From the moment the exit poll dropped on election night in 2017, indicating a shock result in which Theresa May went from a 20 point lead at the start of the campaign, to a lost majority and a hung Parliament, a myth has grown, at least among sections of the left, that Corbyn ‘won’ a moral victory, if not an actual one that year. But it’s likely that the real story of the ‘righteous losers’ lies elsewhere.
Let’s start with the facts. Theresa May’s humiliating ‘defeat’ saw her winning 42.4% of the vote, which is 5.5% more than David Cameron got two years earlier, and only 1.2% down on Boris Johnson two years later. That’s 13,636,684 actual votes compared to 13,966,454 votes in the 2019 landslide.
But the myth is about Labour under Corbyn. So how did Labour do? They got 40% of the vote, which was 10 points up on the previous election. That’s 12,878,460 voters backing the party in an election with a relatively high turnout at 68.8%. A stunning result, given Miliband’s 30.4% in 2015. So how and why did that change so rapidly to become, on a similar turnout, 32.1% – 10,269,051 votes – in 2019?
The Corbyn myth, or the myth of the magic manifesto, is seductive. There was a disastrous Tory campaign which showed that three word slogans aren’t always winners (Strong and Stable?). A wooden PM appearing in carefully stage managed venues before hand picked audiences of party supporters was plainly a contrast with the celebrity status that seemed to surround Corbyn, especially his enthusiastic rallies. And polls did show many Labour policies, some of which have subsequently been adopted by the Tories, whether by design (energy price cap, more police) or accident (rail renationalisation), to be popular. How can anyone suggest that there wasn’t some magic to Labour’s 2017 campaign?
Always a Corbyn sceptic, I did go to his final rally in Birmingham the day before the election. There were lots of people there, the atmosphere was excited, Clean Bandit played a great set, Steve Coogan read Shelley, and when Corbyn spoke, a rainbow appeared in the sky. A sign!
A sign not exactly foretold in the polls. One late YouGov poll, viewed as a rogue, suggested hung Parliament territory, but disastrous campaign or not, the other still pointed to a clear May victory. The only question was the likely size of her majority. But the polls were wrong.
The Corbyn myth makers put it down to the enthusiasm of young voters, the sorts of people who might spontaneously sing his name. The media got on board, writing of a ‘youthquake election’. So what’s the evidence?
There is a clear age effect when it comes to voting intention. The crossover point at which voting Labour tips to voting Tory in 2017 was 47. Below that point, Labour led. After that, the balance shifts, with the over 70s being around 80% Tory. It’s also true that Labour’s vote grew very clearly in constituencies with a lot of young people, such as university towns. But Labour polled most strongly with 30-40 year olds. Higher turnout was driven by younger and minority ethnic voters, but this doesn’t seem to have been the primary driver of the Labour surge. A British Election Study report, The Myth of the 2017 Youthquake Election thoroughly debunks the idea that ‘It Was the Young Wot Won It’.
Corbyn myth makers are less likely to seize on election data that shows the party’s share of the middle class vote soaring by 12%, while the Tories’ share of working class support showed a similar rise.
So who are these Thirtysomething middle class voters who fuelled the Labour surge, and, more to the point, why did they go missing two years later?
Again, it’s polling detail, and the British Election Study which perhaps offers the answer.
The Labour surge happened very late in the campaign. In most elections, furthermore, ‘late switchers‘, people who change their voting intention at the last minute, tend to split fairly evenly between the two big parties. Not in 2017, when 54% of late switchers went to Labour, and 19% (probably from a poorly performing UKIP) went to the Tories.
Detailed analysis by the British Election Study showed that the campaigns run by the parties were not aligned to the issues that were moving voters. Or perhaps that ought to be the ‘issue’. For it was one question, which hardly featured in campaigns by either the Tories or Labour, that was found to be the top concern of the electorate – Brexit.
When the 2016 referendum was called, I thought that Labour would use it as activists around the 2014 Scottish independence referendum used their poll, to campaign around issues that had nothing whatsoever to do with the question on the ballot, such as the NHS, or the state of public services. Instead Labour largely ignored the issue, leaving it to Alan Johnson to run an under resourced Labour Remain campaign without any buy-in or active participation from the leadership. This was a huge mistake, both on an opportunistic, and on a principled basis, but it set the stubborn mindset that was to characterise the party then, and now.
I was slightly involved in campaigns around the referendum, attending meetings on the issue. Labour was always notable by their absence, even at ‘Another Europe Is Possible’ meetings of the left (where there was a palpable sense of fear from some participants, even platform speakers, that their ‘comrades’ might disapprove of their presence at an anti-Brexit event). But as soon as the vote had happened, a strange, loose social media phenomenon began to emerge. People outraged by the result, unguided by parties, began to ‘find’ one another. There was a sharing of hashtags, a habit of following anti-Brexiters, and a practice of adding sympathetic strangers to anti-Brexit Facebook groups.
This grew into the People’s Vote Campaign. Organised at the top, at grassroots it was a loose coalition of local groups, and many, perhaps millions, of individuals. The marches were huge, the meetings often crowded. I recall seeing a slightly bewildered Michael Heseltine, dressed in a casual sweater, address a packed meeting more enthusiastic than he had even in his heyday at Tory Party conference when, with his blond locks, he wowed them as ‘Tarzan’. I recognised many of the people in the hall. Some were Labour activists, some Lib Dem, and others I knew from fields outside politics, people who ran cultural organisations, or were writers and actors.
When the 2017 election was called, this amorphous group, part organised, part autonomous, were immediately embroiled in arguments. Some people were politically naive, with no understanding of how the electoral system worked. Others found their political sectarianism reigniting. But we argued it out, often on a highly local basis, and almost entirely through social media.
It was in the last week of the campaign that I thought something was shifting. One of the biggest stumbling blocks to getting people to vote tactically for Labour candidates was Labour’s lack of enthusiasm for stopping Brexit. In some constituencies there was an additional obstacle in that the Labour candidate was an active Brexiter (my own MP at the time was Gisela Stuart, who would probably have lost the seat had she not stood down). But pragmatism, often through gritted teeth, seemed to prevail. I remember one man, half-accusingly, half-incredulously, saying to me, “You persuaded me to vote Labour!”
Certainly on election night there was elation at a result that at least opened up the possibility of another vote on leaving the EU. I spent that night on social media watching the political party that stole victory from the Tories. And it wasn’t Labour – it was the People’s Vote Party.
That’s how it felt. Now we have the evidence to suggest that our perception was right.
It could have been Labour’s victory. Even after a year of having nothing to say on Brexit, Labour could have read the election result as a second chance to lead the fight, to bring party and trade union banners and numbers to the PV marches, and made unified common cause in Parliament to offer the electorate another chance to vote, and perhaps even to lead a minority government to organise that vote.
But the Labour leadership chose to believe the myth that their ‘absolute boy’ somehow ‘won’.
He didn’t. The extra million (1,120,000) voters he got in 2017 who were gone in 2019 are in number pretty close to the number of people who marched in London on the final People’s Vote March in 2019.
The Corbynite myth of the 2017 election is just that – a fairy tale. The unexplored story, and one with implications that still matter for Labour, and for other parties, too, including the Tories, is what happened to the anti-Brexit coalition, and can it rise again, in some other form, to transform the prospects of some other party?