Analysis | “How could they all be so wrong?”: Reflections on the 2017 General Election

Although Labour did not win the June 2017 general election, its result was astonishing. How and why did this happen? Alex Nunns, author of "The Candidate: Jeremy Corbyn's Improbable Path to Power," reflects on one of the most remarkable moments in UK political history.

Ideas, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Wednesday, May 2, 2018 14:04 - 0 Comments

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“Corbyn’s ease on the campaign trail and assured performances on TV transformed perceptions. He became Labour’s great asset.” (Source: Getty)

Although Labour did not win the June 2017 general election, its result was astonishing. The party increased its share of the vote by 9.5 points, the biggest gain between elections since 1945 — all the more impressive as it had only been two years since voters last went to the polls. Jeremy Corbyn became the only Labour leader other than Tony Blair to break the 40 per cent barrier since 1970. A dizzying 12.9 million people voted for the party. Apart from the 1997 landslide, Labour had not won so many votes since 1966.

Instead of losing seats, Labour gained a net 30 (the first time the party had added to its tally since 1997), while the Tories lost 13 along with their overall majority. The resulting hung parliament — with the Conservatives occupying 317 seats and Labour 262 — gave Corbyn’s party great political clout in the House of Commons, reflected in the immediate dropping of noxious parts of the Conservative manifesto such as grammar schools and a vote on fox hunting.

Labour did fantastically well in England, where it won its second-highest number of votes ever, and in Wales, where it defied early predictions of doom to record its best result in a generation. Scotland experienced a completely different election. Scottish Labour focused on attacking the SNP instead of the Tories, who sailed past into second place. Although Corbyn’s campaign was credited for a late rescue of Scottish Labour from polling catastrophe, that only took the party to a vote share slightly better than the abysmal result of 2015 — although it gained six seats thanks to the SNP’s reversal of fortune.

Theresa May called an unnecessary election to increase her majority and ended up losing it altogether. Understandably, the political fallout focused on the failure of her gamble and the dreadful campaign she ran. The Tories slipped by around five points in the polls between the publication of their manifesto and election day. But this obscured what was still a remarkable Conservative performance. They scored a 42 per cent share across the UK and won 13.7 million votes, more than they had managed at any election since 1992, largely by absorbing more than half of UKIP’s support. That would usually have meant a massive majority. It took something spectacular from Labour to stop them.

The big story of the election was not that the Conservatives imploded, but that Labour pulled off the most stunning surge in British political history. To the bewilderment of the election analysts, whose rules were broken into tiny pieces, all of Labour’s success came in the campaign itself. It gained somewhere between 11 and 16 percentage points in just seven weeks. This was all the more remarkable against the backdrop of two horrendous terror attacks and an ongoing civil war inside the party, although it was significant that certain things that could have happened during the campaign did not: neither the state nor business attempted to intervene, perhaps because they expected Corbyn to lose, or possibly because they disliked the Tory position on Brexit.

There was simply no precedent for a party coming from so far back in such a short time. It was a spectacular vindication of the unorthodox campaign run by the Labour leadership. Their conscious attempt to expand the electorate paid off, defying all the experts who had scoffed that it would be impossible. A post-vote poll found that 38 per cent of the voters Labour gained in June 2017 — a whopping 2 million people — had not voted in 2015 (about 1.5 million had been non-voters, the rest were newly eligible).

There was a giant swing to Labour among the young. This cannot be credited solely to the campaign — voters’ choices were already diverging by age at the 2015 election, a reflection of how conditions had become much harder for young people. But the swing in 2017 was on a different scale. Labour won more than 60 per cent of the vote among the under-30s—a staggering number—compared to 36 per cent two years earlier. A less pronounced pattern was seen among BAME people. The Tories had cut Labour’s lead with this section of the electorate at the 2015 election, causing Labour strategists to worry. But that trend was reversed — turnout rose, Labour’s vote rose and, unlike among the general population, the Conservative vote shrank.

