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Governments lose elections...

How do you win a general election?

PHD students have written copious thesis on this subject and every political and media commentator has an opinion.

Conventional wisdom would suggest that it is quite simple; in nearly all general elections with perhaps only 1992 as the obvious anomaly, the British public elect the party with the strongest and most charismatic leader to form the government. That has certainly been true in recent times.

What is also true is that the strength of your opponents’ really matters. Would Boris Johnson really have secured an 80+ seat majority in 2019 if he was fighting Keir Starmer’s Labour? Would Tony Blair really have secured a 50+ seat majority in 2005 if he had been fighting David Cameron’s Tories?

In politics it is often said that oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them.

The Tories have spent much of the last 18 months doing all they can to lose the next election by sacrificing their popular leader, replacing him with an economic disaster, crashing the British economy and promoting a school prefect to the role of Prime Minister. Meanwhile the SNP in Scotland have divided the Scottish people over their Gender Recognition Bill, their failing health service, rising drug problem and their falling educational attainment rates. To make matters worse for the SNP, the most well-known and political feared leader in their history, has just announced she will be out of office in less than six weeks and is likely to be replaced by someone the country has hardly heard of.

I repeat, governments tend to lose elections.

Indeed, I don’t think we can really underplay what it means to be heading into a 2024 general election without Johnson and Sturgeon leading their parties.

For better or worse, there is, was and still is a British love-affair with Boris Johnson. Even despite party-gate, wallpaper-gate, BBC loan-gate, and every other scandal he is linked to, the focus group analysis still shows he could win a parliamentary majority at a general election today. Similarly, despite failing miserably in domestic policy terms north of the border, the SNP led by Nicola Sturgeon has been a campaign machine to rival anything we have seen in the modern era at general elections.

With Johnson and Sturgeon leading the Tories and SNP, Labour’s chances north and south of the border have been severely hindered. Many people have concluded that whilst Johnson and Sturgeon were on the pitch, Labour’s chances of reaching 326 seats and forming a government was all but impossible. Of course, Johnson and Sturgeon were helped enormously by facing a Labour Party divided and at odds with itself over Gordon versus Tony, Ed Miliband versus David Miliband, Corbyn versus the party but even still, they were formidable political operators that Labour simply couldn’t handle.

However, with a general election now only 12-18 months away, everything has changed.

Johnson gone. Sturgeon gone. Their replacements, not in the same league.

Despite being at their lowest number of MPs since the War and facing the prospect of needing a landslide result in order to gain a modest working majority at the next election, Labour is now contemplating heading into the home stretch of this parliament, 20+ points ahead in the polls, respected and supported by business, credible on the economy and with the strongest leader of any major political party at the top of the tree.

How has this happened? Yes Labour has changed and elected a Leader who is serious, but and I repeat, governments lose elections. When Labour replaced Tony Blair with Gordon Brown, there is no denying the party was in a weaker position than it was. When Truss and Sunak replaced Johnson the Tories have become weaker electorally. Whoever replaces Sturgeon will leave the SNP in a weaker position. If you’re Labour, you fancy your chances in a Starmer v Sunak and Starmer v Forbes/Robertson/Yousaf contest.

I always like to think of politics in football terms. You see, to get to an FA Cup Final and win it, most teams will have to win six games. The odds are that you will have a far greater chance of winning the competition if you draw six home games against teams from the lower leagues who are all missing their star strikers and playing their third choice Goalkeeper, rather than having to play against the recognised top 6 Premier League teams away from home in every round. It’s not an exact science but it is more probable.

Politics is similar. Going into a general election you don’t want to have to face a political party which is united and with a Leader hitting sixes every week at PMQs and who has taken on the role of darling of the media.

Like them, love them, loathe them, Johnson and Sturgeon were seen by the public as stronger and more charismatic than anything Labour had to offer in the last decade. But not now. Not against the new leadership of the Tories and SNP.

That is why this week really matters.

The most recent polling before Sturgeon resigned showed Labour gaining 8 points in the polls on the SNP. Anas Sarwar, Labour’s leader in Scotland is well liked and incredibly charismatic. He is one of the most authentic and likeable retail politicians of his generation. It is working. In fact, Labour in Scotland were up 10 points in Westminster voting intention on the SNP according to the latest polling before Sturgeon’s resignation. These margins are only like to narrow between Labour and the SNP as a new, and relatively unknown, First Minister is appointed and the general election nears.

Prior to the 2015 general election, the joke was that there were always more pandas in Scotland than Tory MPs. Karma caught up with Labour after 2015 when there ended up being double the number of pandas in Scotland compared to Labour MPs.

Before that of course, Scotland had traditionally, been safe for Labour. With 59 seats available, Labour comfortably secured 80% of these in almost every general election for over half a century. In the last three general elections however, Labour have only managed to reach the dizzy heights of seven seats in the 2017 election. A number cut back to just one in 2019. As things stand, Labour needs to move back towards winning 30+ seats in Scotland to be in reach of a 326 majority across the country.

After this week and Sturgeon removing herself from the game, it might just be possible for Labour.


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