Before trying to examine the outcome of the 2019 general election, before any attempt to analyse the social complexities of the electorate that it reveals, it is important to understand three things. The first is that the UK has always been a multi-party democracy: it is NOT, like the US, an actual two-party system. Unlike other multi-party democracies it does not have a voting system that is designed to match the distribution of votes to the distribution of seats.
The second is that traditional social democratic parties have been in decline the world over. Almost everywhere where they were once strong, they have lost votes in two directions: to the nationalist right among ageing, post-industrial communities; to parties of the green new left among younger urban and professional-class voters. Indeed, arguably, from a long-term and genuinely international perspective, the real story of Corbynism may be that it managed to shore up and consolidate the latter part of Labour’s coalition where so many equivalent parties have failed to do so, with fatal consequences: from Pasok in Greece to the French Socialist Party (both of which saw support eventually collapse into single-figure percentages). By international standards, holding onto 32% of the vote is a pretty decent result for a party like Labour in 2019.
The third factor is that despite all of those long-term and global circumstances, the 2019 election came only 30 months after Labour’s astonishing 2017 result, when the party under Corbyn achieved the almost miraculous feat of remaking and enthusing almost all of its historic voting coalition, massively increasing its vote share of just two years previously, and very nearly forcing Theresa May from office. There is every possibility that, without the most divisive issue of modern times (Brexit) fatally splitting its electorate, Labour will be able to recompose that coalition much more quickly and easily than many commentators currently assume. But it might not. And even if it can, it will face the same issue that kept Theresa May in Number 10 in Jun 2017 and delivered Johnson a landslide in 2019: a hopelessly undemocratic electoral system.
This is the first of a six-part series of articles looking at Labour’s electoral defeat in December 2019, and what we can learn from it. In this first contribution, I will consider the key question of what happened to Labour’s 2017 coalition of voters, that led to such an apparently catastrophic loss of votes and parliamentary seats within 30 months.
I’m going to suggest that the evidence tells a different story from the one imprinted on many people’s minds already. It is undoubtedly true that Labour’s loss of seats to the Conservatives in its post-industrial ‘heartlands’ was shocking and traumatic. But it is a myth that the largest bloc of votes that Labour lost was from ‘traditional working class’ voters who switched to the Tories. In fact there is some evidence that the single largest demographic switch away from Labour was actually among middle-aged liberal voters, moving from Labour to the Greens and the Liberal Democrats.
First past the post punished Labour
The ‘first past the post’ electoral system dictates that parties only win MPs to the extent that they are able to win the mostvotes in specific, geographically-defined constituencies. This system punishes savagely any party that cannot win such a plurality in any one place, or in many places, even if it has substantial support spread throughout the country. It also punishes any party whose support is too heavily concentrated in particular places, even if that support is numerically equal to or greater than that of its rivals. It therefore rewards the one party that is able to win pluralities in a large number of small towns and villages while being unpopular in the major urban population centres: the Conservative Party. In effect, the UK electoral system gives far more weight to the votes of the inhabitants of the former type of place – principally, white propertied pensioners – than it does to working-age people of any background, or to members of ethnic minorities, or to students and young workers in particular. All of the latter groups tend to be more heavily concentrated in large towns and cities.
Because of this appalling anomaly, over 400 of the UK’s 650 parliamentary constituencies saw a majority of their voters vote Leave in the 2016 referendum on EU membership. Over 400. Out of 650. The actual percentage split nationally was just 48/52 in favour of leave. Just let that sink in for a moment.
Labour was never going to be able to prevent the 2019 election being a re-run of the Brexit referendum. But in this case, it was a rerun according to a system that was massively rigged in Leave’s favour. Conversely, literally 70% of Labour voters (and well over that proportion of Labour members) had voted Remain. Labour was always going to have a problem fighting an election on those terms.
One might well ask, then, why the issue of the electoral system, and the evident need to reform it – if the entire country is not to be dictated to forever by white propertied pensioners – was less in evidence during this election campaign than at any other in recent memory (which is saying something: it has never been a major issue in any election campaign). This is probably a topic for another essay. Suffice to say, for now, that the ideological refusal of Labour’s Bennite left to engage with this issue – despite the urging of such close political allies as Arthur Scargill – has been its greatest weakness since the early 1980s. It has finally paid the price for that refusal, and we will all be paying it for many years to come. And yet, every other Labour leader before Corbyn has also pointedly refused to grasp this nettle, in other words, has also refused to commit the party to proportional representation for the House of Commons. We can only hope that this long century of idiocy ends now.
