Labour needs to hold new seats and win disparate categories of voters to make further gains, write Andrew Harrop and Olivia Bailey
Politics is about expectations and momentum. So, after this extraordinary election, it is hardly surprising that Labour is behaving like it won even though it lost, and the Tories are behaving like they lost even though they won. Labour may not be in power, but the party has turned the tide and started gaining seats, not losing them. That matters because in Labour’s long history, every time it has started advancing, it has not fallen back again until it has won power.
In 2017, outright victory was never a plausible ambition, given where the party was starting from. A Fabian report called The Mountain to Climb made that clear just weeks after the 2015 election – before Jeremy Corbyn was even elected leader. A hung parliament was the realistic limit of our ambitions, whoever was the leader: Labour was ‘too weak to win’, as another Fabian report put it at the start of this year.
Now Labour has moved to a position where winning is within our grasp and that was the real achievement of this election. Before 8 June we needed a swing of around nine per cent in the decisive marginal seats to win a majority. Now the same figure is under four per cent, a target well within our grasp. Labour may have gained only 30 seats, but it succeeded in creating a huge number of winnable marginals. 81 constituencies can be captured with a local swing from the defending party of under five per cent: Labour need 64 of them to win a majority.
But the character of Labour’s advance has raised important questions. Labour’s successes in Scotland and in ‘Remain’-voting, graduate-heavy seats in England and Wales are something to celebrate. But the party made much less progress in traditional weathervane seats, failing to win constituencies like Thurrock, Telford, Bolton West, Morley and Outwood, Corby and Carlisle. Worse still was the loss of five ex-industrial seats in the north and Midlands (Stoke-on-Trent South, Mansfield, Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland, North East Derbyshire, and Walsall North) as well as the Copeland byelection.
In all these seats the Labour vote did increase, mainly as a result of the United Kingdom Independence party collapse, but Tory support went up by more. In other words, Labour succeeded in attracting some extra working-class, Brexit-leaning supporters, but not enough. By contrast, the party’s vote increased very significantly in seats with lots of graduates, minority ethnic voters, public sector workers and under-40s. As many commentators have said already, this shift in the composition of Labour supporters from old to young, blue collar to white collar and low-skilled to high-skilled raises big questions about the party’s future.
A Labour majority is in sight, but it will not be achieved with ‘one more heave’ that replicates this pattern. To win again, Labour must hold on to the new seats it has gained with record levels of support from the young and from graduates – but it must also reach out to older and working-class voters. They will determine whether the party can win in economically disadvantaged areas where the Tories have made inroads; in traditional ‘middle England’ swing seats; and in its former Scottish heartlands.
Task one: hold on to the 34 Labour gains
When all the party’s different sorts of new voters are put together, extraordinarily, they outnumber the loyalists who also voted Labour in 2015. But this coalition of voters is disparate and potentially unpredictable. Holding on to them will not be easy, especially if the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats appoint more impressive leaders.
One challenge will be to sustain high turnout in any future election among the party’s new supporters. Fabian analysis suggests that across Britain increases in the number of ballots cast can explain around 2,000 extra Labour voters per seat. The more additional ballots in a constituency, the more Labour’s vote increased, with 10 extra ballots being associated with eight additional Labour votes (see graph). The party must now make sure those voters get into the habit of voting Labour. That starts with an organisational focus on locating these new supporters, who were largely absent from the party’s data in the run up to the election.
In particular, Labour must work hard to maintain and develop the support of the young. Support surged by 20 points amongst 18-to-34 year olds, according to Ipsos Mori. The party won seats in university towns, where educated young people were highly concentrated. But it also did well among working-class voters under the age of 35. Younger people of all backgrounds voted Labour to register a protest about under investment in their future, and Labour must continue to fight their corner.
Labour must also continue to be the ‘sensible Brexit’ party. Three in four of the gains Labour made were in areas that voted to remain in the European Union, and in many places voters were turning to Labour to stop a Tory hard Brexit. Labour must continue to push for a version of Brexit that does as little harm as possible to our jobs, pensions and livelihoods.
The 64 constituencies Labour must gain to win a majority
Task two: Win back places that feel ‘left behind’
The vast majority of economically disadvantaged constituencies still return Labour members of parliament. But analysis of the election by Paula Surridge of Bristol University shows that the higher the concentration of working class voters in a seat, the more it was likely to swing to the Tories.
Similarly, at the level of individual voters, Ipsos Mori report that while Labour had a four-point lead among people in social grades C2DE, the Conservatives achieved a big 12-point increase and their highest recorded vote share for this group. Even more striking, the Tories were 17 points ahead among voters with no qualifications (which is correlated with age as well as class) and lead by seven-points among those with qualifications below degree level. The Conservatives also led among ‘Leave’ voters, by 65 per cent to 24 per cent – and every single one of the seats Labour lost were in places that voted to leave the European Union.
These results are part of a long-term decline in Labour’s traditional base of working-class supporters, especially older people. Without action, Labour will lose more seats like Mansfield, which had been Labour since 1923, and will fail to secure enough seats to win a majority. Of the 64 most winnable seats, 23 fall into a category we have called ‘working-class/Leave’: they are more pro-Brexit, more working-class and less educated than the national average. The path to a majority is through seats like Thurrock, Corby and Copeland.
Task three: reconnect with middle England (and Wales)
Labour did persuade some former Tory voters back this time. Fabian calculations based on Ipsos Mori’s data suggest around 700,000 people switched from Labour to the Tories (while 500,000 went the other way). But to win a majority Labour will need to persuade a lot more former Conservative voters. To gain a seat like Loughborough, Labour’s 68th most winnable seat, it will need a swing in the seat of 3.9 per cent.
While Labour did very well at increasing turnout, and persuading left leaning voters to come to its aid, Labour may have ‘maxed out’ on this approach. There are just five target seats where significant progress can be made by squeezing Liberal Democrat or Green voters. And even if Labour was to increase turnout in each marginal seat by as much again as it did at this election, it would gain nowhere near the seats it needs for a majority.
Winning requires Labour to convince former Tory voters in ‘middle Britain’ seats that are neither economically disadvantaged nor stuffed with young graduates. These swing-seats are mainly outer London suburbs, new towns and market towns. And all but one of them has an electorate that is considerably older than the median constituency (something that is true of 62 out of the 64 seats Labour must win).
Task four: fight back in Scotland
Labour now has seven Scottish MPs, and very narrowly missed out on adding more. Scottish Labour was short by just 60 votes and 75 votes in two seats. While before the election most of the Scottish National party’s majorities looked impregnable, now a path has formed for Labour’s comeback in Scotland. And the party’s chances of returning to power depend on it, with 18 of Labour’s most winnable seats in Scotland.
In most of those seats Labour is the obvious anti-SNP choice, so it should be able to reach out to both working-class voters growing tired of the nationalists and to people who voted Conservative this time, as a pro-union choice. It will be more complicated in the handful of seats which are three-way marginals, including Lanark and Hamilton East where Labour is in third place but only 360 votes separate the three parties. Nevertheless, overall Labour has good reason to be optimistic about its prospects in Scotland.
Andrew Harrop is general secretary of the Fabian Society. He tweets at @andrew_harrop
Olivia Bailey is research director at the Fabian Society. She tweets at @livbailey
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