Why it doesn’t matter that many Labour target seats voted Leave


May 27, 2019 by Paul Goldsmith

The way the First-past-the-post electoral system works means that a Remain supporting mainstream party can win plenty of Leave seats

Political pundits trying to explain the conundrum Labour are having over their Brexit policy tend to point to the difficulty of holding together a coalition of Remain leaning metropolitan seats and Leave voting Northern and Welsh seats.

Many of the latter are marginal seats, meaning they are Labour’s to win or lose if they can find the right strategy. Most of those marginal seats voted Leave in the 2016 referendum (something like 25 of Labour’s top 30 target Tory seats and many of the top 30 Labour targets for the Tories).

So it would seem that a constructively ambiguous Brexit strategy might work for Labour. I like to call it the ‘Schrödinger’s Cat’ strategy – after the thought experiment in which a cat in a box can be both alive and dead until you open that box. Labour’s strategy has been to be both Remain and Leave at the same time. It sort of worked in the 2017 General election, but not in the 2019 EU Parliament elections, where a clear, set position was what was needed.

Yet what happened in 2017 is instructive. Faced with a Conservative Party set on a hard Brexit, Remain voters understood they were tethered to the Labour Party by a First Past The Post string.

That’s because the General Election system for transferring votes into seats is a simple plurality – all you have to do is win one more vote than the second placed party in your constituency to win the seat.

You could argue that by attracting both Remain and Leave votes, Labour were able to win more seats, particularly in Northern Leave voting constituencies, than they might have done had they taken a position.

Yet that was with a dying UKIP producing an ineffective campaign, leaving left wing Leave voters with nowhere to go but the Tories, which some went to, but others couldn’t bring themselves to do.

However, the Brexit Party are a different kettle of fish. Having just produced an absolute masterpiece of political marketing and campaigning in the EP elections, there is little doubt they have the wherewithal to do it again in a General Election.

Faced with this, and what is likely to be a Brexiteer-led Conservative Party, there may be only one strategy that can work for Labour, and that is to campaign as THE Remain party. This would mean unequivocally calling for a Second Referendum, and even flirting with revoking Article 50 overall. They should do deals with other Remain parties, pointing out that only they as the ‘alternative’ party of Government can actually be in a position to implement what would be needed to Remain.

Now, your immediate reaction might be to point out that most Labour’s target seats and seats they are protecting are Leave voting. Correct. But it doesn’t follow that Labour will win them or hold onto them by advocating Leave or maintaining their constructive ambiguity. A simple example explains why.

Let’s say Labour are campaigning in a constituency with 100,000 votes that voted 60-40% Leave. Remember in a General election that Labour need one more vote than the party in second place. Let’s say 9,999 people vote for other parties but the other 90,000 vote for Labour or Conservative or Brexit Party. The latter two, with their clear pro-Brexit position, both get 30,000 votes each. Labour, as the only major party with a clear Remain position, gets 30,001 votes. Labour wins. If that gets repeated everywhere, which would by the way mean they win more seats in Scotland, Labour can get into Downing Street.

I am not denying there are many assumptions here: For one, I am assuming enough Remain supporters who normally vote for other parties will switch to Labour to make up for Leave supporters switching to the Brexit Party.

But I am challenging the narrative that Labour has to still be seen as a Leave party to win Leave voting seats. It doesn’t.

One thought on “Why it doesn’t matter that many Labour target seats voted Leave

  1. Alistair Fox says:

    Good analysis. The real problem with UK Politics is not Parliament’s inability to implement the ambiguous and damaging results of an advisory referendum, but the first past the post voting system [no change there].

    It’s supporters always claimed that the system avoided weak, coalition-based governments. But that has now been blown out of the water by the past 3 years. If we’d had an effective version of PR i believe the UKIP would have gained a few seats, but would not have been able to hijack politics. And perhaps the Conservative and Labour parties would have split into their pro- and anti-EU factions. That would have given voters a real choice.

    What we have now is the first past the post voting system just delivering proxy-referenda.

    Welcome back Paul…


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