After Theresa May lost her majority in 2017, some of the commentary market – more volatile than the foreign exchanges – overshot. The Conservatives hadn’t won a sustainable parliamentary majority for a quarter of a century, it was said – David Cameron’s majority of 12 in 2015 being a weak and crumbly thing – and Tory voters were dying out.
In the middle of 2019, just two years ago, it seemed that the Conservative Party might indeed be facing extinction. For a period in May and June, the Brexit Party was ahead in the opinion polls, and the choice of Boris Johnson as leader seemed to be a desperate gamble for the highest of stakes, the survival of the party.
So it is possible to overdo the gloom about Labour’s prospects now. We have seen these headlines before. “Must Labour Lose?” (1960), “Labour’s Last Chance?” (1994), and now “Is Labour dead?” asked by Ian Birrell, the former deputy editor of The Independent. The answer is always: no.
These analyses conform to the iron law of journalism: “Simplify and exaggerate.” A law that is reinforced by the tendency of politicians to swing from despair to triumphalism with no calm place in between. Hence we are told by The Times: “Cabinet ministers said they believed that there had been a permanent change in the nation’s political identity and suggested that Johnson could outlast Margaret Thatcher.”
Thursday’s elections were good for the Tories, but they did not herald the inauguration of president-for-life Johnson. Labour did badly, but there is nothing inevitable about what happens next and it is not as if there is another party that could take its place.
In the immediate aftermath of a shock election, myths form that can be hard to dislodge. In the wake of the Hartlepool by-election defeat, one myth is that Labour is going backwards from its disastrous general election result. Obviously, this is true of Hartlepool, but it is a special case. Not only should the Conservatives have won it in 2019, but the shift against Labour in working-class Leave areas is continuing and may still have some way to go.
But overall, Labour has moved forwards and upwards from the pit of its worst postwar election result. Professor Sir John Curtice, the one-person national institution, has calculated that the English local elections would have translated into a Conservative lead in a vote across Great Britain of 6 to 7 percentage points. In other words, closing the 12-point lead at the general election by about half.
When the BBC put these numbers into its House of Commons model, it suggested that Johnson’s 80-seat majority would be all but wiped out. These figures are for illustrative purposes only, as they say on those pension-fund statements, and the new boundaries that will take effect in June 2023 will make the next election even harder for Labour to win, but it is not an impossible goal.
My rule of thumb is that, on the new boundaries, Sir Keir Starmer could expect to form a minority government in a hung parliament if Labour was two points behind the Conservatives in share of the vote. (And no, the new boundaries are not a conspiracy by the universe against all that is good and true: they are a long overdue rebalancing of an electoral map that is currently biased in Labour’s favour, which will be carried out by independent commissions charged with equalising constituency electorates as much as possible.)
So the idea that the next election is out of Starmer’s reach is an overreaction. Labour was neck-and-neck with the Tories in the national opinion polls in November and December last year. There is no iron law that says it cannot be again in the next two or three years, after the vaccine euphoria has worn off, as it will.
Those overexcited cabinet ministers may be right that we are undergoing a “permanent change in the nation’s political identity”, but there is no reason it should favour one side or the other. If you had to choose between being the party of the graduate professional class or that of the Leave-voting working class, it is not obvious that Labour has had the wrong choice forced on it.
What may be more significant about Thursday’s elections is the reaction to adversity of the Labour Party and its leader. The party has responded by resuming a civil war that the Corbynite faction has comprehensively lost, and the Corbynites seem bent on reminding everyone why they did. What matters, though, is Starmer’s reaction. In the short video he recorded for the BBC, he looked uncomfortable and repeated his prepared soundbite in response to questions about whether he was going to reshuffle his shadow cabinet. Adversity is a test, and he is failing it.
We know that he is resilient, confident and capable, but he didn’t look it. There is nothing inevitable about Labour’s failure, but if the leader himself looks as if he thinks there is, the party has a problem.