‘Labour are going to win the next election.’ This sentence has been the defining feature of so much UK political news over the last year. Based on the current polling this seems to be an accurate prediction – but beneath the surface there are traps ahead that Labour must be careful to avoid. This briefing, for those unfamiliar with the UK political landscape, will explain what the polls are suggesting and the potential for the result to be different.
The UK operates under an electoral system of First Past the Post, where whichever candidates wins the most votes in a constituency wins the seat (even with a plurality). This system heavily favours large parties, these being the left-wing Labour Party and the right-wing Conservative Party, or those with voters concentrated into seats, such as the Scottish National Party (SNP). There are 650 Parliamentary constituencies, the majority of which are concentrated in England. Under UK convention, the next general election must be held at most 5 years after the previous one, although PMs are able to call an election earlier this date. The current likeliest dates for the next general election are in either May or October of next year (the election must be held by January 2025 at the absolute latest).
The most recent UK General Election, in December 2019, saw the Conservatives smash Labour. However, beginning in late 2021 a series of scandals brought down Boris Johnson’s government. Labour surged in the polls, overtaking the Conservatives to reach 40%, with the Conservatives mired in the low 30s. Following Johnson’s replacement Liz Truss, whose premiership ended after just 44 days in catastrophe, Labour rocketed to over 50% in the polls. The advent of the new PM Rishi Sunak helped the Conservatives, bringing them to around 26-28% on average, and Labour to roughly 45%.
The past year has seen the Conservatives trying various approaches to reverse the current polling situation, with little success. Labour has spent over a year holding steady with a 20% lead – enough to easily win them a large majority. Conservative gains in the Red Wall are set to be wiped out, and even safe seats in the South of England are at risk. The situation in the devolved nations (Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland) paints the same picture. The polling is not just dire for the Conservatives in party vs party matchups – Rishi Sunak’s approval ratings are very poor, with the Labour leader Keir Starmer outperforming him on this metric. On specific issue polling Labour is also battering the Conservatives – including in areas where the Conservatives traditionally have an advantage, such as the economy.
UK politics also features a collection of minor parties. The most pre-eminent of these is the centrist Liberal Democrats, who have been polling at between 10-12%. This potentially could see them manage at least 20-25 seats, but tactical voting means they could win more seats than expected. Both the Green Party, a left-wing environmentalist movement, and the right-wing populist Reform UK are polling at just over 5%, but given neither has a concentrated voter base they are unlikely to take any seats. In Scotland, where the nationalist SNP has been dominant since 2015, recent scandals have seen the SNP drop and Labour surge. Current polling has them level – which would see Labour take over half the seats that Scotland has to offer. There is also the Welsh nationalist party Plaid Cymru and a cast of Northern Irish parties – who are likely to take a handful of seats between them.
Given all of this, it seems evident that Labour is on track to win easily. However, the next election is still months away, with many traps that Labour could still fall into. The Conservatives will not shy away from culture war issues to distract from a poor economy, having already sparked raucous debate over immigration, net zero, and transgender issues. Net zero is particularly thorny - the expansion of a Clean Air Zone in London this year by the Labour Mayor lost Labour a by-election they were tipped to win. Constituency boundary changes this year have also evened the playing field, whereas before Labour had an advantage. In addition, history shows that polling always tightens before an election as the public tunes in – Labour cannot rely on their current lead lasting until polling day.
Even if the Labour Party is not sabotaged by outside events, it may yet be sabotaged by itself. Polling shows that a significant portion of the electorate find Keir Starmer uninspiring, and his ratings (though outpacing Sunak’s) lag behind those of the Labour Party as whole significantly. The ruthless campaign he has waged against the left of the Party has proved reasonably effective at silencing dissent, but splits in the Party still remain, with the recent fractious debate over Labour’s position on Israel/Palestine being the latest example. Further provocations risk pushing out a chunk of the Party entirely – and whilst he can afford to lose their votes, it does thin his margin considerably.
Putting money on Labour winning the next election remains a very good bet. Despite their best efforts, the Conservatives are yet to find a path back and time is starting to run short. Minor parties are unlikely to put a dent in Labour’s chances of victory. But there are still many pitfalls ahead for Labour, and they risk falling prey to events, or to themselves. Labour is likely to win the next election - but they can’t yet be certain of it.
Jack Glasman – Tendo Consulting Limited