The picture was less clear when it came to the working class base that Labour aimed to rebuild, particularly in “post-industrial communities.” There was a swing to the Tories in some Labour heartland areas, particularly in the Midlands and the North East — although, interestingly, not in Wales. This provoked some commentators and MPs to lambast the leadership for having lost touch with the working class. In fact, even in these traditional areas, Labour piled on votes under Corbyn, going some way towards reversing a decline that had actually occurred in the New Labour era. But the Conservative Party piled on even more, likely due to its position on Brexit, which allowed it to envelop UKIP. This was the story in all of the constituencies Labour lost to the Tories, but Labour’s strong showing meant that these numbered just five seats.

Nevertheless, there seemed to have been a shift in the voting habits of the classes. The profiles of the two parties’ supporters looked broadly similar through the prism of the pollsters’ beloved social grades (AB, C1, C2, DE). The Tories had considerably improved their position with C2 and DE voters, while the shape of Labour’s support was not much different to that won under Ed Miliband, except more people of every social grade voted for the party in 2017. But social grades, which are determined by types of occupation, are an imprecise proxy for class. If Labour’s voters were instead categorised by their income a radically different picture emerged. Suddenly, it was clear that, compared to its performance in 2015, Labour had won significantly more support from the lower paid, and around the same amount from the better off (the Tories, however, also increased their support towards the bottom end of the scale, boosted by UKIP converts). Moreover, when social grades were broken down by age, it transpired that Labour’s problem among C2 and DE voters was specific to older people, while those under 64 favoured the party—reflecting the startling fact that the only employment category among which the Conservatives won was retirees.

Under the surface, a process of change was occurring within the working class. The Tories had made inroads into predominantly white, former manufacturing communities, but Labour had increased its support from a diverse so-called “new working class” of people employed in precarious jobs and the service industries. Combined with the overlapping categories of the young, the well-educated, and a still­-significant base in the ‘old’ working class, this was Labour’s coalition of voters.

Of course, the Labour leadership’s strategy was about much more than targeting specific voter groups. They went to the electorate with a vision of how the whole of society could be transformed. “In the last 20 years, who has run a campaign that has put forward such policies that have created a real choice?” asks one of Corbyn’s top advisors. “Doing that makes people sit up and say, ‘OK, what are you offering?’ I was very confident we’d shift the opinion polls.”

The energy and excitement created by Labour’s programme animated a movement and created a momentum which drew others in. The importance of the snowball effect was underlined by Labour’s unusually impressive performance among those who decided late. Conventional wisdom suggests that undecided voters end up splitting roughly the same way as everyone else, but this time Labour won more than half of them. The party also picked up 54 per cent of those who switched allegiance during the campaign, while the Conservatives attracted only 19 per cent.

The claim of Labour MPs such as Joan Ryan that people were only likely to vote Labour if they thought Corbyn would lose, and therefore the party’s improvement in the polls in the final weeks was “scaring off the undecided,” was nonsense. The better Labour’s chances looked, the more people wanted to join the bandwagon, analysis subsequently confirmed. Just as his team had predicted, when people saw Corbyn with their own eyes instead of through those of a hostile media, they liked him. His ease on the campaign trail and assured performances on TV transformed perceptions. He became Labour’s great asset.

All of this was rather embarrassing for the party machine in Southside and the regional offices. Because Labour effectively ran two campaigns in parallel — one designed by the leadership with help on the ground from Momentum and thousands of members, the other directed by the party’s top officials — the election offered a unique historical opportunity to test both approaches under the same conditions. There can be little doubt about the outcome.

Southside’s defensive operation looked like a rational response to bad polls at the outset, and no doubt helped shore up some threatened seats, but it was the leadership’s strategy that changed the dynamic of the election. Given the Labour right’s unshakable belief that it alone knew the path to electoral success, it was ironic that on this occasion the ‘unelectable’ left showed it the way.

For Corbyn’s team, delight at being vindicated competed with frustration that Labour’s riven campaign had prevented the party reaching its full potential. “My overriding sensation at the end of the election was that we didn’t let anyone down,” says Karie Murphy, Corbyn’s chief of staff. “But it soon turned to reflecting on what could have been if the party had believed in what we had, if we hadn’t wasted a year before employing community organisers.”

