A lot’s been said in the two weeks since the election about the folly of Labour’s 35% strategy – the theory that cobbling together its core vote plus a few ex-Lib Dems to reach a 35% vote share would be enough to propel Ed Miliband into Number Ten as the leader of a centre-left coalition, if not an outright victor.
As Progress’s Robert Philpot has pointed out, the 35% strategy was “fatally flawed”: it wrongly assumed that Labour did not need to pick up Tory switchers as it could rely on most Lib Dem voters to “come back” to Labour. It was madness to assume that Lib Dem voters are innate Labour supporters who would suddenly see the error of their ways once Labour is in opposition. Most people who voted Lib Dem in 2010 did so because they liked their policies, or because they always cast protest votes for minor parties (many psephologists now believe that a large chunk of the Lib Dems’ 2010 voters plumped for UKIP this time).
35% turned out to be wishful thinking in any case. Labour got only 30.4% of the vote nationwide, well behind the Tories on 36.9%. But had Labour got 35%, would it have been enough to win? I’m not a professional psephologist so I’m not qualified to give a definitive answer. But my hunch is that it would not have been.
You don’t have to be a signed-up member of Progress – a Marmite-like organisation if ever there was one – to see why the 35% strategy was folly all along. In fact all you need is an elementary understanding of mathematics. A 35% strategy only works if there’s a strong third party performing reasonably well across the UK. There used to be just such a party: the Lib Dems. But now there isn’t: UKIP did well in many northern seats and southern seats where there is most concern about immigration, but very poorly elsewhere (and in Scotland, the SNP should no longer be regarded as a second or third party but as the dominant force).
In 2015 it was still possible for Labour candidates to get about 35% of the vote and win – Karin Smyth held Bristol South for Labour with just 38.4% of the vote, as did Susan Jones with 37.2% in Clwyd South – but only if the opposition is split. At previous elections candidates have won with much lower vote shares (in 1992, the Lib Dem MP Russell Johnston made history by holding Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber with just 26% of the vote in a close four-way battle with Labour, the SNP, and the Tories).
35% could theoretically have been enough to secure a Labour victory in 2015 – as it was for Tony Blair, who won the 2005 election with a majority of 66 seats on just 35.2% of the national vote – but only if the UK was still full of three-way marginal seats in which three or more parties are in contention. The trouble is that it isn’t.
If, like me, you’re a bit of an election nut there are some interesting nuggets to find in the 2015 results (for example in three northern city centre seats – Leeds Central, Newcastle Central and Sheffield Central – the Labour share of the vote was exactly 55%). But the most intriguing discovery is the decline of the three-way marginal (seats where the third-placed party is less than 20% below the victor). In 2005 there were 58 such seats and in 2010, with the Lib Dems surging in many Labour and Tory held seats, their number increased to 81 (82 if you count Worcester, which technically fell 0.1% short of three-way marginal status). But in 2015 the number of three way-marginals declined to just 33. And as the graphic below shows, the list has become a lot redder and less blue as well as shorter: many three-way marginals won by the Tories in 2005 and/or 2010 have now become safe Tory seats.
Only three of these 33 seats were real nail-biters: Thurrock, won by the Tories on 33.7% of the vote with both Labour (32.6%) and UKIP (31.7%) just behind; and two four-way marginals: Yns Mon, won by Labour with just 31.1% ahead of Plaid Cymru on 30.5%, the Tories on 21.2% and UKIP on 14.7%, and Southport, where Lib Dem John Pugh also survived on just 31%, followed by the Tories on 28%, Labour on 19.2% and UKIP on 16.8%. No other three- or four-way marginal was remotely as dicey as these three.
