The future of the left since 1884

Under Corbyn’s electoral plan, prospects for victory look bleak

In an interview with Labour List earlier this week, Jeremy Corbyn was asked to comment on the Fabian Society report The Mountain to Climb, which showed that Labour will need to win 106 extra seats and 40 per cent of...


In an interview with Labour List earlier this week, Jeremy Corbyn was asked to comment on the Fabian Society report The Mountain to Climb, which showed that Labour will need to win 106 extra seats and 40 per cent of the vote to gain power in 2020. Our analysis indicates that in the pivotal marginals in England and Wales, 4 out of 5 of the new voters Labour needs will have to be ex-Conservatives. Corbyn suggested our research approached the issue “from the wrong end of the telescope”.

While he conceded Labour will have to “win back people who voted for other parties”, he focused his response on “young people who didn’t register, and didn’t vote”, and “reliable Labour voters who disappeared in to the arms of UKIP or non-voting”. Instead of winning over large numbers of Conservative voters, it seems he wants to chart a path to victory by building a coalition of the left and the disenchanted.

On the surface, this approach seems logical. Only 23.4 per cent of all registered voters voted Conservative in 2015, and the Fabians were among those who argued for this to be part of Labour’s electoral strategy before the last election. But is it plausible in 2020? Let’s look at the three core parts of his argument:

Winning over non-voters

First, consider the goal of attracting more non-voters to the polls. This was already part of Labour’s strategy in the run-up to the 2015 election, and was strongly supported by Fabian research.

But what actually happened in May? Despite a brilliant ground game and an impressive tally of five million conversations, turnout went up nationally by 1 per cent, and the average increase in turnout across Labour’s 106 key seats was just 1.2 per cent. If Labour runs a similarly impressive ground operation in 2020, and manages to increase turnout in our projected target seats by another 1.2 per cent, Fabian Society analysis shows that Labour would only win another 11 seats in England and Wales – even if every single one of the new voters backed Labour.

Of course any good ground game should be backed up by a compelling national campaign, and the logic of the Corbyn-surge is surely that a strong anti-austerity, anti-establishment message, can reach parts of the electorate other politics can’t reach. While many are sceptical, Corbyn can point to the SNP’s success in boosting turnout in Scotland. But even if Labour secured a Scotland-style boost in turnout of 7.3 per cent across the English and Welsh marginals, a maximum of 52 seats could be won, if each new voter backed Labour – still dozens of seats away from a majority.

The Fabian analysis shows that in 2020, just boosting turnout won’t be enough for a Labour victory.

Encouraging young people to the polls

Seizing on the enthusiasm of some young people for leadership campaign, Corbyn also claims that young people who don’t vote now would be much more likely to vote for him. The last election saw an unprecedented focus on young people, particularly through the use of social media, and Labour did see support amongst young people surge. It is clear that Corbyn is gathering enthusiasm amongst the young, and of course we should be doing everything we can to encourage them to get to the polls.

But the last election underlined the difficult reality – comparatively few young people actually vote. According to Ipsos-MORI, in 2015 it was just 43 per cent. This is in contrast to the 78 per cent of over 65s who did head to the ballot box – and there are also many more pensioners than young people. Amongst these older voters, Labour’s support dropped from 31 points to 23, arguably the key reason Labour lost.

Squeezing anti-Tory votes

Before the last election a strategy of uniting left-leaning voters was a plausible one, and Labour was able to benefit from the collapse of the Liberal Democrats. But overall the strategy failed and the electoral landscape now looks very different.

At this year’s election the Liberal Democrats and the Greens together won only 12 per cent of the UK vote, and slightly less in the marginal seats Labour now needs to win. In the 94 seats we project Labour has to win in England and Wales, only 29 would be won even if Labour secured every single one of the Green and Liberal Democrat votes from 2015. Achieving a huge boost in turnout and winning over almost all left-leaning voters would still not be enough for a Labour victory.

For example, our calculations show that Labour would not win sufficient marginal seats to form a government even in the highly implausible scenario of Labour, first, achieving a Scotland style surge in turnout (with every extra voter choosing Labour) and, second, winning over every single person who voted Green or Liberal Democrat in 2015.

Finally, Corbyn points to UKIP, who secured 12.6 per cent of the vote, arguing Labour needs to win back disillusioned former supporters. He’s right, but a strategy reliant on winning back these voters is unlikely to be decisive in Labour-Conservative marginals because Labour and the Tories are likely to benefit equally from any UKIP collapse. Jon Cruddas’ recent research is also relevant here, showing that the voters Labour has lost to UKIP are more likely to be socially conservative.

Of course it is not possible to predict anything with certainty, but the prospects for a strategy based on boosting turnout, attracting young people and uniting left-leaning voters seem bleak. And there is another point that must be made. For every non-voter or left-voter Labour attracts, the risk is that the party will lose as many to the Conservatives at the centre. Labour wrongly assumed at the last election that it could rely on people who voted for the party in 2010 to do so again. In fact it lost votes to all the other parties, most significantly, an estimated two percentage points of our support to the Conservatives.

The Fabian analysis has looked at Labour’s electoral mountain to climb from both ends of the telescope. Any strategy to win the next election will require Labour winning over a lot of people who voted Tory in 2015. That is a fact all the leadership candidates must come to terms with.

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