Wednesday 15 April 2020

Could Labour Have Won the 2017 Election?

You've seen that report. You've read the coverage and the fall out. And seen what Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner are going to do about it, and probably have strong opinions about that too. Clearly, obviously, having a party within a party or, as David Osland put it, an HQ within an HQ made for poisonous relationships, a toxic atmos, and studied purposeful incompetence. But all that taken into consideration, what consequences did scabby activity have on Labour's electoral performance in 2017? Were it not for their efforts aiding everyone but the party they worked for, could Labour have won? Might the result have been closer than it already was?

Despite his anti-Corbyn axe-grinding, Nick Tyrone's dissection of one of the left's persistent political myths deserves a view - not least because myths are no good for understanding the world and sober assessments of our actions. He argues the idea Labour were two thousand-odd votes from forming a government (which has, over the last couple of years morphed into two thousand votes from victory) is absurd. And it is. Distributed across Tory/Labour marginals that stayed with the blue party, if they all had fallen to Labour we'd still have fewer seats than our opponents. Would that then have made an anti-Tory coalition likely? Not in the slightest, says Nick. He suggests Corbyn would have been hostage to the PLP, and there's no reason to believe the SNP and LibDems would have gone along with it. Indeed, it's certain the yellow party would not have given up their identification of anti-Corbyn campaigning as their route back to the big time (that worked out well). Therefore whatever the shenanigans at HQ, whether money diverted and wasted on super safe seats would have ended up in key marginals the effect was likely to have been slight. While our disgraced officer corps did and didn't do things, and almost certainly cost the party a few seats here and there, they aren't responsible for a defeat snatched from the jaws of victory. Because it was never on the cards.

This is true enough, but you have to take wider party divisions into account to address this question credibly. The big fallings out in the party, like the failed coup against Corbyn certainly didn't help, but it was the incessant drip, drip of undermining, secret briefing, amplified anti-semitism, contrived rows, leaks, referendum manoeuvring and all the rest thanks to the parliamentary party, their media helpers and useful idiots in the ranks who did the real damage. And the evidence is quite clear about this. The consensus among the pol profs is divided parties tend not to win elections, and the data from the US and the UK stacks up. You can add 2019 to that list, certainly. Consider: the Tories were haplessly divided prior to the election, but Boris Johnson demonstrated serious intent to Brexit voters how he was prepared to do anything, including trashing his own party, to get it done. As a result the Tories went into the election united. Labour, on the other hand, did not. And from the punters' point of view, if you can't hold together your own party how are you competent enough to run the country?

Did this apply in 2017? Yes, but not to the same degree. Corbyn was an issue on the doors then and, yes, we'd hear quoted back at us not just the lines from the press but also the angles of attack helpfully provided by supposed Labour comrades in the two years previous. However, because Brexit was neutralised as an issue in places that later turned against Labour a lot of Labour voters gave the party the benefit of the doubt. Nevertheless, the divisive work done helped sap party support in Mansfield, Middlesbrough, Stoke (South), and Walsall (North) by accelerating the long accumulating tendencies that exploded across previously safe seats in 2019. Additionally, the party attracted many new voters who are now, to all intents and purposes, the new party base.

In this context, while internal shenanigans didn't put off new Labour voters in 2017 it certainly helped demobilise older, more traditional sections of our voter coalition: division doesn't alienate all voters equally. Modest losses in seat terms in 2017 nevertheless saw majorities decline elsewhere, setting the party up for its big fall. While this cannot be directly attributed to scabbing at headquarters, they were part of the problem. They enabled the drip drip damage, they provided assistance to core group hostile MPs, they ensured the leaks took place and party machinery clogged up at factionally opportune times. They share responsibility with Tom Watson, Ian Austin, John Mann, and all the other scabs for dragging the party through the mud and damaging its electoral chances. Nevertheless, even when the crimson mist descends one should remain clear sighted. They cost the party seats but not a chance at government, and their collective behaviour definitely ensured our 2019 defeat was worse than it might have been. Yet in our unlikely 2017 counterfactual of their uniting behind Jeremy Corbyn, the media would have run with the same attacks eventually because the stuff used against Corbyn was out there, ready to be spun. It's also worth noting as well that if it wasn't for the appalling polling 18 months of division had bequeathed us that fateful April three years ago Theresa May would never had called an election in the first place.

Hindsight and probabilities are all we have to consider opportunities missed and chances thwarted, but one thing's for sure. Whether you think we could have won in 2017 or not, the exposure of the rotten heart of the professional party has shown how unaccountable and powerful the central apparat are and why the project of democratising Labour remains as relevant now as it ever was.

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Boffy said...

"However, because Brexit was neutralised as an issue in places that later turned against Labour a lot of Labour voters gave the party the benefit of the doubt. Nevertheless, the divisive work done helped sap party support in Mansfield, Middlesbrough, Stoke (South), and Walsall (North) by accelerating the long accumulating tendencies that exploded all across previously safe seats in 2019."

Unlikely to be true. Those reactionary Brexit voters went away from Labour a long time ago. They almost certainly did not vote Labour in 2017. They probably voted UKIP, or abstained. The reason Labour held on to seats in 2017, in places like Stoke is that a) the reactionary Brexit vote was split, and b) Labour was lent the votes of Liberals and Greens, and some young people who recoiled in horror at the Brexit vote in 2016, and saw Labour as the only credible means of preventing a hard Brexit or stopping it altogether.

Labour pissed all over those voters in the following two years with its pro-Brexit stance, and so, inevitably lost them and the election.

Anonymous said...

Boffy, this is nonsense. Have you looked at the Lib Dem and Green vote shares in leave seats like Stoke on Trent North? They don't get many votes and and didn't add much in 2019. The leave vote was actually more split in 2019 because the Brexit Party was more of a factor than UKIP had been in 2017.

Boffy said...

Its not a question of whether they are actual Lib Dem or Green voters in these seats. In most of them, those voters don't bother to vote, because they see it as pointless, because they always expect Labour to win. They often turn out more in local council elections, in those wards where the Liberals or Greens have a chance of winning.

The message of 2019 is clear. If you take Stoke North, the Tories polled just 2,000 more votes than in 2017. But, Labour's vote collapsed by 6,500 votes. Now look at Labour's vote in 2017 compared to 2015. In 2017, Labour's vote was 6,800 higher than in 2015, reflecting the fact that in 2017, it had attracted all of these other progressive votes angry about the Brexit vote. Nor was this just a question of it being merely a matter of votes.

In 2017, Labour's vote share was 50.9%, compared to just 39.9% in 2015. Nor was this 2017 vote simply a fluke compared to 2015. In 2010, Joan Walley's vote share was only 44.3%, and she got 3,400 votes less than Smeeth in 2017.

The message is clear that in 2017, labour managed to rally around it a significant number of progressive voters attracted by its progressive message, and by it being the only prospect of stopping Brexit. In 2019, it had pissed them off because it simply became a yellow nationalist party as a faint replica of the Tories, and at the same time, its progressive economic and social policy was made to look like a ridiculous series of unaffordable bribes, dreamt up each day on the hoof, designed to try to counter the damage that its reactionary nationalist pro-Brexit position had done to it.

Blissex said...

Well, 2017 was a near miss, but in general the cardinal principle of english elections has been proven again: general elections are house price referendums, and "Middle England" voters are very reluctant to fire a government party that keeps property prices pushing up. The converse is I think stronger: "Middle England" voters will always fire a government party that lets property prices fall.

Consider the usual obvious case of electorally toxic Tony Blair: he lost 5 million votes to Labour, but since Gordon Brown was pushing up property prices, and the Conservatives had let them crash in the 1990s, "Middle England" voters did not turn to vote Conservative, but abstained or voted LibDem as a kind of "voting Conservative by any other name".

Boffy said...

Sorry, Blissex, but the facts speak against you.

In the post-war 1940's, house prices soared, as returning troops like my Dad married, and had families and required houses, but Labour won the elections. In the early 1950's, as large scale house building - private and council - took place, house prices fell sharply. My mum and dad bought an old terraced house in 1947, for £1,000, and a few years later they could have bought a brand new semi, in the same village for £250!

House prices went nowhere in the 1950's, and yet the Tories repeatedly won the elections. In the early 1960's, Reggie Maudling became the first Tory Chancellor to try to provoke a house price/asset price bubble. Yet, in 1964 the Tories lost to Wilson. In 1970, the Tory Chancellor Tony Barber was responsible for the "Barber Boom" in which again easy money was used to blow up a property price bubble. But, the Tories lost again to Labour in 1974.

House prices rose along with other inflation in the mid to late 1970's but Labour lost in 1979. In 1990, there was the famous property bubble bust, when house prices fell by 40% in a matter of a few months. They did not recover their pre-crash nominal levels even, until 1996, inflation adjusted levels took longer to recover, yet the Tories won the 1992 election.

House prices in most of the country outside London have also been falling since 2010, last year I bought a house for around 30% less than what its 2010 price stood at, and in fact, for quite a bit less even than the builder had paid for it a few months previous as part of the Part-X deal they had done with the former owner.

Yet, these falling house prices have not stopped the Tories winning since 2010, whilst in the only part of the country where house prices have been rising - London - the Tories are becoming extinct, and its Labour that is gaining strength. In fact, in other metropolitan city areas, where property prices have not fallen so much, its again Labour that is the stronger party, whilst its in the old decaying towns, where property prices are declining most that the Tories and other reactionaries have found support.