UK elections: Labour fights back

Despite predictions of electoral disaster for the Labour Party before the UK election, its leader […]

Associated Professor, Queen Mary University of London, and Co-Chair, Policy Network
Despite predictions of electoral disaster for the Labour Party before the UK
election, its leader Jeremy Corbyn managed to secure 40% of the popular
vote, its best performance since Tony Blair’s victories in 1997 and 2001. The
party’s campaign featured an effective use of social media, traditional door to
door canvassing and very successful open air political rallies. Labour’s
success showed that it can fight with traditionally left wing policies and that
it is possible to politically mobilise younger voters and the so-called ‘left behind’.
The result of the 2017 UK general election has astonished Britain’s most
experienced political observers. At the start of the campaign, most polling
experts and political scientists were predicting electoral disaster for Jeremy
Corbyn’s party: Labour was twenty points behind in the opinion polls having
been heavily defeated in recent local elections. In terms of ratings of political
leadership and economic competence, Corbyn trailed Theresa May by a huge
margin. However, on June 8th, Labour secured over 40 per cent of the popular vote, its
best performance since Tony Blair’s victories in 1997 and 2001. In just two
years, the party’s share of the vote increased by over 9 per cent, the largest
rise Labour has enjoyed since 1945. This is in stark contrast to most social
democratic parties in the advanced capitalist countries who are struggling to
arrest the decline in their national vote share.
In the meantime, May’s cataclysmic performance has plunged the
Conservative party into chaos, and potentially imperilled the entire Brexit
process. Increasingly, Corbyn is viewed as a prospective Prime Minister by
previously sceptical voters. This election has delivered a political earthquake
in the UK which appears, at least on the surface, to challenge a number of
orthodoxies that have prevailed in British political life for the last forty years.
The first and most obvious orthodoxy to be overturned is the claim that the
Labour party cannot succeed electorally by fighting from the Left. Labour’s
programme was not that far removed from traditional social democracy: it
promised to tax the better-off in order to fund the National Health Service
(NHS) and schools, as well as abolishing university tuition fees; the
manifesto pledged to nationalise failing privatised utilities such as the
railways and the energy sector. The party’s policies were unquestionably
further to the Left than at any election since 1983. Yet Labour increased its
share of the vote among most social groups. The contention of Labour
modernisers that Britain is an inherently Conservative country which is
resistant to higher taxes and more sceptical than ever of a ‘bigger state’ has
apparently been confounded.
The second orthodoxy apparently disproved by Labour’s performance is the
view that it is impossible to politically mobilise younger voters and the so-
called ‘left behind’. Turnout in the election rose to nearly 70 per cent; there
was a marked increase in voting among 18 to 34 year olds; and marginalised
working class voters who either abstained from voting or switched to the
populist right-wing UK Independence Party in the 2000s returned to Labour
in droves. Labour deployed an intriguing blend of ‘modern’ and ‘traditional’
campaigning techniques: the party’s use of social media was extremely
effective, as Labour dominated the online conversation. Yet Corbyn also
addressed dozens of open air political rallies drawing crowds of thousands
towards the end of the campaign. Labour was far outspent by the
Conservatives, but the party used ‘word of mouth’ communications and
traditional door-to-door canvassing to ruthless effect.
The third orthodoxy brought into question by the election result on June 8th
is that the British Conservative party is a ruthless, vote-gathering machine.
The Tory campaign was manifestly a political failure: May raised
expectations by demanding a large majority for a mandate to carry through
the Brexit process. Yet her media and public performances throughout the
campaign were judged to be weak. The Conservative manifesto attacked one
of the party’s most loyal voter groups – the affluent elderly. Their programme
pledged to means-test pensioner benefits while introducing a social care
reform that required people with chronic conditions to pay for more of their
own care if they were relatively well off. The Tory manifesto failed to spell out
any compelling vision of Britain’s role in a post-Brexit world, of how the UK
would rise to the economic challenge of competitiveness and sustainability
outside the European Union. The electoral consequences of such policy
errors proved to be disastrous.
As a result, many in Labour believe that the party is on the brink of a victory
as great as any since 1945. Certainly, Corbyn now has a plausible prospect of
becoming Prime Minister. May is fatally weakened, while the Government’s
majority depends on the votes of the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist
Party (DUP) against the backdrop of an unstable peace process. Another
general election appears likely soon which would, in all likelihood, be Labour’s to lose. As such, the British Labour party may be in a position to map out a
new path to power with radical implications for other centre-left parties
across Europe.
photo: Shutterstock/Claudia Divizia
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