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Fear of SNP influence will not win the Conservatives the next election

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Talk of coalitions is back. Following the local elections, the received wisdom (and some polling evidence) suggests that we are heading for a hung parliament after the next general election in 2024. In response, the Spectator’s James Forsyth reported recently that some Conservatives were advocating a return to the party’s supposedly successful tactics in the 2015 general election to keep Labour out of power: warning English voters of the risks of a Labour-led coalition held to ransom by the SNP. The New Statesman’s Ben Walker has pointed out the problems with this idea in terms of likening Keir Starmer to Ed Miliband. But there is a more fundamental problem: this tactic didn’t win the Conservatives the 2015 election.

That election left deep wounds for Labour. After five years of Tory-Lib Dem austerity, Labour — and, it must be said, a consensus of pollsters ­— expected, at worst, to gain seats in a hung parliament and be in a position to lead the next government. The final pre-election Guardian/ICM poll had Labour and the Conservatives neck and neck. In reality, the vote share of the two main parties hardly budged from 2010, with Labour still 7 percentage points behind. Labour lost 26 seats and the Conservatives won a slim majority. The pollsters called an internal inquiry.

In the aftermath, it is unsurprising that many latched on to the idea that English voters’ fears of a Labour-led coalition held to random by the Scottish nationalists — a ‘coalition of chaos’, as the Conservatives dubbed it — was the decisive factor. For some, that was a much easier explanation to swallow than the truth, which was that, at least in 2015, there was broad public acceptance of (though not necessarily enthusiasm for) the government’s austerity agenda. And even if the public disliked austerity, more blamed spending cuts on Labour’s perceived economic mismanagement in government than on the Conservatives for implementing them.

No credible analysis of the 2015 general election argues that the ‘coalition of chaos’ narrative won the Conservatives that election. Political scientists Tim Bale and Paul Webb concluded “the same factors that ushered the Conservatives into government in 2010 counted in their favour once again in 2015”. Concerns about a ‘coalition of chaos’ were, at most, a marginal factor. Political scientists Jane Green and Chris Prosser were more direct, concluding that the threat from the SNP “did not cause voters to be more likely to support the Conservatives”. It may have disciplined some who already intended to vote Conservative into turning out, but it certainly didn’t explain Labour’s 7-percentage-point (or two-million-vote) deficit or why it trailed by 100 seats. This big picture is what should preoccupy Labour now.

The official post-election post-mortem, led by Margaret Beckett, highlighted the ‘SNP threat’, but the main issues were a lack of trust on the economy, Labour’s positions on social welfare and immigration, and perceptions of Ed Miliband as leader. An unofficial post-mortem, led by Jon Cruddas, reached similar conclusions. Labour was not trusted on the economy and with the public finances, it had lost support among working-class voters due to its social welfare and immigration policies, and the party had a misapprehension that most voters opposed austerity. Boil everything down and what mattered was that the Conservatives had crucial leads on perceptions of economic competence and of their party leader.

In this context, it is the Conservatives who now appear to be indulging in wishful thinking. Keir Starmer consistently leads Boris Johnson, both on overall favourability and who would make the best prime minister. And on the economy, the Conservatives’ lead has fallen from 21 points at the 2019 election to just 5 points, according to YouGov. With further cost of living pressures inevitable, this could well flip in Labour’s favour in the near future.

If the Conservatives think the threat of the SNP alone can save them when these warning lights on the dashboard are flashing red, all the better for Labour. But that is not the lesson of the 2015 election.

For more analysis of the factors likely to play into the next general election, see our recent polling report, Rebuilding Labour and the Nation: May 2022