UK politics │ Next general election – Labour’s 1993 moment?

7 April 2009 │ Edited: 8 April 2009

It is difficult to predict what will happen in politics, especially when the (economic) situation is so volatile. But most political pundits agree that the current Labour government will be voted out some time in 2010. The questions are whether and in what shape will the Labour party survive after the defeat.

In the 1993 general election in Canada, the governing Progressive Conservatives were brutally kicked out of office, losing 167 seats out of 169. Could this happen in Britain? Will there be a 1993 moment?

The party political landscape in Canda then and that of Britain now are totally different, and naturally any projections of the former to the latter are quite tenuous and probably meaningless. However, it remains the case that the first-past-the-post system can lead to startling results. While it is very unlikely that Labour will be reduced to mere 2 seats at the Westminster parliament, there are several reasons why the scale of Labour defeat may be bigger than what we would expect. Both fragmentation and coalescence of votes will be problematic for Labour.

‘Fragmentation’ refers here to the split of the Labour vote. For example, if a new party more left-wing than New Labour fields candidates in the areas hit hard by the recession, it may split the traditional Labour vote. A new / splinter "Old Labour" party may not win seats, but would attract enough support to prevent the official Labour party candidates from winning some of the seats. In Scotland, the SNP is a formidable foe to Labour. Plaid Cymru will nibble at Labour support in Wales too. It also depends on how the Liberal Democrats position themselves and draw support from those who are ‘fed up with Labour, but will never vote Tories’. Their job is to appeal to those who want to prevent Tories from getting in and those who were casual supporters of Labour. There will be many local one-issue candidates and more votes may go to the extremes such as the BNP. Other parties, such as Greens and UKIP, may make winning a seat a much more hazardous affair.

Another big threat to Labour is coalescence of votes to the candidate most likely to topple the Labour candidate, as much as fragmentation of their votes. If voters were attracted to minor parties in equal measure, then Labour may still squeak through. But a big danger is tactical voting: ‘kick Labour out’. In the past few elections, there were ‘keep the Tories out’ voters, who support one party but voted for another which had a more realistic chance of preventing the Conservative candidate from winning. Roles may be reversed: many voters are relishing the opportunity to punish Labour. It is anyone’s guess if either or both of these two processes will materialize in the next election, but if they were to do so, then Labour will be in a huge trouble.

If the LibDems do reasonably well and Labour badly, then it may lead to a 3-party system: Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrats. Even if the Conservatives are likely to win an overall majority in the Commons in the next election, a hung parliament cannot be ruled out, if the Tories cannot make inroads in Scotland, Wales and northern England. It looks rather unlikely that the Tory party has managed to win converts outside of their comfort zones, and especially where the nationalists offer a credible alternative to the Tories and Labour.

In the future, coalition or minority governments should not be ruled out, as it was quite common in the early part of the 20th century, and they seem to work reasonably well for the Scottish Parliament.

We shall see in a year’s time what happens.