Why Labour should prepare for a hung parliament

'A hung parliament is quite likely after the next election.  Labour can be the leading party in a hung Parliament with a 7% swing.  We should be preparing for this possibility.'

Alick Munro is an activist in Make Votes Matter and Twickenham Labour Party

Since the Second World War, the Conservatives have governed Britain for two-thirds of the time on 41% of the votes cast at general elections.  Seventy percent of votes cast in general elections have had no influence on the make-up of the next government.  

Awareness of this fact may explain why in 2021, 325 Constituency Labour Parties, 97% of those that debated it, voted in favour of proportional representation (PR).  This policy has the support of 83% of Labour Party members. This is noble of us, because under PR the number of Labour MPs at Westminster is likely to fall.  It is the Liberal and Green Parties that will benefit.  Under PR, hung parliaments and coalition governments become much more likely.

Currently, if one or two more large, affiliated trade unions say they favour PR, it will probably be approved at the Labour Party conference. Unite is indicating its intention to do so. Possibly the leadership of the Labour Party may state that they favour it too. 

However in order to enact PR, Labour first needs to have a majority in parliament, either alone, or in coalition with other parties – and those other parties may demand PR.

At the next election, Labour needs to get from 199 to 326 seats for an overall majority. This needs a 10% swing.  Boundary changes, limiting the power of the Electoral Commission, and a new requirement to show identity when voting, may make this more difficult. A 10% swing might happen but relying on it is not realpolitik.  The Tories won’t call an election until late 2024 if their poll ratings remain low.

Eighty-eight of the 650 seats in Westminster are held by minority parties or independents. This makes it more difficult for either Labour or Tories to get a majority. A hung parliament is quite likely after the next election.  Labour can be the leading party in a hung Parliament with a 7% swing.  We should be preparing for this possibility. 

Coalition involving the SNP or Alba seems very unlikely. They will demand a referendum on Scottish independence, even if another one has already been held and lost.  They may not agree that referenda are best held after the terms of the divorce are decided.  Keir Starmer has ruled out collaboration with the SNP. However, the prospect of a series of left-leaning coalition governments at Westminster under PR may well appeal to the majority of Scots and Welsh voters, who are nervous of the effects of separation on trade, institutions and the flow of fiscal revenue.

Coalition with the Lib Dems, Greens, and the SDLP and Alliance Parties in Ulster is more likely. There’s a lot of overlap in our 2019 manifestoes. However, currently these parties only have 17 seats in Westminster.  At the next election they may get a boost if the likelihood of a hung Parliament and the prospect of PR is publicised.

Two factors inhibit the much-needed discussions between Labour leaders and these other parties on how to cope with a hung parliament: fear of Tory criticism, and poor relations between the Labour and Liberal parties.

The Tories and the Tory press will greet news that Labour is in talks with the minor parties with derision – depicting us as losers. We can reply to that with the claim that we are the enlightened, democratic realists. Criticism of PR and of the possibility of PR without a referendum will be widely broadcast.  The British Social Attitudes Survey (BSAS) in 2020 found that 65% of the British public want a change to PR to be approved in a referendum rather than by MPs. PR by alternative vote was only supported by 32% of the 42% of voters who turned out in the 2011 referendum on this issue.  At that time, Labour was neutral on the issue.  In 2015 the BSAS survey found that 45% favoured a change that would lead to better representation of the minor parties.  The best time for a referendum is likely to be when the public is disillusioned with the Tories and Labour is lending its support to PR.

It takes several months to plan a referendum.  The bill for it may be delayed in the House of Lords. The planning for a bill on electoral reform had best start before the next general election.

In some Constituency Labour Parties there is deep distrust of Liberal electoral tactics, behaviour in local government, and behaviour while in coalition with the Tories from 2010-2015. The converse may also be true. Discussions between the leaders of these parties may cause disillusionment of the party faithful. If coalition government and proportional representation are to succeed, leaders of the parties will need to promote measures to establish better working relations and ethical standards during electoral campaigns.

Similar discussions need to proceed at a local level, and these had best start soon, in a spirit of truth and reconciliation.  Comparing notes on policy documents and seeking to maximise agreement on them is an important preliminary to developing a coalition based on principle rather than necessity. Developing trust is an essential preliminary to agreements to maximise tactical voting.

“Only Campaign to Win” is already being practised as we try to unseat as many Tory and nationalist MPs as possible. In recent by-elections we have seen that the Labour Party keeping a relatively low profile, helped the Liberals win by-elections in Chesham and Amersham and in North Shropshire. The Liberals keeping a relatively low profile at Bexley, helped Labour greatly reduce the Conservative majority there.  However mid-term by-election results are poor predictors of the outcome of the next general election. Standing paper candidates is also common practice in local elections.  It may glean much of the gain from tactical voting while preventing voter disillusionment at being “pushed around”.

“Only Stand to Win” is a more controversial policy. In September 2021, Number Cruncher Politics and Focadata asked Liberal and Labour voters how they would vote if the candidate from their preferred party stood down. Their results show that if their preferred party did not stand a candidate, 41% of Lib Dem voters would back a Labour candidate, with just 19% saying they would vote Tory. Similarly, Labour voters in these circumstances are almost twice as likely to vote for the Lib Dems (40%) than the Conservatives (25%). In this scenario, a further 30% of Labour and Liberal Democrat voters would transfer their votes to the Green Party, suggesting a unity candidate between the three parties would enjoy a much greater support from voters of other parties than the Tories in many marginal constituencies.

Findings from opinion polls and focus groups will tell us whether and where “Only Stand to Win” is worth doing.  It may only be in a few key marginals.  

Discussions on coping with a hung parliament can start as soon as our leaders and constituency parties want them to.  Will they add to the credibility of the Labour Party?  Our voters may be more realistic about this than are our activists. Let’s ask around.

Comments are closed.