Under Corbyn’s electoral plan, prospects for victory look bleak

Olivia Bailey

In an interview with Labour List earlier this week, Jeremy Corbyn was asked to comment on the Fabian Society report The Mountain to Climb, which showed that Labour will need to win 106 extra seats and 40 per cent of the vote to gain power in 2020. Our analysis indicates that in the pivotal marginals in England and Wales, 4 out of 5 of the new voters Labour needs will have to be ex-Conservatives. Corbyn suggested our research approached the issue “from the wrong end of the telescope”.

While he conceded Labour will have to “win back people who voted for other parties”, he focused his response on “young people who didn’t register, and didn’t vote”, and “reliable Labour voters who disappeared in to the arms of UKIP or non-voting”. Instead of winning over large numbers of Conservative voters, it seems he wants to chart a path to victory by building a coalition of the left and the disenchanted.

On the surface, this approach seems logical. Only 23.4 per cent of all registered voters voted Conservative in 2015, and the Fabians were among those who argued for this to be part of Labour’s electoral strategy before the last election. But is it plausible in 2020? Let’s look at the three core parts of his argument:

Winning over non-voters

First, consider the goal of attracting more non-voters to the polls. This was already part of Labour’s strategy in the run-up to the 2015 election, and was strongly supported by Fabian research.

But what actually happened in May? Despite a brilliant ground game and an impressive tally of five million conversations, turnout went up nationally by 1 per cent, and the average increase in turnout across Labour’s 106 key seats was just 1.2 per cent. If Labour runs a similarly impressive ground operation in 2020, and manages to increase turnout in our projected target seats by another 1.2 per cent, Fabian Society analysis shows that Labour would only win another 11 seats in England and Wales – even if every single one of the new voters backed Labour.

Of course any good ground game should be backed up by a compelling national campaign, and the logic of the Corbyn-surge is surely that a strong anti-austerity, anti-establishment message, can reach parts of the electorate other politics can’t reach. While many are sceptical, Corbyn can point to the SNP’s success in boosting turnout in Scotland. But even if Labour secured a Scotland-style boost in turnout of 7.3 per cent across the English and Welsh marginals, a maximum of 52 seats could be won, if each new voter backed Labour – still dozens of seats away from a majority.

The Fabian analysis shows that in 2020, just boosting turnout won’t be enough for a Labour victory.

Encouraging young people to the polls

Seizing on the enthusiasm of some young people for leadership campaign, Corbyn also claims that young people who don’t vote now would be much more likely to vote for him. The last election saw an unprecedented focus on young people, particularly through the use of social media, and Labour did see support amongst young people surge. It is clear that Corbyn is gathering enthusiasm amongst the young, and of course we should be doing everything we can to encourage them to get to the polls.

But the last election underlined the difficult reality – comparatively few young people actually vote. According to Ipsos-MORI, in 2015 it was just 43 per cent. This is in contrast to the 78 per cent of over 65s who did head to the ballot box – and there are also many more pensioners than young people. Amongst these older voters, Labour’s support dropped from 31 points to 23, arguably the key reason Labour lost.

Squeezing anti-Tory votes

Before the last election a strategy of uniting left-leaning voters was a plausible one, and Labour was able to benefit from the collapse of the Liberal Democrats. But overall the strategy failed and the electoral landscape now looks very different.

At this year’s election the Liberal Democrats and the Greens together won only 12 per cent of the UK vote, and slightly less in the marginal seats Labour now needs to win. In the 94 seats we project Labour has to win in England and Wales, only 29 would be won even if Labour secured every single one of the Green and Liberal Democrat votes from 2015. Achieving a huge boost in turnout and winning over almost all left-leaning voters would still not be enough for a Labour victory.

For example, our calculations show that Labour would not win sufficient marginal seats to form a government even in the highly implausible scenario of Labour, first, achieving a Scotland style surge in turnout (with every extra voter choosing Labour) and, second, winning over every single person who voted Green or Liberal Democrat in 2015.

Finally, Corbyn points to UKIP, who secured 12.6 per cent of the vote, arguing Labour needs to win back disillusioned former supporters. He’s right, but a strategy reliant on winning back these voters is unlikely to be decisive in Labour-Conservative marginals because Labour and the Tories are likely to benefit equally from any UKIP collapse. Jon Cruddas’ recent research is also relevant here, showing that the voters Labour has lost to UKIP are more likely to be socially conservative.

Of course it is not possible to predict anything with certainty, but the prospects for a strategy based on boosting turnout, attracting young people and uniting left-leaning voters seem bleak. And there is another point that must be made. For every non-voter or left-voter Labour attracts, the risk is that the party will lose as many to the Conservatives at the centre. Labour wrongly assumed at the last election that it could rely on people who voted for the party in 2010 to do so again. In fact it lost votes to all the other parties, most significantly, an estimated two percentage points of our support to the Conservatives.

