How Labour messed up in 2019 – and why the Tories are now vulnerable

The general election two years ago was a clash between two agendas. The first was whether Brexit should go ahead; the second was whether Boris Johnson or Jeremy Corbyn should be Prime Minister.

On Brexit, 52% of us voted for a party that backed a People’s Vote – a second referendum. Against this 47% voted for a party that wanted to “get Brexit done”. YouGov polls in the run-up to the election came to the same conclusion by a different route: by 47-41% they found that the public thought we were wrong, not right, to vote to leave the European Union. When the UK finally left the EU the month after the election, it was what only a minority of Britons wanted.

However, by a significantly larger, 15-point, margin voters preferred Johnson (41%) to Jeremy Corbyn (26%) as their Prime Minister. True, one voter in three didn’t care much for either of them, but the balance among those who did take sides proved decisive. In The British General Election of 2019 – just published – some of the most telling passages contain quotes from focus groups in Red Wall seats: “I like the Labour Party, I just don’t like Jeremy Corbyn”; “You need somebody who’s got direction, and he hasn’t got any at all”.

Views like these help to explain why the Conservatives ended up with a majority of 80. Thousands of progressive, internationally-minded voters in key marginal seats disliked Johnson but dreaded the alternative. Tactical voting, which cost the Tories around 30 seats back in 1997, was virtually non-existent 22 years later. The Conservatives benefitted greatly from pro-European voters who feared Corbyn more than they feared Brexit. Remainers who wanted a different result should direct their anger not at Britain’s First Past The Post voting system, but at the Labour Party for choosing Corbyn to lead them.

The specific context of the 2019 election – the two leaders and the over-arching issue – was, then, critical to the outcome and the times we are now living through. However, as the book shows, the result also reflected long-term trends.

At 700 pages, the book is easily the longest of an invaluable series that goes back to 1945. Previous books have generally had a narrative structure, in which dozens of interviews conducted after each election have provided fresh, insider insights into the way the parties fought their campaigns. The always-fascinating statistical analyses were tucked away at the end. In the latest book, we still have the narrative accounts, but the data play a more central role in the story that the authors tell. This is where the longer-term trends emerge.

In 1967, one of Britain’s shrewdest political scientists, Peter Pulzer, wrote: “Class is the basis of British party politics; all else is embellishment and detail”. He was right. In the 1970 general election, Labour’s vote divided: C2DE (working-class) 10 million, ABC1 (middle-class) 2.2 million. Two years ago, the figures were: C2DE 4.1m, ABC1 6.2m. Six million fewer working class votes; four million more middle-class votes.

This switch is partly explained by changes in the Britain’s overall electorate: a two-to-one majority of working-class voters half a century ago, compared with a four-to-three majority of middle-class voters today. When we combine the two trends – the changes in overall class numbers, and the changes in the way people vote – we can see how British elections have been transformed.

Labour has been attracting a smaller proportion of the shrinking working class electorate, and a rising proportion of the expanding middle-class electorate. Which should be good news for Labour – but for the fact that compared with half a century ago, the collapse in Labour’s working class support has been greater than its gains among middle-class voters. Overall, we have reached the point where today’s ABC1 and C2DE voters think alike about politics, and distribute their party loyalties in much the same way. Like Monty Python’s Blue Norwegian, Pulzer’s observation has expired. It is an ex-theory.

Instead, the big electoral divide is age. This can be seen by comparing the results of two nationally similar elections. The Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher defeated Labour in 1987 by 12% (44-32%): the same margin as Johnson’s Conservatives in 2019 (45-33%). But if the national totals were much the same, the generation gap was very different. In 1987, the Tories enjoyed a 2% lead among voters under 35, and a 15% lead among those over 55 – a generation gap of 13 points. The equivalent figures in 2019 were: under 35s, Labour lead 27%; over 55s: Tory lead 39% – not so much a generation gap as a yawning 66-point gulf.  

To this can be added an educational divide that has also emerged in recent years: with graduates tilting more towards Labour than non-graduates.

These are more than statistical oddities. They go to the heart of what happened two years ago, not least the Red Wall towns that used to give Labour big local majorities but which the Conservatives gained in 2019. A narrative has developed which says these towns are electorally distinct: that their voters are different from those in other parts of England, that Labour cannot return to office without winning them back, and that Labour needs to adjust its policies to do so, especially on Brexit.

Plainly, Labour cannot win the next election without gaining dozens of seats from the Tories. Red Wall seats will be high on the must-win list of targets. But it’s not true that the Red Wall seats are electorally distinct, or that soft-pedalling on Brexit is the way to win them back.

The central point is not that the Red Wall seats have become abnormal, but the opposite: they used to abnormal but are not so any more. Until the 1990s, Labour generally enjoyed a large Red Wall bonus. In 1997, Labour won 43% across England, but 64%, taking the average of ten Red Wall seats that now have Conservative MPs. That 21-point bonus had halved to 11 points by 2016 – before the Brexit referendum. It is now just three points. The Brexit saga may well have accelerated the slide in Labour’s Red Wall bonus, but did not cause it.

Instead, the story of the Red Wall is one of a demographic shift towards normality. They used to have big industries, overwhelmingly employing unionised, manual workers – Labour’s core vote. The industries have long gone, and over time historic Labour loyalties have gone with them. Today’s Red Wall towns look similar to the English average, with have slightly below-average numbers of voters who are strongly pro-Labour – notably graduates in the twenties and thirties – and slightly above average numbers of older voters who are now overwhelmingly Tory. The demographic balance of the Red Wall electorates has shifted from strongly pro-Labour to marginally pro-Conservative. The movements over the past two decades, culminating in the 2019 election results, have simply followed these demographic shifts.

In short, Labour doesn’t have a “Red Wall problem” per se. It has “everywhere” problems. If Labour can regain ground nationally among the demographic groups that have the deserted the party, recovery in the Red Wall towns will follow. If the party can’t, a fifth election defeat is inevitable.

As for Brexit, Labour faces a specific challenge. As long as this is framed as a nativist/cultural battle, it has no chance: Labour’s liberal values are bound to suffer – just as they have done in the past when Immigration has dominated the agenda (most famously in 1964 when Labour lost Smethwick, due to a virulently racist campaign locally, while Harold Wilson’s party elsewhere demolished a national 100-seat Tory majority by winning the argument about economic and social reform). Labour needs to turn Brexit into an argument about jobs and prosperity. Given the damage Brexit is doing to the industrial areas that Labour has lost, this is a battle that the party should be able to win, without abandoning the notion that the UK needs a much closer relationship with the EU than Johnson has negotiated.

Nevertheless, the challenge facing Labour should not be underestimated. To win a majority at the next election, Starmer must do better than Tony Blair did in 1997. That year, a 10 per cent swing gave Labour a landslide majority. At the next election, the same swing would leave the party 20 seats short (even more if the election is fought on new boundaries). To win outright, Labour needs a 12 per cent swing. A minority Labour government is a more realistic hope – which would mean relying in some form of understanding with SNP and the Liberal Democrats, or at least their acquiescence.

Is even a minority government feasible? Here is one reason why it is. As noted earlier, Johnson ended the 2019 campaign with 41% saying he would make the best Prime Minister. But on the eve of the 2017 campaign, the equivalent YouGov survey found that Theresa May was actually preferred by slightly more voters, 43%, even after she had fumbled badly during the campaign and lost ground.

In fact Johnson has never been as popular with voters as his supporters seem to think. Today he is the preferred Prime Minister of 27%, (Starmer’s figure is 31%: don’t knows on 38% lead the pack.) When Ipsos MORI asks its long-term tracker question, how people regard the way the Prime Minister is running the country, Johnson’s net rating is a terrible minus 27 (Satisfied 24%, dissatisfied 51%). He might recover: Margaret Thatcher had even worse mid-term ratings before her 1983 and 1987 election victories. But the notion that he has some personal magic that makes him invincible is simply wrong. Labour’s task is hard, but not impossible.

The British General Election of 2019, by Robert ford, Tim Bale, Will Jennings and Paula Surridge, is published by Palgrave Macmillan, £24.99

This review was first published by The New European