To win power in a first past the post election, a party has to appeal to people with very different, but overlapping, views. Brexit demonstrated this clearly. At its peak, 4 million people were prepared to vote for a single issue party, but that was not enough to win a single Parliamentary seat.
So the two major parties have always been uneasy coalitions. However, the nature of those coalitions was always different, and has become increasingly so, especially since Liz Truss took over the Conservative party.
And divided parties lose elections.
Divided by objectives or tactics?
The Labour Party has a reputation for internal conflict. But the factions always shared the objective of building a more equal society. The fundamental divisions were not about direction. They were strategic and tactical, about how far and fast to go towards the goal.
The Conservatives divide is different. It is not about tactics, but objectives. On one wing of the party are the people Andrew Marr has called “radical nostalgics”: people with respect for tradition and suspicion of change, who want to restore a past which they remember as more stable and secure. But they share their party with free marketers, who want the opposite: rapid change, a small, low-tax, low-regulation state of buccaneering individuals. This faction, led now by Liz Truss, believes in change as advocated by Mark Zuckerberg’s famous phrase “move fast and break things”.
It is difficult to see how one party can embrace these two fundamentally opposed objectives. Voters have noticed the divide. They see them splitting apart, perhaps irrecoverably.
And current polling shows that voters now see Labour as less divided than the Conservatives.
So will Labour win?
Most people think Labour is going to win when the election comes. In September, for the first time, a majority of people said they expect a Labour government after the next election.
There is no question of a single rogue poll. Not one of the 180 polls published since December has shown the Conservatives with a clear lead, and all have shown a steadily rising Labour majority.
There are now thirteen active polling companies, and the average Labour lead in their most recent polls is 21 points. Since the Conservative Party conference, the range has been between 21 and 30 points, and the Electoral Calculus poll of polls gives Labour a current lead of 23.
This is a larger vote share than Labour achieved in 1945 and 1997. Evenly distributed across the country, this would give Labour 471 seats: fifty more than their best ever result under Tony Blair.
In the Eastern Region, 35 Conservative MPs would lose their seats to Labour.
A note of caution
It is extremely unlikely that the polls are wrong about what people would do if an election was held today. But the next election may not be for two years, and a lot can change. The Conservatives have had an extraordinarily bad few weeks, from which they are almost bound to recover, at least a little.
Nevertheless, Labour seem almost certain to do better in the next election than they did in 2019, and the evidence of a Labour recovery goes well beyond headline voting intentions. Here are some of the reasons
Labour are keeping their voters: Conservatives are not
Labour is successfully retaining its 2019 voters, 85% of whom say they will vote Labour again. The comparable figure for the Conservatives is only 57%.
Seventeen percent of 2019 Conservative voters, and half of all LibDem 2019 voters are switching directly to Labour.
Many people vote for leaders, rather than parties, so leadership approval matters. The latest Redfield and Wilton poll shows that, on a “head to head” question, Starmer leads Truss by 14 points. Keir Starmer’s approval, which has been rising for some time, stands at +6. Liz Truss’s net approval is now -33 points, and even among 2019 Conservative voters it is -24.
Recently pollsters have been making some evidence from focus groups public. In Conservative seats these seem rather less positive for Starmer. The word most frequently used for Starmer is “boring”.
JL Partners found that both Starmer and Truss scored highly on determination and patriotism, but after that they diverged. Starmer rated highly on fairness, competence, caring and truthfulness. Truss scored high on “getting things done” (easier when in government), and strong.
The Conservatives might try to replace their leader again, but it seems doubtful that things would improve for them. When Opinium offered five alternative Conservative leaders, all had negative net scores.
We may see whether voters prefer a radical leader to a boring one.
Rural areas have always been Conservative strongholds. But perhaps no more. YouGov have carried out a series of polls in rural constituencies. At the end of July, Conservatives still led Labour there by 19 points. Two months later the picture had reversed, and Labour was leading by 13.
“Red wall” constituencies
In 2019 the result was swung by a group of former Labour voting constituencies in the North and Midlands. In the last week of September, Redfield & Wilton and JL Partners both polled those constituencies. Both polls found a Labour lead of 15 points, lower, but close to, the national average. But dramatically, when Redfield & Wilton returned a week later (after the Chancellor’s “mini-budget), the gap had widened to an unprecedented 38 points.
“Blue wall” constituencies
In some constituencies, the Conservatives are vulnerable not to Labour but to the Liberal Democrats, who Conservatives often see as a more acceptable way of abandoning Conservatism than a switch to Labour. In September, JL Partners polled these “Blue Wall” seats (Southern constituencies with Tory majorities under 10,000). They found a smaller Labour lead, of only 5 points, but a significantly higher Liberal Democrat vote, suggesting that tactical voting to evict a Conservative might well work, as it has done in recent byelections.
“Get Brexit done” was the slogan which won the 2019 election for the Conservatives. But its significance appears to be waning. John Curtice has analysed the relationship between the referendum leave vote and the 2019 Conservative one. He finds that both leavers and remainers have swung to Labour, in almost equal proportions. Labour support from remainers has risen on average by 6 points, at the expense of both Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. Labour support from leavers has risen by 8 points, at the expense of Conservative and Reform/Brexit party.
People vote in constituencies, not nationally. So constituency differences matter. In MRP polls, the pollster matches the known characteristics of particular groups with the demography of individual constituencies, to produce results at constituency level. Savanta ComRes carried out an MRP poll on 16 September (well before the “mini-Budget”) on behalf of LabourList. They confirmed the swing from Conservative to Labour, but found it was greatest in the places with the highest Conservative majorities.
As a result, Southend West would still have a Conservative MP, despite the second largest swing in the country (40%). In the Eastern Region, 49 of the 59 seats would not change hands, despite having swings of more than 10%. However Labour would take nine seats from the Conservatives – Peterborough, Watford, Ipswich, Norwich North, Stevenage, Colchester, Welwyn Hatfield, Thurrock, and Rochford/Southend East.
Cautious optimism for Labour
It may seem churlish to advocate caution in the face of polling leads in the 20s, but they reflect extraordinary times, and a lot can change in the two years before an election must be held.
All the polls are good news for Labour. It remains to be seen whether their lead holds up. But there is a strong tradition that divided parties lose. The Conservatives have an uphill battle.