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Are the parties planning a 15% strategy for 2015?

Are the parties planning a 15% strategy for 2015?

🕔29.May 2014

The ‘35% strategy’ – the idea that a party could, or was aiming to, win the 2015 General Election on 35% of the vote – entered political discourse just over a year ago, generally as a Conservative taunt directed at Labour in general and Ed Miliband in particular.

The 35% comprised what was felt to be Labour’s ‘core vote’ – the 29% it managed in 2010 and that brought 258 or nearly 40% of Commons seats – plus a fairly arbitrary 6% for Lib Dem defectors who felt betrayed at being cajoled into a Conservative-led coalition.

Psephologically, it was a fairly uncontentious claim. In Tony Blair’s third election victory in 2005 Labour’s 35.2% of the vote had given it 356 seats and an overall majority of 66.

With the abandonment of the parliamentary boundary review, following Conservative MPs’ opposition to Lords reform, and the likelihood of a significantly higher UKIP vote than in 2010, a Labour vote of 35% with a 2 or 3% lead over the Conservatives would, according to most election calculators, win it at least a small overall majority.

Politically, though, if it really were the basis of a strategy, it could be interpreted both as unambitious and, by apparently ignoring Conservative supporters and appealing only to disenchanted Lib Dems, as undermining Miliband’s claim that he would campaign on a ‘One Nation’ platform and serve as a unifying Prime Minister.

In the year since it gained popular currency, 35% has become an all-purpose taunt, suitable for attacking either major party or both. That is why it leads off the discussion here – the point of which is to suggest not that 35% is unambitious, but in fact far too generous a figure to put on the fraction of the potential electorate that the parties are preparing strategically to ignore between now and next May.

So what, their reasoning goes, if barely 80% of electors are registered, only 60% of those registered turn out, and, as last Thursday, only 30 or 31% of them vote for us? If that 15% of the electorate makes us the biggest party – better still, gives us a majority – that’s just dandy. Identify and love-bomb that one citizen in seven, and we can forget the rest, all those Farage fans included.

Of course, that’s not exactly what they were saying publicly last weekend. Instead, it was all about being in listening mode and, above all, respecting the voters – ‘respect’ as explained in the Anglo-EU Translation Guide: when the British say “With the greatest respect”, they mean “I think you’re an idiot”, but hope you’ll hear “He’s listening to me”.

Even so, the main parties’ underlying thinking was unmissable in some of their belittling of UKIP’s local election achievements – having won, notwithstanding an electoral system hugely disadvantageous to small and minor parties, the national equivalent of nearly one in five votes overall, and one in four in contests where they had candidates.

Listen! (as all media-prepped interviewees start nowadays). These were locals – low turnout elections. UKIP’s vote share was down on last year; they’ve still only 2% of councillors, none in most London boroughs, major cities, and all the Yorkshire and Lancashire old mill and pit towns, and, of course, none in Birmingham and Coventry; and they’re nowhere near controlling any councils.

And – this from the Conservatives – look, they’re taking votes and seats from Labour too, and virtually everywhere they stand. They’re a genuinely national party (unlike us), which means even their one-in-four or one-in-five votes probably won’t get them a single MP – the electoral system will see to that.

Yes, the First-Past-The-Post electoral system – that’s where the party strategists start. As we heard regularly during the Alternative Vote referendum campaign, it means only a third of us – though considerably more in Birmingham – live in the 199 marginal seats whose 2010 majorities of less than 10% give them a real chance of changing hands.

The other two-thirds of us can be sidelined straightaway, our votes effectively counted before the campaign starts.

Next, registration. The existing system, through ‘head of the household’, is primitive, discriminatory, and as Birmingham knows all too well, open to fraud. Its replacement by Individual Electoral Registration (IER) is therefore long overdue – though, given the concerns of electoral registration officers, probably not kicking off in two weeks’ time, from 10 June.

But that’s a medium-term problem. If you’re already registered, you’ll stay on the December 2014 register and retain your 2015 General Election Vote, even if you’ve not yet applied individually.

The immediate problem – or maybe not – is the existing system, and the Electoral Commission’s estimate that between 15 and 20% of eligible electors aren’t registered. These figures include only 6% of over-65s, but 44% of 19-24 year olds; 14% of white voters, but 23% of black and minority ethnics; 12% of homeowners, but 44% of private renters.

It’s a democratic problem, obviously, but a political problem only if you reckon that the under-registered groups are disproportionately likely to vote for, say, the Labour Party.

Still, Labour reckons the biases of the electoral system will more than compensate. With the abandonment of the boundary review, Labour can get an overall majority on a vote lead of 3%, while the Conservatives need one of over 11%.

Unreformed boundaries plus an unreformed electoral system trump an unreformed registration system. Forget the 35% strategy; what we’re looking at here is more like a 15% strategy.

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