It is, of course, a long way off a general election. And at present, unusually, we have no clear idea of the number of seats on which it will be fought, the boundaries of those seats or even the electoral system on which it will be fought. All this would suggest that we should wait and see before thinking too much about an election that may very well be in 2015.
But there are markets open at the moment: on Sporting Index, you bet on whether Labour or the Conservatives will get most seats or whether either will get an overall majority. And of more general information, it is essential for Labour supporters to understand whether they have an easy task (in which case the aim should be to help the coalition to fray) or a difficult task (in which case they need to have a major rethink). After all, they have to vote on a new leader, and they need to understand the challenge ahead when deciding who is right for that job.
So let's have a look at the next election assuming that it is going to be fought on existing boundaries and on the existing system. After all, any changes are almost certainly going to make things harder for Labour, not easier.
At present, the Conservatives have 306 seats, Labour have 258 seats and the Lib Dems have 57 seats. By historical standards, the seat count is close. Labour would need only 67 extra seats to get an overall majority and fewer seats to be the largest single party - perhaps 30 (bearing in mind that if Labour picks up seats from the Lib Dems, the Conservatives will probably pick up more). Given that the Conservatives have only just increased their seat tally by 97, neither sounds a superhuman challenge.
But, I contend, this substantially underestimates the scale of the problem. Have a look at these two links, one to the table of Labour targets compiled by Anthony Wells on UK Polling Report and one to the historical uniform national swings at general elections since 1945 from Wikipedia:
You will notice that to get 67 seats on a uniform national swing against all other parties, they will need to get a swing of 4.58%. A swing between Conservative and Labour of that degree has been achieved in only four general elections out of the 16 that have been held since 1945: 1970, 1979, 1997 and 2010. Applying basic mathematics, that gives Labour a one in four chance of getting an overall majority, all other things being equal. And that assumes that the swing is to Labour, not against it, which is not automatic: in five out of these 16 elections, the swing was to the governing party. I do not think that many Labour supporters have appreciated how tough that challenge is. There are far fewer marginals now: 67 seats is a short but steep climb.
It is much easier for Labour to become the largest party. For that, they would need a swing of 1.91% against all other parties. That has been achieved in 10 of the 16 elections since 1945 (though again the swing could be against Labour as well as to it).
So Labour supporters could realistically have good hopes of becoming the largest single party at the next election if the current system is used, but to get an overall majority, they need to do something out of the ordinary if they are not going to rely on the coalition failing. If the system is changed, the chances are that both are going to get harder. They need to pick a leader who is going to take them out of their comfort zone.
In my next piece, I shall look at what the seat distribution has to say about what strategy Labour should follow to get back to power.