Election forecasts

History shows a party can end up in power with less than 35% of the vote

I noted a few days ago that support for Labour and the Tories is at an all-time low. Their combined share in opinion polls is currently averaging 64%, suggesting over a third of the country doesn’t back either of the UK’s largest parties.

If the trend persists, not only is a hung parliament almost assured, but it’s also likely that no party will get above 35% of the vote. This is the figure towards which Labour was at one point reportedly working, and which the Conservatives still nurse a hope of achieving.

Back in June I wrote that Labour would have enough trouble getting to 35%, never mind any higher. It now feels pretty much as if this will be the case, with the same going for the Tories.

But it doesn’t follow that neither party can end up in power with less than 35% of the vote.

It’s already happened once before: for Labour, at the 1923 general election.

On this occasion the party won just 30.7% of the vote and came second place behind the Tories, who won 38%.

But the Tories did not win enough seats for a majority, and the third place Liberals decided to support a minority Labour administration. It was the first time Labour had been in power by itself, and though the government survived for only 10 months, the experience gave the party a credibility boost and a valuable taste of public office.

This graph shows the share of the vote achieved by Labour in each of the general elections at which it won power. In three of the 11 “victories”, Labour took office as a minority government (1923, 1929 and February 1974). The rest were all majority governments.

Labour's winning shares

Thanks to the perversities of our first-past-the-post electoral system, the figure of 35.2% in 2005 led to a Labour majority of 66 seats, but the higher figure of 37.2% in February 1974 left the party 17 seats short.

Now here is the equivalent graph for the Conservatives, covering the same 100-year period. I’ve omitted the years 1931 and 1935, when the party won power as a member of a National Government.

Tory winning shares

You can see that the Conservatives have tended to win power with higher shares of the vote than Labour.

The party’s lowest ever winning share of 38.5% is higher than no fewer than four of the shares that have led Labour into power. And note that the figure of 38.5% took place over 100 years ago. Since then the Tories have never won power in their own right with a share below 40%.

In 2010 they won 36.1% of the vote, a share that was almost enough for a majority government. But rather than rule as a minority administration and call a second election a few months later, as Harold Wilson did in 1974, David Cameron opted for a full coalition, hence forfeiting the chance for the Tories to take power by themselves.

I wonder how long it will be before either the Conservatives or Labour are once again in a position to be the sole power in government. It won’t be in 2015. History shows that Labour can take power on a lower share of the vote than the Tories, and it remains the case that the Tories need to be well ahead of their opponents in the polls to even have a chance of ending up the largest party in parliament.

Much will come down to mindset. To what extent will either party be mentally prepared for a minority administration or a coalition, as a consequence of winning a share of the vote nearer to 30 than 35%? And which party will have the greater number of allies to call on for support in parliament? In both cases, I suspect the answer is Labour.


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