But let’s try to analyse the result in a little more detail.
Which Voters Did Labour lose?
The December 2019 election result is the one that many of us expected in June 2017. It came as a surprise back then that so many of the Leave-Voting constituencies of the North and the Midlands had mostly not fallen to the Conservative party: polls, and Teresa May’s strategists, had predicted they would.
The reasons why they might were always obvious. Labour’s vote had been declining steadily there since 1997, as the number of young workers in those regions declined, as the number of propertied pensioners increased, no previous change of leadership having been able to reverse the trend. Corbynism had its social base in the metropolitan regions, in an emergent culture shared by young urban workers and older professionals, characterised by social liberalism, cosmopolitanism and an extremely-online lifestyle.
Anyone familiar with the post-industrial North knew that in many places this might well be a turn-off, for the older and more conservative sections of those communities. Many of us who grew up in those places, especially in those areas with long socialist traditions, always believed that it would be possible to connect the new working class of the cities with at least some sections of the older working class of the post-industrial regions, by showing them that we shared so many of their interests and aspirations, so much of their anger and pain, so many of their losses and regrets. But we knew that it would take a particular kind of leadership and oratory to bridge the gap, articulating that shared narrative and vision. And many of us always doubted that Jeremy Corbyn – as much as we loved him personally – would be able to provide them. It was always hard to imagine him being able to speak to older people, back in the town that we came from, in a language that would make sense to them. We feared, even in 2017, that the Tory strategy of appealing to their sense of loss and grievance would prove more successful than Corbyn’s relentless story of hope and human kindness.
And it did. It is generally overlooked that in 2017 Teresa May did achieve a huge increase in Conservative vote share, a massive swing to the Tories in many of those places, and a fair few significant seat-gains. In fact Johnson has only slightly increased her overall share of the vote and her overall number of votes. But it was enough of an increase, and sufficiently concentrated in the same parts of the country, to have finally knocked down Labour’s ‘red wall’ of traditional ‘post-industrial’ constituencies.
From this perspective, it is important to understand that 2019 was not an earthquake but a tipping-point. And what really did for Labour in many of its ‘heartland’ seats were voters who did vote Labour in 2017, but in 2019 simply stayed at home, out of a distaste for Corbyn’s leadership and a feeling that they had to let Johnson into office in order to ‘get Brexit done’.
It is crucial to emphasise again that the drift towards conservatism in many of these seats was a long-term trend and that it had not been magically arrested in 2017. That drift was slowed down in that year by the fact that a section of the ageing ‘traditional working-class’ population saw Corbyn’s commitment to implementing Brexit as sufficient indicator that he was ‘on their side’. There is no doubt that many of those voters becoming disillusioned with Corbyn’s leadership, and convinced that Brexit must be done at all costs, had a devastating effect on the 2019 electoral outcome.
The centrist dads
But – and this is absolutely crucial to understand – the more surprising and more numerically significant demographic change was in fact the number of voters in their 40s and early 50s who supported Labour in 2017, and whose votes went in large numbers to the Liberal Democrats, SNP and Greens in 2019. Yes, I know how strange this will sound, if all you’ve heard since 10pm on December 12th is that Labour’s vote collapsed because it lost its leave-voting supporters. But that is a fallacy. It is part of the truth: but less than half. If you want to look at the best statistical breakdowns and analyses that I know of, then they are here.
Why exactly younger ‘Generation X’ voters decided to back Corbyn in 2017, and not in 2019, is an issue that has barely been discussed at all, given the understandable obsession of commentators with the increasingly immovable Toryism of propertied pensioners, and with the striking leftward shift of younger voters. But there is a good argument that in fact the single most significant demographic-psephological shift between 2017 and 2019 was the desertion of the ‘centrist Dads’ who had reluctancy backed Corbyn in 2017, for the Lib Dems, the Greens and (again) abstention.Print