFEAT
part two: LABOUR’S CAMPAIGN
PART THREE: THE WAY AHEAD
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
APPENDIX