The Fabian analysis has looked at Labour’s electoral mountain to climb from both ends of the telescope. Any strategy to win the next election will require Labour winning over a lot of people who voted Tory in 2015. That is a fact all the leadership candidates must come to terms with.


  1. Bill Harper

    I have to agree with everyone here except the original writer. The rallies across the country have seen higher levels of numbers and enthusiasm than any political rallies of my 66 years. The ideas expressed have been straightforward Labour ideas. Corbyn as a leader is actually very inspirational, The time is right.
    He has delivered £4.5 million into the Labour coffers. His opposition has tried every conceivable evil trick to eliminate him and has been seen to do so because of the internet. They will never be supported by genuine Labour voters or any of the othew voters we are likely to attract. Corbyn is Labour’s only hope and in fact may be our salvation now that we can’t rely on seats north of the Border.

  2. roberteus maximus

    This may be true, but to win back many conservative voters labour has to either accept their narrative on welfare and the economy or change the tune, and to accept the tories’ narrative on welfare and the economy would defeat the purpose of the labour party – so we have to offer a distinctly different and compelling narrative of our own and convince people of that.

  3. Muna Yusa

    Bizarre analysis, for the simple reason that Labour doesn’t need a majority if it’s willing to work – to some degree – with the SNP. Many of us would actually prefer that to an outright Labour majority anyway. The idea that ’4 out of 5 of the new voters Labour needs will have to be ex-Conservatives’ is indicative of atrocious methodology for this study.

  4. David

    I’m surprised the analysis didn’t cover another point: there was a hard-left electoral campaign in 2015 taking similar stances to Corbyn in the 2015 general election: anti-austerity, pro-union, pro-nationalisation, anti-nuclear and not exactly happy with the EU. An electoral alliance sufficiently similar to Corbyn in outlook for its members to (re)join Labour to back his campaign, and for it to publicly welcome him as leader.

    They targeted exactly the sort of industrial heartland safe Labour seats where people were most likely to have decided not to vote Labour because they perceived the party as moving away from the unions and ceding too much of the argument on budget balancing to the Tories.

    The Trade Union and Socialist Coaltion candidates provided an opportunity for members of the wider electorate in many constituencies to express their frustration with Labour not being far enough to the left at the ballot box instead of staying at home.

    None of their candidates saved their deposits.

    None of them picked up anywhere near as many lapsed Labour voters as the (also so unlikely to win as to be considered a protest vote) local UKIP candidate.

    The TUSC’s candidates might not have had the highest profile candidates, biggest budget or much in the way of media attention and they certainly weren’t expecting to win. But if there were really a couple of million people feeling uninspired by Miliband and helpless about Cameron but wildly enthusiastic about the hard left aspects of Corbyn’s platform values, you’d expect the people actually standing for those values at the election to have consistently picked up more votes per carefully-targeted constituency than literal joke candidates like Al Murray the Pub Landlord.

  5. Mike Curtis

    This does smack of an analysis done from afar, using outdated methods and based on things that happened in a totally different situation. As one of the labour members involved in the last campaign, it was in no way “brilliant”. It may have involved knocking on a lot of doors, with the minimal result that most modern analysts predicted. As for the social media campaign, I saw very little of it despite being in front of my computer all day every day. My son, at 23 right in a target demographic, and as a freelance game designer also living online, was so disgusted by the dismal labour attempt at a campaign that after a lifetime of supporting labour he has joined the Greens. He might be wooed back by a Corbyn victory, but anything else will probably lose him for good. It just simply does no one any good making these claims about the last campaign when anyone who was on the ground, and as the results clearly show, they are patently untrue.

    You will never understand the Jeremy Corbyn phenomenon by picking at his policies and deciding that he does not fit in with the outdated view of how things should be done. I have spoken to many old time Labour members, as well as Lib-Dems, Greens and even Tories and UKIP supporters who are vociferously supporting Jeremy Corbyn. The reason is not so much his policies but that he represents an entirely new approach to politics; openness, honesty and a democracy built from the bottom up. People do not want the continual stream of sound bites and counter sound bites between the same old politicians and the same old journalists. They want policy to be made by real people, not researchers and advisers working with focus groups. The world is changing incredibly fast fuelled by a technological revolution; this requires a fundamental change in the way we do politics, not just a bit more use of social media. Any attempt to try and judge the result of such a change in terms of comparisons with Milliband, Foot or any other analysis based on outdated concepts just shows a total lack of understanding. It may well take more than one election because, as we see, the opposition from the entrenched apparatchiks at Labour Party HQ is already vicious and venomous; it will be joined by the massed Tory ranks, but we have to believe that the will of the people should prevail. If the change fails, or is finally subverted, then we are probably be going to be stuck with government by a ruling elite subservient to the global corporations and the super-rich, for the foreseeable future, whatever label it may have. If we want genuine democracy and a fair share in the fruits of the technological revolution, then we must start changing the way we do politics now before it is too late; it may even be too late now but the tide which includes Jeremy Corbyn, Podemos, Syriza and even Bernie Sanders is flooding now, and must be taken.

