Keir Starmer has more to do to convince voters he wouldn’t be pushed around in a hung parliament

Even if Boris Johnson loses his Uxbridge seat, Labour will struggle to govern

John Rentoul
Saturday 28 May 2022 14:23
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<p>Starmer needs to be ready to govern as a minority government without doing deals with the SNP or the Liberal Democrats</p>

Starmer needs to be ready to govern as a minority government without doing deals with the SNP or the Liberal Democrats

Much excitement about a big YouGov opinion poll that suggests Boris Johnson would lose his Uxbridge seat if there were a general election tomorrow. Which is one reason there won’t be a general election tomorrow – or indeed next year, despite the attempt by David Canzini, the prime minister’s deputy chief of staff, to persuade the Conservative Party to prepare for one.

Canzini is No 10’s outreach worker to punk Thatcherites, who described a windfall tax as “un-Conservative”, and look what difference that made. His attempt to make party staff work harder by scaring them with a 2023 election is likely to meet a similar fate.

However, the projection that Labour would win Uxbridge and South Ruislip is hardly surprising. The prime minister enjoyed a majority of 15 per cent at the last election, so he would be vulnerable to a swing of 8 per cent to Labour, and the national opinion polls currently suggest a swing of 10 per cent. All YouGov has done, through the magic of a large sample and MRP, which everyone knows by now stands for multilevel regression and post-stratification, is confirmed in a seat-by-seat projection that Uxbridge is a theoretical Labour gain.

What is more interesting is that YouGov’s analysis suggests that the swing would be uneven across the country and that the north-south tilt of the 2019 election would continue. The Tories would do worse in southern seats such as Uxbridge (on the outer fringe of west London), and better in northern and midlands seats. Of the 88 Labour target seats analysed by YouGov, only three would stay in Tory hands: Ashfield, Bassetlaw and Dudley North. Those are all seats held by smaller majorities than Johnson’s in Uxbridge, and they were all Labour seats before 2019 (unlike Uxbridge), yet Labour would fail to win them back.

This is linked to the true significance of YouGov’s findings. Even if Labour did as well in 2024 as it is doing now, it would fail to win a majority in the Commons. Even if Labour secured a swing of 10 per cent, which is what Tony Blair achieved in 1997, we would end up with a hung parliament. Because Labour starts from such a low base, a Blair-like earthquake would still leave Keir Starmer short of a majority.

Which is why I said after the local elections this month – which also pointed to a hung parliament – that Starmer needs to plan for two things. First, he needs to be in a position to fight an election campaign against a Tory claim that a vote for Labour would be a vote for a “coalition of chaos” with the Scottish National Party because everyone will know that the choice at the election will essentially be between a Conservative-majority government and Starmer as prime minister in a hung parliament. Second, he needs to be ready to lead a minority government without doing deals with the SNP or Liberal Democrats.

On the first, he is making progress. In August last year, he tightened up Labour’s resistance to giving Nicola Sturgeon a second referendum on independence. “On the constitution,” he said in Scotland, “we’ve been absolutely clear that the focus right now is on the recovery and on the climate challenge”. This is the right line – “not yet” – but in my view, it should be tougher. He should be emphatic that a second referendum would happen only if there is evidence a clear and sustained majority of Scottish residents want independence – and not because the SNP tries to exploit its non-existent leverage in a hung parliament.

He could be more explicit that the SNP cannot do anything in a hung parliament that would enable a Conservative government, so it would have to allow him to govern. Last year he said: “There’ll be no coalition going into those [next Westminster] elections and no coalition coming out of it.”

Last month he went further: not only no coalition, but no deal whatsoever: “Let me be absolutely clear, no deal going into the general election – I say that now, possibly a year or two out from the general election – and no deal on the other side of the general election.” That is, no SNP ministers, and not even a formal deal for SNP votes on “confidence and supply” matters, as was agreed between the Conservatives and the Democratic Unionist Party in the 2017-19 parliament.

“I could not be clearer about this and I hope that nobody has missed my very clear message on this,” Starmer said. Unfortunately for him, although The Independent reported his words, I suspect that most people missed them. He will need to find new ways of putting the message up in lights.

It doesn’t help him to have anonymous members of Ed Miliband’s team from the 2015 election speculating to the media about one option being “to say that everyone knows there is going to be another referendum at some point and the right way to proceed is to determine what the options to put to the people would be in detail”. Starmer needs to crush such talk with fire and brimstone.

It is the same with Lib Dem demands for proportional representation. Electoral reform may or may not be a good idea, and the problem for Starmer is that most of his activists like it, just as they think the Scots should have as many referendums as Sturgeon wants. But it would be a disaster if the voters thought the Lib Dems and the SNP could extort their demands from a minority Labour government. Starmer has to make it clear that he need give the Lib Dems and the SNP nothing: Ed Davey, despite, or perhaps because of, having served as a minister in a Tory-led government, cannot allow the Tories to remain in office if there is a hung parliament any more than the SNP can.

Starmer’s hard line is going to involve upsetting large parts of his own party, but he needs to lay it down now, to pre-empt the Tory posters depicting him as being in Sturgeon’s pocket.

It might help Starmer convince the voters that he would not be pushed around by the minor parties if he did some serious work now on how to govern without a majority. It is a tricky balance to strike because the more he talks about a hung parliament the more he will seem to have given up on winning a majority. But it can be done, by presenting a broad-based programme for government and daring the SNP and Lib Dems to vote it down.

He needs to try to get beyond the folk memory of the dying months of the Callaghan government – the last time there was a true minority government in Britain. He should instead study the example of Harold Wilson, who governed without a majority and without doing deals with other parties for eight months in 1974, as part of his two-step election path to a majority government.

But if Boris Johnson does lose his seat, it would at least get a minority Labour government off to a good start.

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