by Elliot Folan
It was perhaps naïve, but I had hoped that the 2017 general election result had settled the argument about Jeremy Corbyn’s electability. It certainly settled it for me. However, a shrinking minority of critics continue to insist that he must go, insisting that as he lost the 2017 election, he will lose the next. In these two articles I’d like to avoid personalising the issue and simply demonstrate two things:
- Firstly, that winning the 2017 election outright was a Herculean task under any leadership – after devastating losses in 2010 and 2015, a minority government would have been the best possible result, and even then it was incredibly unlikely;
- And secondly, that Corbyn’s performance in June 2017 has all but guaranteed that the next government will be led by the Labour Party, either as a majority or minority government. I’ll examine this in Part 2.
Part 1 – The unwinnable election?
In May 2015, Labour was left in a disastrous position. Despite five years of Tory austerity, the right-wing turn and subsequent obliteration of Labour’s principal opponent on the centre-left (the Lib Dems), and a strong movement in the country against government cuts, Labour was defeated by almost exactly the same margin in the popular vote as it was in 2010, after 13 years of Labour government. Its seat count was even worse: on 232 MPs, Labour only managed two more seats than when Neil Kinnock lost in a landslide in 1987. In Scotland, Labour lost 40 out of 41 MPs; in another heartland, Wales, it lost seats to the Tories and remained static on just 37% of the popular vote. In northern England, UKIP was beginning to eat away at the Labour vote: in the rock-solid Labour stronghold of North East England, UKIP won a stunning 16.7% of the vote. In six English counties, Labour won fewer votes than UKIP did.
Wiped out in Scotland, gutted in Wales and with its core vote being eaten away by UKIP, Labour was in bad shape. A gleeful ConservativeHome declared: “there will never be another Labour government in the UK”, while the New Statesman described 2015 as “a disaster for the Labour Party”, adding that while it could recover public support, “the task is huge”.
In six English counties, Labour won fewer votes than UKIP did.
The New Statesman wasn’t wrong. To win an overall majority of one seat in the 2017 election, Labour needed to gain 96 MPs, a feat which required a staggering 9.5% swing from Labour to the Tories (especially given that the huge SNP majorities at the time made taking SNP seats look nearly impossible). It’s not an exaggeration to say that such a swing is historically unprecedented. Out of the 19 elections held since 1945, just one saw a swing of that magnitude: 1997, and that followed nearly two decades of one-party Tory rule – not two years. As for seats, only three political leaders since 1945 have presided over a gain of over or close to 100 seats for their party: Winston Churchill in 1950 (+90), Tony Blair in 1997 (+147) and David Cameron in 2010 (+108).
(Shown above: table showing the swing to/against Labour in elections since universal suffrage began in 1918, as well as Labour’s seat gains/losses. Negative numbers in red indicate a swing against Labour and/or seat losses, while green positive numbers indicate a swing to Labour and/or seat gains).
Even to become the largest party in a hung parliament required Labour to gain 50 seats and achieve a swing of 5.2% in its favour – a seat gain that Labour has only managed twice since WW2 (in 1966 and 1997), and a popular vote swing that Labour has only managed once in that time (in 1997). Not only that, but the boundaries were stacked against Labour: a swing of 5.1% in Cameron’s favour delivered 108 gains for the Tories in 2010, but would have delivered less than half that number for Labour in 2017. The game was rigged. Winning an election in May 2020 in this context was an uphill battle, though a minority government would have been achievable. Asking Labour to win an election in June 2017, just two years after a humiliating defeat, was nigh-on impossible – even if Labour hadn’t been embroiled in internal divisions and distrust, the barriers standing in its way were considerable.
The post-2015 context only made winning the election harder. After Corbyn was swept to the Labour leadership on the back of a grassroots revolt against neoliberalism in the Labour Party, the party became absorbed in arguments over whether he could win an election. Opposition to him was divided between those who thought he couldn’t win and those who didn’t want him to, while the newly reinvigorated left rightly refused to back down.
All the while, Labour’s poll ratings remained poor, eventually being pushed into the low twenties by the triple whammy of a popular new Prime Minister, a huge constitutional crisis (in Brexit) and a failed leadership challenge. By the time the election was called, the Tory lead stood at nearly 25 percentage points. Even pro-Corbyn commentators were sounding the alarm bells. Long-time supporter Owen Jones wrote: “The polling for Labour is catastrophic… If Corbyn decides he is unable to confront the multiple existential crises enveloping Labour, then an agreement should be struck where he can stand down…Not only the future of Labour but the future of this country depends on what the party decides”.
It was in this context that Labour went charging into the 2017 election campaign – not only as the underdog, but as a party written off by opponents and supporters alike; as a party hollowed out in its heartlands and in its target seats; as a party with the system stacked against it; and as a movement that had once again settled the question of its leadership a mere seven months previously.
It’s in this context that the June 8th result of 12.9 million votes, 40% of the vote, a swing in its favour of 2.1%, 262 MPs and 30 net seat gains must be seen in. But I’ll delve into those numbers in Part 2.
Featured image credit: Sophie J. Brown
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