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Labour's Growing Suburban Support And Tactical Voting Could Deliver "Double Whammy" Defeat To Tories

Keir Starmer at the Labour Party national phone bank in London speaking to voters across England last week (Alamy)

5 min read

The Conservatives could suffer a "double whammy" of a Labour vote share that has spread outside of it's usual concentration in urban centres and tactical voting across the UK at the next general election, according to pollsters analysing the local election results.

Labour Together, a think tank formed in 2015, is working "closely" with Labour's shadow cabinet in the run-up to the general election and carries out polling and focus groups in order to help the party get into power.

Director of Research Christabel Cooper told PoliticsHome that the recent local election results, where Labour gained 186 councillors and the Tories lost 474, showed that Labour's vote share across the country was becoming more efficiently spread rather than concentrated in a smaller number of predominantly metropolitan seats, a development that could help them gain a majority in Parliament.

"[Labour's] vote in the 2010s was just really inefficient," Cooper explained.

"It was piling up votes in inner city areas, so getting really huge majorities in some places like Hackney and Islington etc, or Liverpool or central Manchester, but then not winning all the kinds of marginal towns outside that that they needed to win. 

"You can really see from these local election results that Labour is now doing better in places it was doing worse, so that inefficiency is unwinding."

This would mean that Labour would be able to win a larger number of seats with a lower share of the overall vote. According to Cooper, the "inefficiency" of the spread of Labour's votes under Jeremy Corbyn's leadership between 2015 and 2020 led to scepticism that Labour could overturn the Conservatives' 2019 majority within one term.

"You'd have needed something like a 12 per cent swing just to get a majority of one, but I don't think that's true anymore."

Luke Tryl, the UK Director of polling organisation More in Common, agreed that Labour's vote share had become more efficient, making analysis of the national vote share in this year's local elections somewhat less significant.

"Labour are doing much better at gaining votes in areas where they need to beat the Conservatives than they are in areas where they already hold the seat," he said.

"In some cases, we know in those areas where they held seats, they've actually lost votes. In Merseyside you don't see really significant gains, you see Labour going up a bit, whereas in Northamptonshire you see a much more significant switch to Labour. They are gaining votes where they need to and gaining fewer votes in areas that ultimately won't matter that much."

He added that while in 2019, the Conservatives won four out of seven voter segments – groups of voters identified by More in Common as Progressive Activists, Backbone Conservatives, Disengaged Battlers, Established Liberals, Loyal Nationals, Disengaged Traditionalists, and Civic Pragmatists – Labour is now polling ahead with five or potentially six of these voter segments.

"Labour are perhaps not gaining as many seats as you might have expected before those elections, and that's in large part because of the significant gains for other parties, which includes Greens and independents," he continued. 

But tactical voting in a general election means this split of Labour's potential vote share by smaller parties is likely to reduce, with Tryll arguing that this will mean the Tories face a "double whammy" of both the likelihood of more tactical voting and a more efficient Labour vote.

"What was clear was the Liberal Democrats, Labour and the Greens, where they were either in second or coming close to second, were very good at squeezing the votes for other parties and coming out ahead as a result," he said.

"It gives us pause to think we shouldn't just expect that what happens at the next general election will be a uniform national swing."

Cooper said that tactical voting would "absolutely" have a big impact at the general election, and that Labour would encourage non-Labour voters to vote tactically for them to keep the Conservatives out of government. 

Labour Together advocates for the Labour Party to appeal to a "broad church" of voters, and the local election results show the party is trying to do just that: the Conservative to Labour swing was largest in areas that voted most heavily to Leave in 2016.

"A future Labour government would have to acknowledge that and address their specific needs and their specific concerns," Cooper said, adding that the core voters have not fundamentally changed over the last few years.

"The classic 'Red Wall' voter, the sort of patriotic left, still exists, it's just that now they tend to be voting Labour alongside the more socially liberal people in the middle of cities who were voting Labour before.

"It's just that rather than being something that divided people in their voting behaviour, their voting behaviour has come together, it's a coalition of really quite different people, quite different geographies."

The challenge for Labour if they get into government might be how to sustain this "coalition" in the long run.

"The main thing is, you have to be seen to deliver something," Cooper said.

"Labour will be wanting to find some things that will be specific to geography and to specific people, but it will need to find things to say in five years time to all of the people that voted for Labour: 'Your life is better because we did that'."

Going into the summer, Labour Together’s main focus will be to continue conducting numerous polls and focus groups that they will share with Labour to help the party going into a general election campaign.

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