Keir Starmer’s speech to his party conference yesterday was largely focused on one key message, trying to present Labour as a credible alternative to government. Although he was part of the 2019 shadow cabinet, and presented himself to members as someone close politically to Jeremy Corbyn, yesterday felt more about aligning with Tony Blair. Starmer’s response to one heckler summed up his view of those furthest left in Labour: “shouting slogans or changing lives?” But what does winning an election for Labour actually look like? It looks like a mountain, and not just any mountain. When I look at the data, I’m visualising Mount Everest. Let me explain why.
To win a majority, Labour needs to take more than 123 extra seats. That means not only securing what some would call a “miracle recovery” in Scotland, and not only reversing 20 years of declining support in the Red Wall – but on top of that winning dozens more seats in places that have voted Tory in five consecutive elections or more.
This week, the Fabians published a brilliant report called Winning 150 that can help us look at that challenge step by step. They highlight 150 seats where they think Labour should be focusing its energy. Challenge one: A miraculous recovery in Scotland This week Anas Sarwar, Labour’s leader in Scotland, told me that his nation was the first red wall to crumble for Labour – and he’s not kidding. The party has gone from having 41 MPs in Scotland in 2010 to just one now.
The Fabians highlight 25 seats in which Labour is most competitive, seats all held by the party before 2015. These are places that are marginally anti-independence but have backed the SNP, and often with larger majorities than equivalent targets in England and Wales. They tend to be remain supporting. But election guru John Curtice thinks it would be a “miracle” for Labour to make a recovery that big. It would require Labour to be running neck-and-neck with the SNP in the polls, which it hasn’t done since 2014. But say they get those 25, that still leaves 98 to find elsewhere so lets move down the country to the next big challenge, the second red wall, if you like.
Challenge two: Rebuilding the Red Wall You don’t need me to tell you that Labour has collapsed in parts of the north of England and Midlands, where Brexit voting constituencies turned against the party they were once loyal to in the wake of the 2016 referendum result.
Here, the Fabians have highlighted 41 seats that the party will hope to reconnect with. Wigan MP and shadow foreign secretary, Lisa Nandy, told me – after watching Starmer’s speech, that the message that would resonate well across the north would be that Labour is a proudly patriotic party. But is that enough? The Fabians show data that splits constituencies into their levels of Brexit support. Among the top group there has been a steady decline in their backing of Labour – not since 2016 – but right back since 2005.
Turning that around to win over 41 seats is a hell of a challenge. And even if they do – that still leaves them 57 seats short of the majority of 1 target.
Challenge three: Winning over Tory strongholds For this, the Fabians pick out 67 seats, which have been held by the Tories for a long time, at least since 2001 or 2005, but where demographic change could offer opportunity.
I actually visited one of these while I was at Labour conference in Brighton last week. I headed down the coast to Worthing East and Shoreham, a solidly Conservative seat that is gentrifying and may offer a hope to Labour. For what it’s worth – the challenge just in this single seat felt tough, with voter after voter telling me they weren’t yet convinced by Starmer, and didn’t feel that Labour would seize the cost of living crisis with a better alternative.
One summed it up – “the jury’s out”. All those seats would get Starmer over the line but assuming that it would be very difficult to do that, there is one more group highlighted by the Fabians. Challenge four: Securing swing seats Finally, Labour really needs to be competitive enough to take swing seats that have switched party more than once in the past five elections. There are 17 of those. So that is four very difficult challenges, which would result in 150 seats. To get even a tiny majority, Labour needs to win over 82% of them. Defeating the Conservatives looks like a mindboggling challenge for Labour – and one that many think they cannot do alone. A recovery for the Lib Dems in the south-west would help, but doesn’t feel assured.
A deal with the SNP could also provide a boost – but risks a referendum that would lose Labour Scotland from its British electoral map, altogether. All of this is why, to many, Starmer feels more like a Neil Kinnock figure taking Labour into it’s 1992 election defeat, than a Tony Blair figure taking it into government five years later.
But when I put that to the shadow home secretary, Nick Thomas Symonds, he was more hopeful – pointing to times in the past when big turnarounds were achieved by parties in just one term. He highlighted Harold Wilson’s victory in 1964 and then Ted Heath’s in 1970. Both overturned big majorities. But neither won an additional 123 seats.