There was a competing explanation for Labour’s good showing, taken up with gusto by some commentators. This held that the election was actually all about Brexit. Labour’s large vote, it was said, was not down to Corbyn but to Remainers flocking to the party to thwart May’s plans. It was true that Labour’s biggest advances came in places that had voted to stay in the EU. The Conservatives gained most in constituencies that had voted to leave. More than half of Remain voters plumped for Labour. Sixty per cent of Leavers opted for the Tories. These were striking correlations, but they did not prove causation. People who were less bothered about immigration, for example, were more likely to support Labour anyway, and more likely to vote Remain anyway. The election did see the gap widen between such voters and those more hostile to immigration, who backed the Tories in increased numbers. But this was the latest stage in a long-term shift that predated the referendum, even if it had been accelerated by it.

Although most people, when asked for the number one issue facing the country, said Brexit, it did not necessarily decide their vote. The importance and effect of the issue differed markedly between supporters of the two parties. Brexit unquestionably motivated Conservative voters. Polls found it was their main concern. But only 8 per cent of Labour voters named it as the single most important factor in their decision. If the Labour surge was powered by people attempting to stop a hard Brexit then it would be reasonable to expect the more than 5 million voters the party attracted anew, at least, to rank it number one. Instead, they ranked it fourth, after jobs and pay, education, and miles behind the NHS. Contrary to the narrative that young people were motivated by a desire to take revenge against their elders for the referendum result, the importance of Brexit to voters decreased markedly the younger they were. In short, leaving the EU undoubtedly was on the minds of Labour voters, but it was one issue among several.

May’s rebranding of the Tories as the party of Leave was the reason they secured such an extraordinary number of votes, although the Conservative converts were not concentrated in the right constituencies for the party to gain seats as a result. However, the positioning was not cost-free: the Tories lost some ground among Remain voters. In contrast to May, Corbyn spoke about Brexit as little as he could get away with and, when he did mention it, said the referendum result had to be respected. This attempt to neutralise Brexit was successful. While Labour fared best with Remainers, gaining around 10 points on 2015, it was still able to advance by 5 points among Leave voters. The party’s stance enabled it to pick up significant chunks of support from former UKIPers as well as Lib Dems; Conservatives as well as Greens.

Labour’s ability to gain votes from all over the place was the “clearest sign” of a “Corbyn factor,” ventured the Financial Times. Corbyn’s liberal attitudes on social issues — a defining characteristic of the much derided “loony left” since the 1980s — were attractive to a growing swathe of the electorate that now identified with such values. Meanwhile, after seven years of austerity there was a large audience primed for Corbyn’s economic message. “At a time when people’s living standards are falling, inflation is going up, wages are falling, it’s a popular thing to say there are people at the very top who genuinely have got the broadest shoulders,” says an advisor to Corbyn.

Despite the protestations of the ‘elections-are-won-on-the-centre-ground’ zealots, it turned out there was not a fixed formula for winning votes. What worked depended on the circumstances. A pronounced anti-establishment sentiment had taken hold in the country. Seventy-one per cent of the voters Labour gained in June 2017 believed the establishment had let them down.

Labour Party members and supporters had felt that sentiment in 2015. It was a major reason why they had chosen Corbyn to be their leader. For their act of insubordination they were ridiculed, patronised and insulted by a confederacy of commentators and politicians. These professionals had a habit of viewing Corbyn’s Labour as if it was a controlled experiment. Strange phenomena could be observed, unusual results recorded, but these contained no wider lessons. Corbyn and his supporters were an anomaly unworthy of explanation because they were doomed to electoral oblivion anyway. “Everyone who is going to vote for a Corbyn-led Labour Party is already a member of it,” sneered a talking head on Sky News early in the general election campaign.

Back in the real world — as should have been obvious when talking about an organisation that grew to half a million members — the Labour Party was not a controlled experiment but part of society, made up of people experiencing the same pressures and frustrations as the communities in which they lived. If they believed the best response to those conditions was to elect Corbyn, it was always possible that a significant proportion of the general population would come to the same conclusion.

