Labour goes on the offensive to defend its lead

by Prof Richard Rose, 1 June 2023

The Labour leadership is not taking for granted that it will win next year's general election because of the massive majority that its current poll lead promises. This month it is 16 percent but if the lead falls to 5 percent the Conservatives do not win the election but Labour loses its majority and becomes a minority government vulnerable to defeat in the House of Commons at the first sign of being electorally unpopular.

The Labour lead is vulnerable to shrinking as the next election approaches because its lead is boosted by support from Conservative voters repelled by the shamelessness of Boris Johnson and the radicalism of Liz Truss. Rishi Sunak, who has neither of these characteristics, is making a determined effort to recall lapsed supporters to the Tory ranks.

Probability of Parliamentary outcomes June 2023

Labour is now seeking to add support by a flanking operation, appealing to those who currently tell pollsters that if an election were held this week they would vote for the Scottish National Party or vote Green. In the UK as a whole, both are political minnows. The SNP vote is always less than five percent because it only fights in Scottish seats. While the Green Party's support in the polls has doubled, that is only because it was 2.8 percent at the last election. In this month's polls, the two parties together have the support of nine percent of respondents.

The SNP's infighting in choosing a new, weak leader and its mishandling of both government and party finance is currently gifting Labour fifteen seats in addition to the one seat it won in Scotland at the last election. Most are seats re-gained by Labour, because they were red seats before they went tartan.

The Green Party does best in the blue-wall seats in the South of England. In 2019 the Greens took only one of the 25 seats in which they won their largest share of the vote. A relatively big Green vote is small in absolute terms, 3,500 in 2019 and less than 5,000 votes in most of the 25 seats in which it now does best. Nonetheless, if a few thousand Green supporters acted tactically, switching to Labour to prevent the return of a Conservative government, that would help Labour candidates across England. The more support the Conservatives regain, the more credible becomes the incentive for current Green supporters to vote tactically.

Keir Starmer has launched an appeal to Green voters in Scotland by stating Labour's opposition to further investment in extracting oil and gas off the North-East Coast of Scotland. However, this appeal is backfiring, creating opposition from trade unions representing Labour voters dependent for jobs on North Sea oil production. In the South of England, Labour has proposed housing policies to make it cheaper to build new houses on agricultural land, a policy that can unite opposition from Tory NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yard) and Green supporters protective of greenfield sites.

The potential reward for Labour by appealing to the Greens is slight. Labour already holds ten of the 25 seats in which the Greens are strongest. Of the 14 Conservative-held seats, Electoral Calculus predicts that four can swing Labour if its current nation-wide appeal to dissatisfied Tory voters holds up. Stroud is the only constituency where a direct switch by all Green voters can be sufficient to deliver the seat to Labour.

In short, the best strategy for Labour is to re-assure supporters who have defected from the Conservative Party that they have nothing to fear from a fresh face in Downing Street. In such circumstances, Sir Keir Starmer's low-key personality may even be an asset.

Richard Rose is Britain's senior psephologist and an expert on party government. His new book 'How Sick is British Democracy?: a Clinical Analysis' is published by Palgrave.