  6. Adam

    The comments below this thoughtful piece demonstrate the exact problem with Corbynism: wish the world were different and it’ll happen.

    • Jaakko Nevasto

      I have been moderately enthusiastic about Corbyn, and I still am, but this thoughtful article challenged my understanding of the electoral maths. I appreciate the calm empiricism and what at least to me seemed like non-partisan approach. I am worried about some of the comments indicating a instinctual refusal to even consider the merits of the arguments made.

      The upshot is that Corbyn (as he will pretty likely to be the winner) has to be able to attract middle-class swingvoters in wealthy English suburbs–the kind of people that are not outraged by hearing lectures about poverty and bankers. That does not mean that Tony Blair is right about tailoring the agenda to fit what these people currently say in focus groups. Labour has to take ownership over having lost the election already long before polling day by allowing the Tories to set the agenda to the language of austerity. There are perfectly sensible arguments about expanding the welfare state and spending on infrastructure that can be shown to boost economic activity, while at the same time having a positive message to those who want to own houses and run small businesses.

  7. Steve H

    The Fabian Society Commentary by Olivia Bailey (who i think was a political adviser to Angela Eagle?) is based on a few fundamentally flawed assumptions:

    1. Labour will need to attract ex-Tory voters.

    This is incorrect. We lost 4m voters under Blair. 33m voters didn’t vote. The Tories are 2m votes ahead. We can win without a single Tory vote.

    2. We tried to attract non-voters in 2015 and failed, so we’ll fail again, even with what they predict will be a Corbyn surge that will be 4 times as good as out 2015 performance.

    This is incorrect. It doesn’t address WHY we were unable to attract non-voters. In my view if you stand on a platform of ‘like the Tories but not as bad’, you’re going to fail. We didn’t bring in those voters because we gave them nothing to vote FOR.

    3. Labour didn’t win over young people in 2015 so Corbyn won’t either.

    This is incorrect. Young people looked at the bland, confused mess of ‘Tories but not as bad’ and saw through it immediately. Having spoke to many young people myself, there view appears to boil down to, ‘Jeremy is awesome because he’s offering stuff we want’.

    4. Labour failed to unify the left-wing vote so Labour under Corbyn will also fail.

    This is incorrect. Jeremy is already unifying the left-wing and he’s not even elected yet. Left-wing voters who fled to other parties are already flocking back. Left-leaning organisations and parties are making tentative move and encouraging statements about left-wing coalitions, cooperation, etc.

    Olivia concludes with:

    ‘Any strategy to win the next election will require Labour winning over a lot of people who voted Tory in 2015. That is a fact all the leadership candidates must come to terms with.’

    Its not a FACT its OPINION, and its an opinion supported only by erroneous reasoning.

    • Ben

      The total electorate in 2015 was around 46.5 million. We had 66% turnout. How did you arrive at “33m voters didn’t vote”?

  8. Roger Moisan

    It is glaringly obvious to me that we need to focus our attention on the age group of 13-17 year olds (as they are now) who will be voting for the first time in 2020. If we can promise them the future they need and want and not deviate from this promise over the next 5 years, they will be on-side.

  9. Mike Smith

    This article rather misses the main point Corbyn was making. He knows Labour has to win votes from every party “Do we have to win back people who voted for other parties? Yeah, but we have to say to people, in a very clear way, what we’re offering.” People vote or change votes if they have a good reason to; if they hear a message and an offer that is relevant to them. Not an anti-message but a positive and clear message, which is what Corbyn is providing and why he is doing well. I’d like to see the Fabian Society analyse why his message is working, rather than pick over the bones of messages that clearly didn’t resonate. And numbers without reasons mean nothing – if older people didn’t support Labour in the last election I suspect it might have been because Labour didn’t offer the prospect of stable government.

  10. John Laybourn

    I’m not sure how your reasoning here leads to your dogmatic conclusion re Tory voters.

    Leaving that aside, your calculations based on JC’s analysis come over as grudging. Even if we leave THAT aside and accept your grudging, and therefore probably over-pessimistic, conclusions regarding JC’s strategy, then to my mind a plan offering the prospect of regaining some 50 seats is streets ahead of anything else on Labour’s horizon at present. What is in the minds of most Corbyn enthusiasts at present is that none of the ABC candidates is anywhere near as good as Ed was. That is a truly desperate thought, I’m sure you’ll agree.

