Theo Morgan, 13 Oct 2019
This meeting took place on the Tuesday afternoon of Conference; the panel consisted of Labour peer Lord Andrew Adonis, Jonathan Freedland (The Guardian), Stephen Bush (New Statesman) - all electoral reformers - Paula Surridge (University of Bristol, whose position on reform is unclear), and John Healey MP (opposed to reform).
Pollster Kieron Pedley from IPSOS Mori presented data from recent opinion polls. At first sight, the picture is not encouraging for Labour: Jeremy Corbyn has the lowest approval ratings of any opposition leader since records began. Can Labour turn it round at the next election?
John Healey noted that the national picture doesn't apply to every constituency - there are always localised effects, which can be important in aggregate terms. An emerging problem for Labour is the increasing number of postal ballots (in 1997, 1 in 50 votes were postal ballots; that figure has now risen to 1 in 5). The earlier deadline for postal ballots effectively means that there are two General Election dates; even if Labour support increases over the campaigning period, as it did in 2007, this may be too late to influence many postal voters.
Paula Surridge observed that Labour had also been performing poorly in the polls in 2017, but that many Labour voters "came home" at the election. This could also happen at the forthcoming election, but for a number of reasons (Brexit, and the Lib Dems being seen as a more viable alternative), it is unlikely to happen to the same extent.
Jonathan Freedland predicted Labour could run the election campaign as a referendum on Boris Johnson. Referring to the recent Peterborough by-election, which Labour won because the right-wing vote was split, he suggested that the party would be hoping for 300 "Peterboroughs" at a General Election. Freedland has been sceptical of Jeremy Corbyn's leadership, but suggested that Corbyn could demonstrate statesmanlike qualities by supporting another candidate as a caretaker Prime Minister to avert a no-deal Brexit.
The debate was opened up to the audience for questions: Mary Southcott (LCER) asked whether Labour's prospects could be enhanced if the leadership embraced voting reform. Freedland, a keen electoral reformer, reiterated his own support for PR and for constitutional change more widely, but suggested that in terms of the outcome of the forthcoming election, this issue wouldn't be a game changer: if the Labour leadership started supporting PR, it might be seen as Labour knowing they can’t win under the current system, and wanting to go for a system in which they can.
Stephen Bush injected a note of optimism with a footballing analogy: teams down at half-time play harder in the second half. But Labour's conference policy announcements aren't cohesive, he suggested. The golden thread running through Labour’s 2017 policies was that they work for the 'little guy' - what’s the common thread now? Bush was more upbeat about Labour's chances in the forthcoming election: Corbyn could become PM in a hung parliament, and he said that this is Labour’s election to lose.
I asked the panel whether they thought we'd see tactical voting to the extent we did in 2017, with southern Remainers voting Labour (helping to gain Tory-held targets like Chingford and Woodford Green) and northern Leavers voting Tory (potentially turning Labour strongholds like Bolsover blue)? Freedland felt that tactical voting might not happen on such a scale this time. However, Labour supporters could be more likely to turn out. Surridge echoed the view that turnout could be higher among progressive voters. In 2015 and 2017, social values were a good predictor of turnout, with socially conservative people less likely to vote than progressives. She pointed to the example of Donald Trump: one result of his presidency in the US has been to mobilise voters with liberal values. IPSOS Mori's polling data shows that Boris Johnson is not particularly popular with voters, so perhaps she was suggesting he could be as divisive a figure here as Trump is in the US.
Bush shared his own recollection of the last US election: he knew Hillary Clinton was not popular with white-working class voters, but believed her position could not get any worse with those voters - and was proved wrong. (Of course, Trump won on a FPTP system despite losing the popular vote by a substantial margin.) Turning to Brexit, he noted that although a big middle ground exists in terms of popular opinion, our voting system does not reward compromise on big issues; a soft Brexit should have been Corbyn’s position in 2017, and the result of a general election could make resolving Brexit no easier due to the parliamentary arithmetic.
Adonis suggested that Labour's biggest problem would be Remain voters. While canvassing as a candidate in the EU elections, he had made the depressing observation that Labour Party membership was a reliable predictor that a person would be voting Lib Dem or Green. Labour Remainers seem to be Remainers first and Labour second, while Labour Leavers are Labour first and Leavers second. Adonis argued that we urgently need to be ask ourselves how Britain has got it wrong, and whether democracy functions better in other countries. We are experiencing a crisis of leadership - Boris Johnson is the worst Prime Minister we have ever had (and far worse at handling his own Party than Jeremy Corbyn). Could the German model (a secret ballot among parliamentarians to elect the Chancellor) be an improvement for the UK?
Bush observed that the Tories are a toxic brand, and have been since the 1980s (the last time they won a large majority). In response to a question from the floor, he cautioned against attacking Jo Swinson on austerity, her role in the coalition and her rightwing voting record. Vince Cable had a similar record, and still managed to draw votes from Labour. The problem for Labour is that it is worrying about how to upset the smallest group of voters: you can discuss Brexit with a Labour MP, and they will just reply, “what about small towns?” We shouldn't worry about Labour MPs turning independent - former Labour MP Frank Field will probably only get 4,000 votes as an independent. Winchester is full of wealthy Remainers, but they won't vote in large numbers for Steve Brine (who had the Conservative whip withdrawn for voting against No Deal).
Bush told the story of a Conservative MP thanking Margaret Thatcher in 1979 for his winning by 76 votes. Those 76 votes were thanks to you, he said. "No", she replied, "the 18,000 votes were thanks to me, and the 76 votes were down to you". We speculated as to the identity of this MP. Our best guess is Robert Atkins, who won Preston North by 29 votes at that election. If you know better, please get in touch!
The panellists' views differed on the likely outcome of a second referendum. Adonis expressed the view that Remain would triumph: it would win over younger voters. This led to another audience question about any future referendum on Scottish independence. He believed that if Brexit happens, the Scots would probably vote Yes to independence; if Brexit doesn't happen, the Scots would probably vote No. As I write this, Sturgeon has today insisted that the price of SNP support for Labour in a hung parliament will be another independence vote.
Bush was more cautious about the prospects of Remain: voters don’t want to be asked the same question twice, he said, and he sees no prospect of a better result at the moment.
Surridge echoed that Remain are not bound to win a second referendum: most Leavers have not changed their minds, and it is a mistake to think that after three years, they will want to think again. She concluded by saying, “Be careful what you wish for”.
In summary: Labour's electoral prospects do not appear especially rosy right now. But neither of the main party leaders are very popular, and it is difficult to predict what the effects of Brexit will be on the outcome of the election. In the words of Stephen Bush: "This is Labour's election to lose".
Theo Morgan is a London Regional Representative at the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform.