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View from the street: The labour of managing expectations


Fraser Paterson headshot


Senior client manager


The labour of managing expectations

According to some, William Shakespeare once said that “expectation is the root of all heartache” and as the Labour party gears up for crucial elections in both Holyrood and Westminster over the next three years, it faces the challenge of staying on the right side of expectations that are presently soaring.

In recent months, there appears to have been little to no expectation management from Labour. The party seems content to let the media speculate on the potential size of their majority at the next general election and revel in its status in Scotland as a potential party of government once more.

This is clearly a deliberate ploy by Labour to encourage the perception of it as a government in waiting at both Westminster and Holyrood, ready to grasp the mantle from the current UK and Scottish governments, who many argue have been in power for far too long. However, this approach has pitfalls too.

A lack of proactive expectation management has allowed the narrative – that Labour is set for power in both Holyrood and Westminster – to become the prevailing one   among the public and supporters alike.

Yet the absence of a clear strategy to temper these expectations may prove challenging, as it sets the stage for potential disappointment if the anticipated victories do not materialise. As the general election approaches, Labour must carefully consider the impact of unmanaged expectations and take strategic steps to present a realistic and credible vision for its path to power.

Recent by-elections have produced contrasting outcomes for Labour. The party made notable gains in Selby and Ainsty, marking the second biggest swing from Conservative to Labour in a post-war parliamentary election. However, Labour fell short of capturing Boris Johnson’s former Uxbridge and South Ruislip seat, despite needing a modest 7.5% swing.

Winning Selby and Ainsty should be regarded as a stunning success for the Labour party, however the prevailing high expectations that it did not effectively counter did nothing to prevent the popular belief that winning both seats seemed inevitable. In this context, the failure to capture Uxbridge, despite coming close, brought a sense of disappointment and recriminations began.

The current assumptions many make about Labour’s position can have unintended consequences. While motivating some voters who see Labour as the frontrunners, it may also deter others who assume a Labour victory is guaranteed, leading them to stay at home on an election day. Thus, managing expectations becomes crucial to ensuring active voter participation and securing a decisive mandate.

Instead, Labour could be discussing the prospect of a minority government or a hung Parliament. We have seen this tactic used to great effect before, particularly against the party in the 2015 general election, where images of Ed Miliband in the pocket of the then SNP’s Alex Salmond is believed to have scared off voters in the south from backing Labour.

There is a broad spectrum of voters across the UK who prioritise stability and cooperation in governance and a more pragmatic approach could resonate with those who seek honest and responsible leadership, ultimately bolstering Labour’s chances of securing workable majorities in both Holyrood and Westminster.

The success of Labour in the upcoming elections will not solely hinge on poll numbers or political manoeuvres – it will be shaped by the way the party connects with the aspirations and concerns of the people it seeks to represent. More effectively managing expectations would foster a sense of confidence in Labour’s ability to govern effectively and address the challenges ahead responsibly, whilst also warning against complacency or a sense of inevitability.

With a prudent, strategic and measured approach to the forthcoming electoral tests, Labour can and should pave the way to the power it craves.


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