What if the Tories are wiped out?
Everyone knows that polls narrow, right?
Everyone knows that polls narrow, right?
Sure, the current UK election polls put Labour anywhere from 14% to a whopping 29% ahead of the Conservatives, making an an average 21% lead. Sure, the more extreme of those polls, combined with MRP modelling, point to the Tories winning fewer than 100 seats.
But polls narrow.
Yeah, the IMF reports that the UK is the only G7 economy expected to contract. The NHS is genuinely collapsing, with more than 1000 people a month dying due to delays in ambulances and emergency medicine.
But polls tighten.
OK, maybe the Tories are on their third Prime Minister in the space of a year. Perhaps they are mired in constant scandals relating to Boris Johnson, dodgy money, dodgy appointments, ministerial bullying and who knows what else. Granted, they’re a deeply divided party, with low-tax libertarians at war with populist culture warriors while they refight the two recent coups and leadership elections.
But they’ll bring it back, yeah?
Well, maybe. But there’s nothing inevitable about this at all, and the universe where the Conservative Party collapses to, say, 80 seats after the next general election is at least somewhat probable.
Marios Richards just wrote a newsletter post making this point (read it!), and others like James Austin and Sam Freedman have been gently noting for weeks that an electoral wipeout is something to be taken seriously:
No natural floors
Political parties are not natural forces. They can lead for decades and then vanish.
In 2012, the French Socialist Party won 280 seats, close to a majority in the National Assembly. In 2017, they collapsed to 45 seats as their voters flocked to Macron’s new party. By 2022, they were merely a junior partner in the NUPES list headed by far-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon.
Here in Israel, the Labour Party founded the actual state and was a major party from 1948 until 2003, became a weakened but significant party until 2019 and is now a minor fragment of a party, fighting to keep above the electoral threshold.
There are examples closer to home. The Liberal Party’s long history as half of the UK’s two-party system came to an end in the early 20th Century until they were winning single-figure seat totals in the post-war period. The Conservatives were wiped out in Scotland and Wales in 1997, only for the Scottish National Party to win 56 out of 59 Scottish seats in 2015. The Ulster Unionist Party and SDLP in Northern Ireland faded away to be replaced by the DUP and Sinn Fein respectively.
We tend, at times, to think of parties having a natural floor, a level beyond which their support cannot really fall. But that’s really extrapolating from very limited data. There aren’t, statistically speaking, very many general elections, and to start getting a useful sample size you end up going back so far that the world looks too different to draw any conclusions (The Great Reform Act of 1832, universal franchise in 1928, World War II, devolution, etc et al.). The rules of politics are barely even guidelines.
So let’s imagine….
It’s late 2024. Rishi Sunak has led the Conservative Party into its worst electoral defeat in history. Despite his half-hearted attempt to fight the general election on “Culture War” issues, Sunak lost voters both to Labour and a small but significant few percent to Reform UK on his right. Keir Starmer’s Labour won 47% of the vote, with some tactical voting helping both him and the Liberal Democrats to defeat Tory incumbents.
Labour stand on 488 seats. The Conservatives have just 72, despite winning nearly a quarter of voters.
Labour majority: 326
This scenario isn’t particularly far-fetched. But what would the next few years look like?
Labour Party Unity and Discipline
Keir Starmer’s Labour Party is unusually disciplined right now. The hunger for power and Starmer’s own occasionally-ruthless party management style has ended decades of power struggles at the top.
This is a big change after New Labour v Old Labour, Clause Four, the TB/GBs, the constant anti-Brown plotting, the mess of the Miliband years and full-scale Civil War of the Corbyn era. Starmer and the Labour leadership have their critics but they don’t have a powerful, organised and mobilised opposition inside the party. Everyone is too eager to win.
In power, with a whopping great majority, the truce will end overnight.
Parties with big majorities are impossible to manage because the stakes are too low. 100 MPs can vote against the government and they’ll still win votes in the Commons. Large caucuses inherently invite division and subgroups.
In a landslide, the manifesto becomes a critical party management tool, tying MPs into voting for laws they were elected to pass. There must be a temptation to run the next election campaign with a vague “we are responsible adults who’ll fix all the bad stuff sensibly” message rather than risk scaring off voters with cold hard policies. That’d be a mistake. Presenting a detailed manifesto with concrete policies will help the leadership actually get things done while in power.
But there’s a limit, and factionalism is inevitable. Starmer won’t be able to rule a huge PLP with an iron fist, and it wouldn’t be wise to try.
It’s the places you don’t expect to win that get you in trouble. Some of the most difficult MPs in the 2019 Conservative intake were those who weren’t thoroughly vetted because nobody thought they’d actually get elected. Nobody expected Nick Clegg to lose his seat to Labour, which is how Jared O’Mara was briefly an MP.
In our mega-landslide scenario, some of the new Labour MPs will be people who were in no hope seats — surprise winners who beat Tory big beasts or anonymous Home Counties Conservatives. One of them might be a British George Santos (or another Jared O’Mara).
The Westminster system isn’t equipped to handle a small party as the official Opposition. A 72-seat Tory party wouldn’t be able to fill a full shadow Front Bench team, let alone have enough backbenchers to fill Select Committees and ask Parliamentary Questions.
First Past the Post means that, in our scenario, the Conservatives can win 24% of the national vote and still come away with only 72 seats.
That’s not a new feature of the British political system, but it does become a problem if the will and votes of a quarter of the population is only expressed in the Commons by 11% of MPs.
Yes, it was also a problem when 12% of the population voted for UKIP in 2015 and got only one MP to show for it. But that sort of makes the point about how unfulfilled political aspirations can lead to problematic outcomes.
Most immediately, I can imagine a rise in far-Right support as a consequence.
Abhorring a Vacuum
When I’ve mentioned that the Tories could be wiped out at the next election, a common reaction is “Hurray!”
I worry, though, about what might replace the Conservative Party as the dominant force of right-wing politics in the UK. Like the National Front in France or AfD in Germany, far-right national populists are usually the beneficiaries when mainstream conservative parties die or are wounded. It’s not hard to imagine Reform UK filling the gap, especially targeting working-class, former industrial areas in Northern England.
The other possibility is that the Tory Party itself is seized fully by its own national populists, as happened to the Republicans in the United States. Fearing the risk of bleeding out to their right, and with a radicalised party rank and file, the Conservatives might choose this path. The leadership election to replace Rishi Sunak as Leader of the Opposition would be where that battle is fought in the first instance; the party grassroots will probably choose the most right-wing, culture warriorish candidate whether the MPs back them or not.
Perhaps polls will narrow after all. The economy will improve, the NHS will survive, people will forget about sleaze and Labour’s discipline will collapse.
Perhaps the Tories will boot Rishi Sunak and find some hitherto-unknown MP to be the new prime minister who everyone will love.
Perhaps natural political forces will mean that Labour squeak a small majority or just fall short.
Perhaps Starmer will win in a landslide, but with a ‘normal’ 100-seat majority and 200 Tory MPs.
But it’s certainly time to start thinking about what British politics would look like if the polls get a tiny bit wider instead of narrower, and the Conservative Party suffers a historic wipe-out loss.
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Fanstastic Column. The "everyone assumes the polls will tighten" and "it's just a poll" arguments don't bear out with bi-election results. In-fact, if the modelling from electoral calculus is right, it is underselling labour. My gut feel is a Lab Majority of about 150 but from quite a low turn out.
I wonder how many people will demand changing FPTP if Labour won such a huge majority. It could virtually guarantee the Tories never win again...?
This is an amazing article and should be widely read.