Labour is further from regaining political power than it thinks. The 8th June pattern of electoral support highlights four major weaknesses for the party – the loss of white working class votes; a weak performance in English towns, a dependence on Remain voters and an over-reliance on young voters. The party leadership seems complacent in the face of the uphill task that we face to regain power. A ‘one more heave’ approach relying on turning out the same voters who supported Labour on 8th June, plus a few more, is a high risk strategy. The Conservative are likely to have a new leader in place by the next general election and will not fight such an inept campaign. Labour and Corbyn will face massive scrutiny, which they avoided last time.
The Conservatives achieved a partial realignment of working class voters. The Tories had a 22 percent lead over labour amongst voters with no educational qualifications. In many seats with white working class electorates and few ethnic minorities, like Southampton Itchen, Labour failed to regain seats from the Conservatives. In this respect Labour is experiencing similar challenges to other social democratic parties in Europe. In a series of seats being defended against Labour, the Conservatives saw significant increases in their vote, in two cases (Bolton West and Morley and Outwood) in seats that were held by Gordon Brown in 2010.
The 2017 election saw the intensification of earlier trends, with Labour consolidating its position in metropolitan areas but performing poorly in English towns. Labour expanded its electoral constituency by winning professional and highly educated voters under the age of 40. However it lost many of its traditional voters. Labour also faces an escalating generational gap. In 2010 Labour was only slightly behind amongst the over sixty five vote. By 2017 Labour was 30 percent behind the Conservatives with this age group.
Labour’s performance was greatly assisted by a resurgence of the Remain vote. The Westminster constituencies with the highest Remain vote correlate strongly with the constituencies that saw the sharpest falls in Conservative votes in 2017, including Putney, Chelsea, Kensington and Battersea. Chris Hanretty also showed that, once controlling for demographics like graduate numbers in a constituency, the highest swings from Conservative to Labour were in areas that voted 60% for Remain. The British Election Studies data shows that Europe provoked great polarisation amongst voters, with Conservative voters prioritising control of immigration and Labour voters seeing single market access as of greatest importance. This phenomenon potentially reduces the scope that the Labour leadership has for expanding its electoral coalition.
However the party also faces more fundamental long term concerns. There has been a steep fall in voter identification with political parties since the 1980s. Generation Y voters, those born from 1980 to 2000 have particularly loose affiliations to political parties. This means that Labour cannot count on retaining the upsurge in youth support it achieved in 2017. The decline of class-based voting and weak partisan identification creates a highly volatile political environment. We can see evidence of this in the ebb tide that hit the Scottish National Party this year. The SNP achieved 50% of the vote in 2015 but in 2017 it lost 13 percent of its vote and shed 21 seats.
To win power Labour must either make further incursions into middle income professionals or substantially expand its youth support if it is unable to win over older voters. The party could help itself by embracing the Progressive Alliance, rather than relying on a mobilisation within the tribe. The Progressive Alliance encouraged local progressive parties to stand aside in support of the party best placed to defeat the Conservatives. Where local progressive alliances were formed there were 9 gains, 7 for Labour and 2 for the Lib Dems. There were a further 15 holds, 13 for Labour, 1 for the Greens and 1 for the Liberal Democrats.
In two constituencies that Labour gained the margin of victories were very similar to the size of the Green Party’s vote in 2015. In Derby North the Green Party won 3.6% in 2015 and Chris Williamson’s margin of victory was 3.9% in 2017. In High Peak the Greens won 3.6% in 2015. In 2017 the Labour candidate victory margin was 4.3%. In 2017 ‘the Progressive Alliance’ polled 3 million more votes than the ‘Blukip’ regressive alliance. How those votes are going to be utilised at the next election is key. In over 60 seats on 8th June the ‘wasted’ progressive votes were bigger than the margin of victory for the Tories. With 20% of the electorate, or 6.5 million people voting tactically on June 8th, any notion that Labour or anyone now operates from a solid electoral base is a big gamble.
Labour has to face up to the harsh reality that it has a stake on how other opposition parties perform in the parts of the country where they are best placed to defeat the Conservatives. Labour needs the Liberal Democrats to win Conservative seats in the southwest of England and it needs the Green Party to perform well in their areas of strength. As First Past the Post increasingly delivers hung parliaments – the need for a Progressive Alliance approach is going to continue to be needed.
This blogpost is based on Matthew’s paper Big But Brittle: Why One more heave is likely to fail Labour