A final push

Lewis Baston

Labour won this campaign – but its task at the next election will be a complicated one, as Lewis Baston explains

One should not slip into thinking that Labour ‘won’ the 2017 election. The Conservatives were still ahead on votes and seats and formed a government – shaky, to be sure, but Tory ministers are still in place in Whitehall and taking the decisions.

But equally, the temptation to belittle what was achieved on 8 June should be resisted. Labour ‘won’ the campaign, achieving a result radically better than all the indicators at the start of the campaign and for the previous year which had pointed to humiliating defeat. Labour had got close enough to wreck the Conservatives’ self-confidence and prevent them from carrying out many of their policies. Labour required an upheaval on the scale of 1945 or 1997 to get a 1-seat majority given the pattern of the election results in 2015, but after 2017 a fairly normal swing will suffice to put Labour in power to deliver a social democratic agenda. It is reasonable to be pleased and excited by Labour’s position after June 2017.

What Labour achieved was historically unusual. There have been few occasions on which a government has called an early election at a time and on an issue of its choosing and lost its majority – 2017 is therefore in a category with February 1974, 1951 and 1923 (and only in 1974 and 2017 was the government expecting an enhanced majority when it called the election).

As several commentators including Hugo Rifkind and the Fabians’ own Andrew Harrop have noted, the 40 per cent Labour vote in 2017 was an unlikely coalition of those who were voting for the party despite Jeremy Corbyn and the left turn, and those who were voting Labour precisely because of Corbyn and his style of politics. The shape of the campaign, in an unplanned and perverse way, helped to accomplish this by talking in different ways to different people. Corbyn brought hope and change and a sense that voting Labour was making a positive ethical statement; the manifesto was a mainstream social democratic platform that was acceptable to all wings and had content that could be used to attract targeted groups of voters. The party’s professionals campaigned as usual; MPs felt the need to stress their personal records and the party made good use of the popularity of Sadiq Khan and Carwyn Jones in London and Wales. Early in the election there were complaints that there were at least three Labour campaigns going on, poorly co-ordinated with each other, but in retrospect this was probably helpful. In May 2015 the discipline and focus of the Conservative campaign proved to be the winning approach, but since then two successful campaigns – Leave and Labour – have done well with mixed messages.

Electoral coalitions are negative as well as positive. Theresa May’s campaign helped conjure Labour’s coalition into being. The terms on which the election was called – a demand for a semi-authoritarian mandate to ‘crush the saboteurs’ – frightened and alienated young and liberal England. It was enough, once the campaign had sparked, to get them campaigning and voting against the Tories, which in practical terms meant voting Labour. The next stage was to remind the traditional Labour voters they intended to convert that giving the Conservatives all the levers of power might not be a great idea – they would do things like implement their ‘dementia tax’, or retreat from it in a muddle, and prioritise fox hunting.

Labour’s task of holding its coalition together and broadening it out by that crucial few percentage points to winning is going to be tricky. I mean it as a compliment when I compare Corbyn to Harold Wilson, but can following Wilson in masterful evasion and triangulation on Europe, immigration and even nationalisation and disarmament really continue to bridge the gaps between Labour’s traditionalists, young liberals and socialists?

The next stage has to involve persuading people who voted Conservative in 2017 (whether that was a temporary, situation-specific vote or a deeper affiliation) to come over to Labour. The optimistic perspective is that the 2017 Conservative vote was even further above its normal levels than the 2017 Labour vote. It should thus be less difficult to peel off some of the 43 per cent of voters who voted Conservative in 2017 than it was to attract some of the 36 per cent who supported them in 2010, because they have a weaker attachment to the Tories. They are unlikely to feel any more enthusiastic after another term of Conservative government that will probably be turbulent and unproductive.

The 2017 election is not a reversal to the sort of two-party politics that Britain knew between 1931 and 1974. The parties in that era had deep roots in collective experience, mediated through class, union membership and identity. The high share of the vote for the two main parties in 2017 was a product of consumer choice and the unappealing state of the smaller parties, and the 40–42 per cent vote shares could vanish as easily as they arose if another exciting option comes along. As the rise and fall of Ukip in 2013–17 demonstrated, the effect of third party insurgencies on the balance between the main parties can be complex and unpredictable.

