A party loses a general election for the third time in a row. It falls as many as 65 seats short of what it needs to win. Indeed, it barely wins any more seats than it won the first time it lost in 2010. Yet its performance is met with a mixture of astonishment and applause.
That was the curious experience Labour enjoyed on Thursday night. The explanation of course lies in expectations. Just a few weeks ago the party seemingly faced the prospect of suffering its worst result since the 1930s. Against that backdrop what was still quite a substantial defeat felt like victory, especially as it was enough to deny their Conservative opponents an overall majority.
But once the wave of relief that has swept over Labour has faded away, together with the pleasure that some in the party derive from having won a higher share of the vote than the former leader, Tony Blair, managed on two occasions, the party will have to face the fact that it lost quite heavily.
One central issue is the dire position of the party north of the border. When Labour lost in 2010 it won just 191 seats in England. This time it won 226, 35 more.
However, those hard won gains have effectively done no more than compensate for the weakness nowadays of the party in Scotland. Seven years ago, Labour had 41 seats in Scotland. On Thursday, in contrast, it won just seven. While Thursday’s performance represented a marked improvement on the solitary seat the party won in 2015, it is still 34 seats short of the tally it secured in 2017.
If Labour had done as well in Scotland as it did in 2010, the party’s tally of seats on Thursday would have stood at 296. That still would not have been enough to be even close to having an overall majority, but it would leave the party in a position where it would look capable of winning next time around.
As it is, if the party remains so weak in Scotland it needs to be able to win another 64 seats south of the border. That would require more than a six per cent swing from the Conservatives – the equivalent of no less than a nine-point national lead in votes. Absent of any restoration of its fortunes in Scotland, a Labour majority government still looks a very long way off.