Mapping the path to a labor landslide

The writer is a psephologist

In the final days of the 1997 general election campaign, Tony Blair told a crowd of supporters that Britain is “not a landslide country”. Despite his generous lead in opinion polls, most agreed — Labor would win, but surely not win big. The consensus was proved wrong within hours: Blair secured a Commons majority of 179.

A quarter century later, caution about the idea of ​​a Labor landslide endures, despite a large, consistent lead in the polls and the highly volatile political climate. But it is time to consider a comprehensive victory for Sir Keir Starmer.

Expert opinion since 2019 has stressed the lack of historical precedents for Labor winning a majority in one go. The geography also looked very difficult: the party’s votes are inefficiently distributed, largely concentrated in urban strongholds.

For two reasons, psephologists won’t be pouring cold water on Labor’s chances this time. First, the recent polling leads of 30 points and more have only one parallel — Blair’s ascendancy in 1994-97. Over 20 points is usually enough to presage a change of government, even if, as in 1997, the margin is less dramatic on polling day.

The other reason is how the vote translates into seats. Opinium (of the UK’s more one pollsters) has produced a model election result for the TUC using the MRP statistical technique and based on only a 15-point national labor lead. Contrary to the effects of a uniform national swing, which would deliver a small Labor majority, Labor would win a huge 1997-style majority.

The model showed the Conservative vote falling proportionately to previous support, endangering vast swaths of the party’s territory. In a “safe seat”, secured with about 60 per cent support in 2019, the Tory vote share was down 25 points, enough to jeopardise it. In areas of lower support, say 25 per cent in 2019, the fall was just 10 points. In this case, Labor needs to be only about 8 points ahead for a majority.

If Labor prevails in 2024, it will have an electoral alliance of old (the metropolitan seats it won in 2019), new (some lasting additions to its coalition on the south coast, affluent suburbs and commuter towns, and posh bits of London), borrowed (the traditional marginals and the “red wall”, which will eventually swing back) and blue (weird gains in normally safe Tory areas).

If 2017 is any guide, Labor will also claw back some seats from the SNP in Scotland if the party can demonstrate momentum across Britain as a whole. And it could break through, at last, in rural England. YouGov found a 13-point Labor lead in rural seats in September. Even in 1997 Labor did not make much progress in the countryside, but Opinium’s model had Labor ahead in counties never previously in contention.

The other change is the deepening cracks in the Tory home counties. In 2019 Labor and the Liberal Democrats gained affluent, educated constituencies and reduced margins in Tory strongholds. Conservatives sustained punishing losses in London in 1997 from which they never recovered. As the South East becomes more like London in its economy and demographics, politics may follow.

Lib Dem support in national polls has not changed much since a disappointing result in 2019, hovering around 10 per cent. But they could still make significant gains. One reason is arithmetic — if Conservative support drops sharply, they win seats. Another is politics; When Lib Dem and Labor voters trade tactical votes, the electoral system behaves as if there was one anti-Tory party and rewards both. A Labor landlide, as in 1997, could easily bring in about 40 Lib Dems even on a falling vote share.

While Starmer’s personal ratings are well below those of Blair at his peak, there are plenty of echoes of that era — vast polling leads, tactical voting potential, a chaotic and divided Tory party. It would be bold to predict a crushing Labor win, but foolish to discount the possibility. Britain could be landslide country again.

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