June 2017 showed that what happened to Labour two years earlier was not a freak result but a symptom of a deep, ongoing process. This helps to explain the striking features in common between Corbyn’s leadership bid and the general election campaign: the ballooning movement, the prominence of young people, the sense of insurgency. Most tellingly, both campaigns featured essentially the same policy platform. Those policies had resonance in the context of a country still living in the shade of the 2008 crash.

The result shredded the credibility of the commentariat and much of the news media. The duty of journalists was to explain politics to the public. By and large, they failed, preferring instead to indulge their personal political commitments or those of their employers. Barring a few exceptions, it was difficult to find evidence that any of them had a grasp of how politics worked beyond the insular world of Westminster.

But the pundits were not the only ones to get it wrong. Most Labour MPs had attempted to overrule the party’s choice of leader, insisting that they knew best the ways of the electorate. The general election was a stonking vindication of the members’ judgement, while that of the MPs was found wanting. It was also just reward for the trade unions that helped propel Corbyn to the leadership, especially those that had not wavered. “I’m not someone who believes in false modesty,” says Len McCluskey, General Secretary of Unite. “We sustained him through difficult times and that wouldn’t have happened if someone else had been general secretary of Unite. I’m dead proud of that. But the real hero of it is Jeremy.”

It was not necessary to resort to counterfactual history to show that if the MPs had got their way Labour could have been in trouble. There were salutary lessons from other social democratic parties in elections just across the Channel. The Dutch Labour Party suffered a complete meltdown in March 2017, falling from second place to seventh and losing over three quarters of its seats while parties to its left advanced. In France, the first round of the presidential election in April saw the Socialist Party candidate record a miserable 6 per cent, while the independent leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon surged to nearly 20 per cent, missing out on a place in the run off by less than 2 points. Even allowing for the very different electoral systems, the fact that Labour bucked this trend suggested the British experience — in which the left had taken leadership of the established social democratic party rather than challenging it — was preferable.

Inside the Labour Party the election result destroyed the three pretexts used by Corbyn’s opponents to justify their recalcitrance: that he was unelectable, incompetent, and not a leader. It was no longer plausible to claim that a man who took his party to 40 per cent of the vote was unelectable. Having headed a campaign that ran rings around the Tory operation, the charge of incompetence had lost its bite. As for leadership, Corbyn had not only inspired millions of new voters, he had changed the political weather. The only remaining grounds on which to oppose him were over his politics — the true source of disagreement all along. But Owen Smith’s 2016 challenge on a Corbyn-lite platform had already demonstrated that the leader’s critics did not want to go there. Although foreign policy divisions remained, Corbyn’s domestic agenda was unassailable.

Seeing Labour stand on a left manifesto had been one of the leader’s ambitions; he now set about achieving his other objectives of democratising the party and making it more of a social movement-style campaigning force. He had help. Emboldened activists made rapid advances through the structures of the party, winning internal elections and securing an overwhelming majority of delegates at a jubilant annual conference in September 2017.

For the British left, the historic achievement of the June 2017 general election was to remove the albatross of 1983 — the defeat that had weighed it down for three-and-a-half decades. “All my life I’ve been listening to people say you can’t win popular support with a left programme,” says McCluskey. “That’s what Corbyn has given us. Something we’ll be able to hang on to in future generations. It will live on.”

There was nothing complicated about how it was done. As one of the leader’s aides puts it, “Our whole campaign was just true to our politics.” This had been Corbyn’s way ever since he threw his hat into the ring for the leadership in 2015. Instead of ceding ground to the right as part of an elaborate political game, or searching for the mythical centre ground, Corbyn simply stood up for what he — and apparently millions of others — believed in. By leading opinion, rather than following it, he boxed out a new space for progressive politics. Corbyn’s spectacular insurgent campaigns stand as vivid demonstrations that, as he said upon taking leadership of the Labour Party in September 2015, “things can, and they will, change.”

This is an adapted extract from the new edition of “The Candidate: Jeremy Corbyn’s Improbable Path to Power,” published by OR Books. To get 20% off the book use the discount code JEZWECAN at purchase on the OR Books website.

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Alex Nunns

Alex Nunns is a UK-based author and activist. His book, 'The Candidate: Jeremy Corbyn's Improbable Path to Power', won the 2017 Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing.

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