Most three-way marginals at previous elections have featured the Lib Dems. In 2015 there were a few where the Lib Dems were fighting for survival with both the Tories and Labour at their heels (Leeds NW, Portsmouth S, Carshalton & Wallington and Southport for example). But most did not feature the Lib Dems at all. The Lib Dems came a distant third in many of the seats they had held until May 7th (in Norwich S they even slumped to fourth place behind the Greens, with only 13.6% of the vote – surely a record low for an incumbent party). In the north there’s a swathe of traditionally three-way marginals in the Pennines, due to their mixture of historic Liberal support, Tory-leaning commuter villages and working class mill towns (Colne Valley, Rochdale and Oldham East, for example). But the collapse of the Lib Dems – who sank to fourth place in all these seats in 2015 – meant that none were remotely three-way contests (a strong UKIP showing in Oldham East and Saddleworth almost made that seat a three-way marginal, but not the kind the Lib Dems were hoping for).
In Scotland, the SNP’s strong performance meant that most three-way marginals turned into safe SNP seats, or at best two-way marginals (the SNP won an unprecedented 50% of the vote in Scotland in 2015, Labour 24.3% and the Tories 14.9%). There are only two genuine three-way marginals left in Scotland, both in the south: Dumfries and Galloway (where Labour and the Tories were not far behind the SNP), and Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk, whose former Lib Dem MP Michael Moore was almost 20% behind both the SNP victor, and the second-place Tories. In all other places the SNP were too far ahead. Labour hardly got 35% of the vote in any Scottish constituencies, but even where it did this was not enough to beat the SNP (in Edinburgh S, the only seat that Labour hung on to, Iain Murray got 39%).
In Wales 12 seats were three-way marginals in 2010, but only two remained so in 2015: the Labour/Tory/Plaid Cymru marginals of Yns Mon and Carmarthen East & Dinefwr. The other ten all became two-way marginals or safe seats. But as in England, the Tories benefitted from the Lib Dem collapse as much as Labour did, winning Gower from Labour, holding Cardiff North by more than 2,000 votes, and Aberconwy by 4,000.
In the south, a few new three-way marginals emerged in 2015, thanks to UKIP and the Greens: Thurrock, Thanet South (38:32:24), Great Yarmouth (43:29:23), Dagenham & Rainham (41:29:24) and Bristol West (36:27:19). But overall three-way marginals are fast becoming an endangered species in the south. In both 2005 and 2010 there were more than 20 southern three-way marginals: in 2015 there were only nine.
A few of these (Luton S, Bristol E, Bristol S and Exeter) are now safeish Labour seats thanks to the Lib Dems’ collapse. But the Tories benefited most: many southern seats that were three-way marginals in 2005 and/or 2010 – Suffolk S, Worthing E, Somerset NE, Woodspring, Watford, Chelmsford, Filton & Bradley Stoke, Reading E, St Albans and Mid-Norfolk, for example – are now safe Tory seats.
Camborne & Redruth in Cornwall is a classic example: Held by Labour between 1997 and 2005 (under slightly different boundaries) it elected the Lib Dem Julia Goldsworthy in 2005 in a genuine three way fight (the Tories, Labour and the Lib Dems were all within 4,000 votes of each other). It was then won by the Tory George Eustice in 2010, with Julia Goldsworthy just 56 votes behind and Labour in third place. But in 2015 Eustice held the seat, 7,000 votes ahead of Labour, with poor Julia Goldsworthy in fourth place (behind UKIP) with just 12.4% of the vote.
And there was no sign of UKIP allowing Labour to “come through the middle” and snatch Tory seats. In fact the opposite happened. Seats which Labour hoped to win or hold onto (Great Yarmouth, Plymouth Moor View, Plymouth Sutton & Devenport and Southampton Itchen, among others) fell to the Tories because of a strong third-place performance by UKIP. Only two of these four seats were technically three-way marginals, but in all four of the UKIP vote was considerably more than the Conservative majority over Labour.
