Since the election we have been treated to a lot of angst from senior Labour politicians. Liz Kendall claimed: "One more parliament like the last means we might be unable to form a majority government again." Jon Cruddas, going further, said: "this could be the greatest crisis the Labour party has faced since it was created. It is epic in its scale.” Are they right?
I do not propose looking directly at the direction that Labour should go in. But I have taken a look at the electoral landscape that they now face. Here are the seats that they currently hold (ranked from most marginal to safest):
And here are their target seats, ranked in order of swing that Labour require to take them:
I hope that these lists are fairly self-explanatory. On the first list I have highlighted the majority in the colour of the party of the nearest challenger (I have used grey for the SNP simply on the ground of legibility). On the second list I have highlighted the seat and the majority in the colour of the party of the incumbent. On the second list I have also asterisked the majority if Labour is in third, with an additional asterisk for each position Labour has dropped below third.
Now it must be noted at once that we will probably have boundary changes before the next election (these may well make Labour's position weaker, though this is not certain). So these lists should not be used unthinkingly. The sands are expected to shift.
From these lists, however, quite a few conclusions can be drawn.
Know your enemy
One thing stands out from both of these lists: Labour should be focussed pretty much exclusively on the Conservatives. Of their top 100 targets, all bar 14 are Conservative-held seats. Of their top 100 most vulnerable seats, all bar 16 have a Conservative as nearest challenger. The lesson is simple: Labour has to turn all its efforts towards its traditional battle with the Conservatives.
The point should not need making, but apparently it does. Already Labour supporters are considering how to get back "their" Scottish seats from the SNP. But only seven SNP-held seats feature in the top 100 targets. When it comes to forming a majority in Westminster, Scotland is a sideshow. Nothing that has happened since the election suggests that the tribulations of Scottish Labour have ended or even that it has yet reached its nadir.
Similarly, there has been much talk about how UKIP are now second-placed in a plethora of Labour-held seats. And so they are. But chiefly this is a feature of very safe Labour seats. UKIP are second in only five of Labour's 100 most vulnerable seats. If UKIP start getting swings the size that the SNP achieved in Scotland this time, then they will take lots of Labour seats. But if that happens, Labour will have many other problems than just the challenge of UKIP. And it's not as though the post-election period has been particularly happy for UKIP either.
Labour should not be distracted. Everything it does needs to be geared towards undermining the Conservatives. Everything else is of secondary importance.
The scale of the challenge
It has been noticed quite widely that Labour will need a very large swing if they are to win an overall majority: just under 10% on a uniform basis. This is true. Indeed, Labour need something like a 5% swing if they are even to get most seats. To put this in context, a swing of the level required for an overall majority has been achieved since the Second World War only in the 1945 and the 1997 elections. A 5% swing has been achieved in only three more elections in that period. Clearly Labour have a major challenge ahead of them.
But Labour is demonstrating a goldfish-like ability to forget all the discussions before the election about what happens in the case of a hung Parliament. Because most of the other Parliamentary parties dress to the left, Labour does not even need most seats to be best-placed to form a government. It just has to gain something approaching 40 seats from the Conservatives and to be ready to play nicely with others. This is rather less of a challenge.
Going back to my earlier point, Labour taking seats off the SNP in 2020 doesn't do all that much to improve Labour's prospects of leading a government: the SNP's supporters expect it to back a Labour government, so the seat count for a hypothetical coalition or minority government is left unaltered by transferring a seat from the SNP column to the Labour column. If Labour plus SNP totalled 326, all the huffing and puffing in the world from the Conservatives won't stop a Labour-led government from being formed.
Labour taking SNP seats would help, of course, in addressing scare stories put forward by the Conservatives about the malign influence of the SNP over policy and it would help in giving Labour legitimacy for forming a government if it got it closer to being the largest party. But these are secondary rather than primary benefits.
Implications for the Labour leadership election
When selecting their new leader, Labour members need to be aware that they do not have very good prospects for an outright majority in 2020 in the absence of something big happening and that even getting most seats looks quite tough from where they start now. There is much that is uncertain in the coming five years, but Labour would do well to plan on the basis that these uncertainties won't necessarily work in its favour.
So if Labour prioritises power over ideological purity and if it wants to aim for an overall majority or most seats, it should avoid "no change" candidates. It should look for the candidate that would most undermine the Conservatives' prospectus to the country. And it should consider the quite likely possibility that its leader will need to work in concert with other progressive parties, so it should look for a good negotiator and someone comfortable with the idea of working on a cross-party basis.
The last time that Labour had such a leader, he managed to achieve a sufficiently large national swing to make the idea of a coalition entirely unnecessary. By contemplating a broad coalition in 1997, Tony Blair was able to create one under the banner of his own party. Are Labour party members ready to select a leader that offers a similar approach? And do any of the current candidates actually do so?