It’s hard now to remember just a few months ago, when Labour was being written off entirely and was hovering at around 25% in opinion polls. As I outlined in the first part of this article, heading into the 2017 general election Labour faced enormous challenges – some of them recent, but most of them deep-rooted. To overcome them, Jeremy Corbyn needed to lead the Labour Party to the sort of popular vote swing achieved only once by Labour since WW2, and to gain nearly 100 seats, a figure only managed by one Labour leader since Attlee.
Part 2 – Jeremy Corbyn, PM-in-waiting
It is in this context, not in a vacuum, that Labour’s result at the 2017 election must be seen. We all know the headline result: 262 MPs overall, a net gain of 30 MPs, the first time in two decades that the party had made a net gain of seats. In the popular vote, Corbyn presided over a result that stunned even the most optimistic admirers: at 12.9 million ballots (40% of the popular vote) the Labour total stood higher than it had at any point since the New Labour landslide in 1997. There was a 2.1% swing to Labour – barring ’97, the highest since October 1974.
Though the Tories ended up 54 seats ahead of Labour, this is built on sand: the Tories lead Labour by less than 2,000 votes in 27 constituencies. To take all of these seats (and a few more) and become the largest party, Labour needs a swing of 2% in its favour – less than what it managed on June 8th. Historically, this sort of swing to an opposition party is not at all unusual: it happened in 7 of the last 10 elections.
(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).
The headline seat figures also hide the remarkable revival of Labour in many parts of the country. In Wales, Labour jumped from just 37% of the popular vote to 49%, an increase of 220,000 votes (12%), gaining 3 seats in the process. In Scotland, Labour’s vote rose only by a modest 10,000 (2.8%) but an efficient Labour campaign resulted in 6 seat gains, putting Labour back on the map. There are now 10 SNP MPs with majorities over Labour of less than 2,000 votes.
In England, Labour’s revival varied: it gained votes everywhere (the lowest being +6% in Durham and the highest +15% in Avon, the area around Bristol) but pulled off astounding gains in unexpected areas. In Cornwall, Labour added 47,733 votes (14.4%) and put seats into contention that hadn’t been on their radar at all.
(Above: Table showing the English counties where Labour’s vote rose by over 10 percentage points )
Far from the gloomy picture painted by some Corbyn critics of his appeal in the North, Labour’s vote actually rose in all three northern English regions – by 9 points in the North East, 10 points in the North West and 10 points in Yorkshire & the Humber. Of 158 northern constituencies, Labour won 117 (+7), the Tories 40 (-4) and the Lib Dems 1 (-3). As for the South, Labour surged by 11 points in all three southern English regions.
Individual constituencies also saw remarkable results. In three previously unwinnable Cornwall seats, Labour made gains in excess of 18 percentage points – most significantly in Truro and Falmouth where Labour’s vote rose by 13,517 votes (23%) in just two years, putting it in a close second place.
(Above: Table showing the constituencies where Labour’s vote rose by over 15 percentage points )
I could go on and on and on. The upshot of it all is this: when the next general election comes, whether in 2022 or earlier, Labour is in a much better position to win it than it was before Corbyn became Leader. Here’s five reasons why:
- To win an overall majority, Labour now needs to gain 64 seats, requiring a swing of 4.9% in Labour’s favour. This is down from needing 96 seat gains and a 9.5% swing pre-June 8th.
- To become the largest party and form a minority government, Labour needs to take around 30 seats off the Tories, which requires a swing of 1.8% in Labour’s favour – less than it achieved on June 8th.
- Corbyn has grown Labour’s activist base by a sizeable margin (nearly 500,000), and the pro-Corbyn Momentum group has started training those activists to be even more effective.
- Corbyn appeals to groups of voters that other potential Labour leaders don’t. Under Corbyn, Labour took approximately 24% of the Leave vote, a figure which would have been unachievable with Europhiles like Chuka Umunna or Owen Smith. At the same time, Corbyn presided over Labour winning over young voters in huge numbers, engaging non-voters, absorbing the Green Party vote almost completely and winning in every employment category except amongst the retired.
- And finally, opposition parties don’t tend to lose votes as time goes on. Instead, it’s governments that shed public support. The last time a party seeking a fourth term in government increased its public support was the Liberal Party in 1868.
One final thought. It is a much-favoured trope of Corbyn’s critics now to say “he lost” over and over and over again, as if Labour members don’t know that we lost. But the celebrations amongst Corbyn supporters and Labourites didn’t come because we thought we won – but because across Europe, social democratic parties are dying, and yet the death of social democracy has now stopped at the shores of Britain. Corbyn held back the tide.
In a very real way, this election result – and by extension, Jeremy Corbyn – has saved the Labour Party. I don’t think we should forget that too quickly.
Featured image credit: Chris McAndrew
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