In digging deeper into the local election results, Trevor Fisher finds Labour still short of the elusive majority and points to a lesson from Harold Wilson
Nothing illustrates the motto ‘short term gain, long term pain’ better than the days since the announcement of the local May election results. On Friday May 5th, the results looked very good for the prospects of a majority Labour government. The leadership strategy seemed to be working.
As Keir Starmer had said in Stoke on March 23rd, “Mark my words – a Labour government is coming.”
To make it clear what the leadership thinks, Shabana Mahmood said the results showed Labour was “on course for majority government”. The leadership has come to believe that the New Labour strategy can be revived, and the electors on May 4th had come into line with this belief. As the figures were analysed, this conclusion had to be revised. The best analyses show the vote was 35-36% when extrapolated, meaning less than Corbyn got in 2017 (and Theresa May, each receiving 40% and 43% respectively) in losing the election. Labour could still scrape a majority in theory – Blair did on 35% of the vote share in 2005 – but to do that needs an evenly spread vote. Labour’s vote is concentrated in the big cities and university towns.
With a majority fading into the distance, the minority parties made their pitch. The Liberal Democrats immediately called for a coalition, with PR the price of their support, while the SNP did the same, demanding a referendum on Brexit. Starmer rejected the latter, but on the chances of a Lib Dem coalition, he tried to cherry pick, refusing eleven times in an interview to answer “a hypothetical question” while firmly rejecting a deal with the SNP. Cherry picking will not do – as Ed Miliband, who, in 2015, had to face a nationwide poster campaign literally painting him as in the pocket of the SNP, can testify, the Tories will mercilessly attack Labour as puppets.
There are 19 months to go before an election has to be held, and the local elections have destroyed the prospects of repeating the Blair victory of 1997, which has been the default strategy of the leadership for most of the last three years. If Starmer does come off the fence, he will be conceding to the Lib Dems a policy – PR – which he refused to his own party, or an EU referendum to the SNP – which, likewise, he refused to his party. I doubt this is politically realistic.
The way ahead
Fortunately, there is an alternative which is principled, democratic and in line with Labour history, given that Labour has never formed a coalition save in wartime in its 123-year history. This is to form a minority government and call a second election at the earliest convenient moment. This is constitutional – indeed, since the extension of the franchise in 1918, there have been four minority governments, three of which have been Labour. Two were led by Ramsay MacDonald in the 1920s, the third by Harold Wilson in 1974, and the fourth by Theresa May in 2017. It is the Wilson government which is the model.
In February 1974, Wilson fell short of a parliamentary majority, refused to make a coalition and formed a minority government. Setting out its approach over the summer, Wilson built up enough support to call an election in October 1974 and win a majority. It was only four MPs, but it was enough. Labour lasted till 1979.
Labour should of course still campaign for a majority government, since that is its default position, and go out to win support. But since the experience of coalition government was not good for the Lib Dems in 2015 – five years in bed with David Cameron led the Lib Dems to lose two thirds of their voters and three quarters of their MPs – it is not clear they gain from going out for a coalition in advance of a general election. That’s their choice. For Labour, there is no value in pitching for a coalition and every reason to maintain the pitch for a majority Labour government.
If that is the pitch, it will increase the Labour vote and bring in people who otherwise might go for the Greens or other parties, since Labour offers a clear anti-Tory option. If the election is hung – and May 4th suggests this could be the case – and Labour’s vote shrinks (which is not impossible), then Labour has a mountain to climb to formulate a policy direction with broad appeal. Labour’s task is to maximise its vote and vote share. On the evidence of May 4th, Labour is not yet a brand both distinctive and with wide appeal. Its best way to achieving this is not to claim an electoral majority is yet forming, which is clearly not the case, but to accept de facto that this needs two elections. Hanging everything on the gamble that this can be done in the 19 months still remaining is a high-risk strategy.