Both Labour and the Tories are pursuing a cynical 15% strategy

It’s all downhill from here. Bertranfenne, CC BY-SA

The “35% strategy” – the idea that a party could win the 2015 general election on 35% of the vote – entered political discourse last year, generally as a Conservative taunt directed at Labour. The 35% comprised Labour’s supposed “core vote”: the 29% it managed in 2010 and brought it 258 or nearly 40% of Commons seats – plus a guesstimated 6% for Lib Dem defectors.

Psephologically, the claim was fairly uncontentious. In 2005 Labour’s 35.2% of the vote had given it 356 seats and an overall majority of 66. With the abandonment of the parliamentary boundary review, following Conservative MPs’ opposition to Lords reform, and a significantly higher UKIP vote than in 2010, a Labour vote of 35% with a 2-3% lead over the Conservatives would, reckon most election calculators, win at least a small overall majority.

Politically, though, if it really were a party strategy, it could be interpreted both as unambitious and, by appealing only to disenchanted Lib Dems, as undermining Miliband’s claim that he would campaign on a “One Nation” platform.

More recently, 35% has become an all-purpose taunt, suitable for attacking either major party or both. In fact, 35% is not unambitious, but a considerable understatement of the actual fraction of the potential electorate the parties are prepared to ignore between now and next May.

So what, their reasoning goes, if barely 80% of voters are registered, only 60% of those registered turn out, and, as in the local elections, only 30 or 31% of them vote for us? If that 15% of the electorate makes us the biggest party – better still, gives us a majority – that’s just dandy. Identify and love-bomb that one citizen in seven, and we can forget the rest.

Of course, that’s not exactly what they were saying publicly last weekend. Instead, it was all about listening to and respecting the voters. “Respect” as explained in the Anglo-EU Translation Guide: when the British say “with the greatest respect”, they mean “I think you’re an idiot”, but hope you’ll hear “he’s listening to me”.

Even so, the main parties’ underlying thinking was unmissable in their belittling of UKIP’s local election achievements – the party that, notwithstanding an electoral system hugely disadvantageous to small and minor parties, won the national equivalent of nearly one in five votes overall, and one in four in contests where they had candidates.

These were low turnout elections, the major parties say. UKIP’s vote share was down on last year; they’ve still only got 2% of councillors, none in most London boroughs, major towns and cities, two or fewer on nearly 90% of English councils, and they’re nowhere near controlling a single one.

And – this from the Conservatives – look, they’re taking votes and seats from Labour too, and virtually everywhere they stand. They’re a genuinely national party (unlike us), which means even their one in four or one in five votes probably won’t get them a single MP – the electoral system will see to that.

Yes, the first-past-the-post electoral system – that’s where the party strategists start. As we heard regularly during the Alternative Vote referendum campaign, it means only a third of us live in the 199 marginal seats whose 2010 majorities of less than 10% give them a real chance of changing hands. The other two-thirds can be sidelined straightaway, their votes effectively counted before the campaign starts.

Next, electoral registration. The existing system, through “head of the household”, is primitive, discriminatory, and, as repeatedly demonstrated, open to fraud. Its replacement by Individual Electoral Registration is therefore long overdue – though, given the concerns of electoral registration officers, maybe not kicking off on June 10.

But that’s a medium-term problem. If you’re already registered, you’ll stay on the December 2014 register and retain your 2015 general election vote, even if you haven’t yet applied individually.

The immediate problem is the existing system, and the Electoral Commission’s estimate that between 15% and 20% of eligible electors aren’t registered. These figures include only 6% of over-65s, but 44% of 19-24 year olds; 14% of white voters, but 23% of black and minority ethnics; 12% of homeowners, but 44% of private renters.

It’s a democratic problem, obviously – but also a political one, in that, as opinion polls consistently show, all three under-registered groups would, if registered, be disproportionately likely to support Labour.

Still, Labour reckons the biases of the electoral system will more than compensate. With the abandonment of the boundary review, Labour can get an overall majority on a vote lead of 3%, while the Conservatives need one of over 11%. Unreformed boundaries plus an unreformed electoral system trump an unreformed registration system. Forget 35%; what we’re looking at here is closer to a 15% strategy.