Did Labour lose the battle and win the war?

by Stephen Tall on May 9, 2010

Only one of the three major parties emerged from this election with fewer votes than in 2005 and with a lower share of the vote: the Labour party.

In 2005, Tony Blair polled 9,562,122 (35.3%). In 2010, Gordon Brown polled 8,604,358 (29.0%). By contrast the Lib Dems went up from 5,981,874 (22.1%) to 6,827,938 (23.0%), and the Tories up from 8,772,598 (32.3%) to 10,706,647 (36.1%).

The figures do not lie: the Labour party lost this election.

But (and I’m afraid it’s a big but), they retained second place, some 6% and almost two million votes ahead of the Lib Dems. For whatever reason, we got squeezed out by the “two old parties”. Our hope, which until 10pm on Thursday night seemed pretty reasonable, that we could edge Labour into third, and from there replace them as the major progressive force in British politics now seems all too distant.

In many of our top Labour target seats – from Islington South to Edinburgh South – and in some of our held seats – Chesterfield and Dunfermline – Labour came back from the seeming dead, and beat us. We knew these would be tough fights. In Oxford East, where I live, the local Labour party has, to give credit where it’s due, got its campaigning act together. Local election results in recent years have proven they know how to get out their vote, backed by the financial might of the trade unions. As a result, I have been less surprised than others that we missed out on some of our top targets, where Labour knew they had a fight on their hands, and gained in other, more long-shot, targets, where we were able to take advantage of Labour complacenecy.

It’s always unwise to try and forecast the future in the immediate aftermath of an election: so much could change in the British political landscape even in the next 24 hours let alone the course of a parliament. But it does seem as if our hope of displacing Labour as the voice of progressive politics is at the very least on hold.

Perhaps this doesn’t matter too much if three-party politics is here to stay. After all, no matter how disappointing the Lib Dem result, it’s still the case that the Labservatives attracted just 65% of the vote, their lowest level of support in modern history. That long-term trend seems unlikely to go into reverse: at some point, whether in the next few months or a little longer, the public desire for their votes to count will be too great to withstand: some form of proportional representation is, I believe, almost inevitable.

But the fact still remains that, however poor was this election result for Labour, it wasn’t the disaster it might have been: they have proven their tenacity. The Lib Dems can, and should, continue be the real voice for progressive voters, but it’s clear we’re going to face a strong rival for some time to come.