A Labour Third Term: foregone conclusion?

by Stephen Tall on January 8, 2005

Only two things in life are certain: death and taxes. And, until recently, most political commentators would have added a third: another Labour election landslide in 2005. But is the assumption justified?

It’s not hard to find evidence in favour of Tony Blair making history as the first Labour Prime Minister to win three consecutive general elections. In 2001, Blair secured a 167 majority in the House of Commons with a 9% lead over the Conservatives. Labour’s current opinion poll lead over the Tories averages 5%, which pundits are predicting will (through the bizarre vagaries of the British electoral system) ensure a thumping 122-seat majority.

But it ain’t that simple.

One theory which is staring to find growing favour among some journalists is what has been termed ‘tactical unwind’ on the www.politicalbetting.com blog. Behind this psephological anorak’s terminology is a very straightforward argument, which goes…

“Lots of people who voted Alliance / Lib Dem in the 1980s and ’90s switched their support to New Labour in 1997 and 2001 as a sure-fire way of defeating the Conservatives. But now the gloss has worn off the Blair Project, and since WMD have proved a tad elusive, these largely middle-class, centre-left voters have returned to the Lib Dems at the expense of Labour. As memories of the Tories’ 18 years in power get more distant, and disenchantment with Tony Blair becomes more entrenched, those tactical votes which so flattered Labour’s majority will disappear.”

Which is great for the Lib Dems, you’d think… Well yes and no. On the positive hand, the Lib Dems will get more votes than they did in 2001. But, on the negative hand, a ‘tactical unwind’ in Labour-Tory marginal seats is more likely to mean the election of a Conservative MP – even if the Tories get no more votes than they did in 2001.

Let’s take the example of St Albans. In 2001 the result was:

Labour, 19,889, 45%
Conservative, 15,423, 35%
Liberal Democrat, 7,847, 18%
Labour majority = 4,466

Then let us make three assumptions: (1) 10% of Labour’s 2001 vote (1,989) decides this time not to vote for any party; (2) 15% of Labour’s 2001 vote (2,983) chooses this time to vote Lib Dem; (3) the Tories’ 2001 vote stays solid at 15,423, and there is no movement between them and the Lib Dems.

Those assumptions give you the following result:

Labour, 14,917, 36% (-9%)
Conservative, 15,423, 37% (+2%)
Liberal Democrat, 10,830, 26% (+8%)
Conservative majority = 506

In this model, the Conservatives would gain this Labour seat – even though they won not one single extra vote – as result of an 8.5% swing from Labour to the Lib Dems.

Very clearly, the ‘tactical unwind’ theory remains just that, and will do until the votes are counted. But if there is even a grain of truth in it, many seats currently thought to be safe bets for Labour are in fact much more vulnerable to the Conservatives than many are currently predicting. Which makes the coming election appear a much closer, and more interesting, prospect. What an irony it will be if Lib Dem success were to let Michael Howard off the hook!