Where UKIP did very well in Tory-held seats in the Thames Estuary and east coast – Boston and Skegness, Bexleyheath & Crayford, Hornchurch & Upminster, Rochester & Strood – Labour is still in distant third place. The only such UKIP/Tory marginal anything like a three-way battle was Basildon South and Thurrock East – where Labour was just under 20% behind the winning Tory candidate – but I don’t see the UKIP vote there coming back to Labour anytime soon. In all these seats it seems that UKIP was taking more votes from Labour than the Tories.
Three-way marginals have moved northwards onto Labour territory: only five 2015 three-way marginals are Tory-held, but 14 are Labour. Worryingly, many of this year’s three-way marginals are previously-safe Labour seats in the Midlands and the North: Great Grimsby, Hartlepool, Mansfield, Penistone & Stockbridge, Bradford S and all three Stoke on Trent seats. In all these seats both UKIP and the Tories were less than 20% behind the Labour victor and the Labour majority was reduced to less than 5,000.
While a couple of three-way marginals in Birmingham became safe Labour seats because of the collapse of Respect and the Lib Dems, four traditional Midland Labour-Tory marginals (Ashfield, Dudley N, Walsall N and Newcastle-Under-Lyme), are now three-ways thanks to a strong showing by UKIP.
There are also a number of supposedly “safe” Labour seats in the north where the UKIP threat did not materialise – but the Tory threat did, making Labour’s majorities uncomfortably small. In 2015 Labour won Barrow and Furness – which had a Labour majority of over 5,000 in 2010 – by just 795 votes. A number of other safeish Labour seats – Burnley, Rotherham, Rother Valley, Scunthorpe, Newport E, Hyndburn, West Bromwich W, Don Valley, Bishop Auckland, Wolverhampton SE, Heywood & Middleton, Oldham E & Saddleworth, Wrexham, Workington, Wakefield and Bolton SE – may not have been three-way marginals in 2015, but could easily go that way in 2020 if UKIP and the Tories hold up and the Labour vote continues to erode.
This new breed of northern three-way marginal is just one sign of what a crisis Labour is in, and what an uphill struggle the 2020 election will be for Labour regardless of what happens in the next five years. And there are other, equally depressing, clouds on the horizon.
Take for example the insurmountably large Tory majorities in many of the seats they won from Labour in 2005 or 2010. There are a number of seats that were Labour-held until 2005 where the Tories now have a majority of more than 15,000: Braintree, Wellingborough and Harwich (where boundary changes also played their part). Many more now have Tory majorities of over 10,000 (Wimbledon, Dartford, Chatham & Aylesford, Sittingbourne & Sheppey, Kettering, Hemel Hempstead, Romford, St Albans, Welwyn Hatfield, Basildon & Billericay, Hornchurch & Upminster, Dorset S, The Wrekin, Portsmouth N, Swindon N, Leicestershire NW, Derbyshire S, Gillingham, Rugby, Putney, Staffordshire Moorlands, Burton, Forest of Dean and Brigg & Goole).
Of the 100 smallest majorities in the UK, 44 are Labour seats – one of the few electoral statistics where Labour outperforms other parties, for all the wrong reasons. Only four of these small majorities are in SNP-held seats, which shows how hard most will be for Labour to win back in 2020.
One of the many glib expectations of the 2015 election was that it would provide further proof of the death of the age of two party politics with UKIP, the SNP and Greens all eating into the vote share of the two main parties. In fact it did nothing of the sort. From a modern low of 65% in 2010, the two main parties’ combined vote share bounced back to 67.3% in 2015. Not a huge rise, but hardly a sign that the two-party dominance is in terminal decline. In London suburbs where the Lib Dems, Greens and UKIP all did poorly there were even some seats where the combined vote of the Tories and Labour was over 85%: Finchley and Golders Green (90.6%), Hendon (90.5%), Brentford and Isleworth (86.8%), Croydon Central (85.7%) and Enfield North (85.1%). Who says the age of two-party politics is over?
If you exclude Scotland (where the SNP became the single largest party with an unprecedented 50.1% of the vote), the 2015 election can be seen as a return to business as usual. In England (which accounts for more than 80% of the UK’s constituencies), the combined support for the Tories and Labour increased more steeply, from 67.7 % in 2010 to 72.6% this time. What’s more, England’s third party (now UKIP) only polled 14.1%, well below the Lib Dems’ 24.2% in 2010. As Ian Jones has pointed out in his blog, the Greens only got more than 20% of the vote in two UK constituencies, and UKIP only got more than 30% in eight. Although UKIP did much better in some regions than others (in London it was below 10% of the vote in most constituencies), overall its support was too evenly spread to win more than one seat in parliament and create more than a handful of three-way marginals.
More and more seats are now two-horse races between the Labour and the Tories. Here, the true folly of the 35% strategy becomes painfully clear. There were no fewer than 40 seats in which the Labour candidate got between 35% and 40% of the vote but still lost (Battersea, Blackpool N, Bolton W, Brighton Kemptown, Broxtowe, Calder Valley, Cardiff N, Carlisle, Colne Valley, Corby, Crewe & Nantwich, Derby N, Enfield Southgate, Erewash, Finchley & Golders Green, Gower, Halesowen & Rowley Regis, Hastings & Rye, High Peak, Ipswich, Keighley, Lincoln, Morley & Outwood, Paisley & Renfrewshire S, Peterborough, Plymouth Moor View, Plymouth Sutton & Devenport, Pudsey, Rossendale & Darwen, Rutherglen & Hamilton W, Sheffield Hallam, Sherwood, South Ribble, Southampton Itchen, Stockton S, Stroud, Telford, Warrington S, Warwickshire N and Waveney). There were another six where the Labour candidate got more than 40% of the vote but still lost: Bedford, Harrow E, Weaver Vale, Bury N, Hendon and Croydon Central, where Sarah Jones got a whopping 42.7% but still trailed the Conservative Gavin Barwell by 165 votes.
In almost all these seats, the Lib Dem vote collapsed and UKIP came a distant third behind Labour (typically with a vote share of 10-15%: enough to rob Labour of the seat, but not taking enough votes from the Tories to allow the Labour candidate to come through the middle and win).
A new “100% strategy” to appeal to all part of the electorate, as Tristram Hunt has advocated, or even a more modest 50% strategy, will entail difficult debates about immigration, welfare entitlement and small-town concerns , with which many labour members will feel uncomfortable. But Labour has no other option: it has lost all but one of its Scottish seats to the SNP and in many of its “safe” northern seats there has been a worrying seepage to UKIP and the Tories.
If it wants to win again Labour needs to confront the biggest reason why it lost in 2015: like football, politics is a simple numbers game. As Janan Ganesh has argued in the FT, there’s a danger of overcomplicating the problems Labour has. The party with the most vote wins. Pretending that everything would have been fine had “lazy Labour” voters turned out, or Labour hadn’t been slaughtered in Scotland, will condemn Labour to a third successive defeat.
It’s not that Labour held onto to its core vote and suffered only in the marginal seats: the 2015 election showed that Labour is in crisis pretty much everywhere apart from London, Merseyside and other big English cities like Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester. Even in London, Labour performed badly in suburbs without a large ethnic minority population and failed to win several target seats.
Labour badly needs to attract those who haven’t voted Labour for 10 years or more, and those who have never voted Labour. Cobbling together Labour’s core vote, plus a few Lib Dem defectors, plainly wasn’t enough. By gambling on scraping through with 35% at a time when minor parties were in decline, Labour set its bar too low, did not get enough votes in the constituencies that matter, and lost the election. To have any chance of winning Labour must fight the 2020 general election as a general election – not a by-election in a three-way marginal.
This story was updated on June 1st to remove Southampton Itchen from the list of three-way marginals in 2015, on which it had been mistakenly included. This reduces their number from 34 to 33.