The politics of Scotland should remind us that electoral change can come chaotically and quickly; the SNP’s total domination lasted only two years. The Scottish three-party split in 2017 left an astonishing number of seats on a knife-edge. A modest swing of 5 per cent in any direction produces big variations in the number of MPs: Labour ranges from 1 to 30, the Conservatives from 5 to 23, and the SNP from 7 to 48. This has major implications for the overall parliamentary arithmetic even if England’s electoral scene is stable.

But England’s map is in transition. For the elections from 2001 to 2015 constituency- level change was within limits set by the Thatcher and Blair landslides. In the Tory upswing of 1979 and 1983 they gained 30 fresh seats, which they had either never won before in a general election or else had not done so since 1935, of which 16 were still Conservative in the 2017 election. In Labour’s upswing from 1987 to 1997 they gained 37 fresh seats in England and Wales and six in Scotland, of which 20 voted Labour in 2017 plus one in Scotland. There have been more constituency level breakthroughs in the elections of 2015 and 2017. Both main parties won seats in 2017 that they hadn’t two years before – five of them for the Tories (Copeland, Derbyshire North East, Mansfield, Stoke South, Walsall North) and four for Labour (Canterbury, Kensington, Portsmouth South, Sheffield Hallam). The names of these seats encapsulate the change as well as anything – the Conservatives breaking new ground in white working class, Leave-voting, home-owning areas and Labour winning youthful, educated, cosmopolitan, Remain-voting and renting areas.

The lists of marginal seats contain some unfamiliar names, principally among the new Conservative targets from Labour – if the Conservative landslide had materialisedin 2017 it would have involved fresh gains in Newcastle-under-Lyme, Dudley North, Ashfield, Bishop Auckland, Penistone & Stocksbridge, Wakefield, Stoke North, Great Grimsby, Bassetlaw, Workington and, most bizarrely for anyone with memories of the miners’ strikes of 1972 to 1984, Rother Valley. A further swing to Labour of 5 per cent would see the red flag flying for the first time over Chingford & Woodford Green, Southport, Truro & Falmouth, Cities of London & Westminster and Worthing East & Shoreham.

Labour’s task in the next election is therefore a complicated one. It needs to protect its vulnerable marginals that have been slipping towards the Tories over the years and came near the brink in 2017, and in doing so perhaps regain some of its losses in similar seats like Mansfield and Stoke South. It needs to continue the trend in its favour in southern and urban seats, which requires inspiring the young, urban liberals and renters to go out and vote again. It also needs an incremental rise in support in some of the seats full of middle class swing voters that Blair was particularly pleased to win in 1997 and in which Corbyn’s party beat the national swing in 2017 – Watford, Milton Keynes, Northampton, Swindon, Reading…

Some elections, although it may not seem it at the time, are actually pretty good ones to lose as long as you don’t lose too badly. Whoever won in February 1974, or 1992, was in for a rough ride, to say nothing of the fatal misadventure of being largest party in a hung parliament in May 1929. While nothing is certain, it seems highly likely that power in 2017 will be a similar poisoned chalice, with public services creaking under the strain, ominous economic indicators and the most complex and risky government project since 1945 to deliver without a parliamentary majority and with a divided Cabinet and party.

Since election night the government’s self-confidence has been broken, as Major’s was after Black Wednesday in 1992. The circumstances produce forced and unforced errors, internal division, weak leadership and failed policies, and a sense of irritation among the electorate that a government has outstayed its welcome. Power, in the sense of the ability to make the political weather, starts to slip away. Being an opposition to such a government is  fun, as veterans of 1992–97 (and the Tories who were there in 2007–10) can testify. The most serious aspects of the challenge are now those that are within Labour’s power to change. The 2017 manifesto was a marvellous vote winner. But the task now is to devise a set of policies that are not just good for getting votes, but can shape a governing agenda as did the manifestos of 1945 and 1997.

The party cannot refight its successful 2017 campaign, because time will have moved on and much discussion during the campaign will be about Labour’s plans for government. The hysterical screeches of the popular press cannot get any nastier than 2017 but the real prospect of a majority Labour government next time will generate more piercing scrutiny of the party’s agenda and ability. Labour needs to build support for its policies and philosophy, and faith in the competence of its leaders to deliver positive change, between elections, and communicate competently to the wider electorate. Civil society, business and foreign governments will all be more interested in a party that appears an election away from governing rather than one that is heading into the wilderness, and Labour needs to be responsive and ready. The 2017 election has created openness and potential where there seemed only the deadening prospect of Conservative hegemony. Labour’s electoral task is not easy, of course, but it is hill-walking rather than mountain-climbing.

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This article originally appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of the Fabian Review.