    Therefore, the prospects of any of the ABC candidates improving on Ed’s performance, with only cosmetic alterations to his basic offer, are near zero. That is the realisation that seems to be missing from the case you seek to make. ABC are almost universally spoken of as ‘underwhelming’. If you try to deny that your credibility disappears. Yes, it is possible a candidate could ‘grow into the role’. But the opposite could happen.

    With JC we have a candidate that clearly enthuses the grass-roots of the party. Compare Supporting Nominations on page 9 of the Candidates’ Booklet with those on page 11; Corbyn v Kendall. Grassroots support for Kendall must be a fraction that for Corbyn. Alternatively, compare the campaigning success of the 4 candidates. In their respective constituencies at the last election, Corbyn had a bigger majority, on a higher local turnout and a higher percentage increase in numbers voting for him than any of the others. Most people fair-minded people would conclude that he was performing better electorally than the others.

    The risk of him NOT ‘growing into the role’ would seem to be lower than the risk posed by the others. But the wave of enthusiasm he has generated in one month is unprecedented. His meeting in Newcastle this week was dubbed the biggest political meeting in Newcastle IN LIVING MEMORY. I personally witnessed 500 people standing in pouring rain to hear what he had to say. Minutes later I was among around 1,000 more people inside the building; all vigorously applauded what he had to say. You know, I’m sure, that this has been repeated over and over, day after day; twice a day some days. And when has party membership ever trebled in a month?

    Labour people, and I especially include MPs in this, must be INSANE if they can’t see what is happening here. If this can’t be turned into electoral advantage Labour is surely finished.

    You correctly state that ‘it is not possible to predict anything with certainty’. And the Corbyn plan might not win in 2020. If anyone can demonstrate a better way forward I’ll join them. I’ve been listening. I’m not hearing anything more encouraging than Jeremy Corbyn. The grass-roots will vote and the party must obey the democratic mandate contained in the vote. I have always said, publicly and privately, that I will do just that; whoever wins.

    Your article seeks a level of certainty of electoral victory that is just not out there. A good leader creates the weather. A good leader can change the basic electoral arithmetic through sheer charisma. We’re looking for a good leader. Finding one is half the battle. It’s blindingly obvious who our best bet is as of today. ABC are also-rans, I’m sorry to say. Like Alastair Campbell, I’m absolutely certain. I’m certain of something different though. No change of direction and sticking with ABC is a disaster. Like Alastair, it’s pure assertion. That’s why we simply have to vote and make the best of it.

  11. Martin Johnson

    I do not challenge any part of this analysis; the question that I think has not been answered yet is: who voted Tory in 2015 and why? Naturally, this is the same question, in effect, as why did we lose. I do hope that adequate social research methods are being used in the Party’s investigation, because voting behaviour was clearly quite complex this time.

  12. Paul

    If Jeremy Corbyn is elected Labour leader then the election game completely changes.

    1) Whatever the distribution of seats in Scotland then he can count on them to support him as Prime Minister. He has around a 75% overlap with the SNP and can work with them.

    2) He will pick up some of the young, many of the ex-LibDems, some of the Greens and many of those concerned about issues, eg 38 degrees members. As well he is likely to be endorsed by the likes of Russell Brand – which will encourage more to vote.

    3) Many of the approaching aged are the Baby Boomer generation – many of whom will be attracted to a Corbyn style leader.

    4) Corbyn is the only politician perceived to have policies on issues, such as housing, rents, energy costs, wages etc. I accept all the others in the debate have similar views, but they are seen by the majority of the public as ineffectually backing the unpleasantness of Osborne’s austerity.

    5) Planning to take back into public control the energy companies and the railways will work with people right across the political spectrum – including many conservatives.

    6) Corbyn will be able to work with the Greens, Welsh nationalists and Libdems.

    7) He is not associated with the bad image of the Brown/ Blair era.

    Taking these factors into account Labour only needs to win around 40 seats for Corbyn to be Prime Minister. The others do need the 106+ seats.

    One other factor the Conservatives are going to tear themselves to pieces over Europe and many other fundamental disagreements. In addition, there is going to be a very unpleasant battle between the contenders for Osborne’s crown. This will be in a period when austerity hits home, while at the same time the public will get fed up with activities, such as stuffing the Lords with supporters or rewarding the very, very rich.

    The only thing stopping Corbyn becoming Prime Minister is the right wing of the Labour Party being seen as plotting coups or constantly sniping, as they did with Milliband. If on the other hand all sections of the party worked together the ride will be easy.

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