Five crucially important but frequently ignored facts about the 2019 election

Labour’s biggest problem was not losing Leavers, it was losing Remainers

December 16, 2019
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn on election day. Photo:  Ik Aldama/DPA/PA Images
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn on election day. Photo: Ik Aldama/DPA/PA Images

Here are five take-aways, beyond the bleeding obvious, from last week’s election.

  1. If you discount London, Britain’s major cities will send more Scottish nationalists than Conservatives to Westminster.
It’s worth noting where the Tories made little headway, not just where they made lots. The great majority of their gains were in small and medium-sized towns. Britain has 18 cities outside London with three or more constituencies. In total, they elect 73 MPs. In the new parliament, 53 will be Labour, 11 SNP, eight Conservative and one Liberal Democrat. There will still be no Tory MPs from Bradford, Bristol, Cardiff, Coventry, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Hull, Leeds, Leicester, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham or Sheffield.

Nor did the Tories advance in London. They gained two seats and lost two, and still have just 21 of the capital’s 73 MPs. When the Conservatives last won a big national victory in 1987, they had more than two-thirds of London’s MPs.
  1. Labour’s heartland voters were deserting the party long before Brexit.
Labour was already on the slide before Jeremy Corbyn became party leader and the UK voted to leave the EU. Consider some of the heartland seats that Labour lost last week. Between 2005 and 2015, Labour’s vote share fell by 14 percentage points in Bolsover, 12 in Sedgefield, 10 in Don Valley, nine in Bishop Auckland and eight in Rother Valley.

In the north east and east midlands, the two regions where Labour’s support has fallen most since 2005, three-quarters of the 8.1 point fall had taken place by 2015 in the north east—and all of the 7.3 point drop in the east midlands, where Labour’s vote share was virtually the same in 2015 and 2019. Labour’s sharp but, in the event, temporary rise in support in 2017 meant that last week’s results generated some huge 2017-19 swings. They obscured Labour’s long-term decline in its heartlands.
  1. The Conservatives’ victory among the working class was greater than among the middle class.
This was not the first election in which more working class voters backed the Tories rather than Labour. They did so in 1983—the year of Margaret Thatcher’s landslide victory—and in 2017. But the gap was just two points in both elections. This time there was 15-point gulf: Conservative 48 per cent, Labour 33 per cent. The Tory lead among middle-class voters was less: 12 points.

However, as with Labour’s heartland decline, last week’s election accelerated a long-term trend. In 1970, when Edward Heath led the Tories back to government, the Conservatives enjoyed a 45-point lead among middle-class voters, while Labour led by 22 per cent among working-class voters.  Combining the two figures, the “class gap” was 67 points (45 plus 22).

Nine years later, when Thatcher came to power, the class gap had fallen to 47 points: a middle class Con lead of 36 per cent, compared with a working-class Lab lead of 11 per cent. The class gap slipped to 28 points in Tony Blair’s 1997 landslide and 14 points when David Cameron secured his overall majority in 2015. Last week the class gap was minus three: it had gone into reverse.

Once again, an historical moment in the class structure of British politics followed decades of steady, and cumulatively huge, social and political change.
  1. Labour/Leave voters were just as loyal to their party as Conservative/Remain voters were to theirs.
In the 2017 election, Labour attracted the votes of around four million people who voted Leave in the 2016 Brexit referendum—and the Tories attracted a similar number of Remain voters. The notion that Labour had a particularly tough time last week keeping its Leave voters is wrong. Lord Ashcroft conducted an election-day survey of 13,000 people after they had voted. This found that 64 per cent of 2017 Labour Leavers stayed loyal to their party—and a virtually identical proportion of Conservative Remainers, 66 per cent, stayed loyal to theirs, despite the party fighting on an uncompromising platform of “Get Brexit done.”

These virtually identical loyalty rates suggest that Labour’s fence-sitting stance on Brexit did it little good; but they do not explain why the Conservatives won the election. Two significant differences were these:

- Just eight per cent of 2017 Conservative Leavers switched to another party this time. The defection rate among Labour Remainers was twice as high: 16 per cent.

- Two-thirds of those Labour Leavers who did defect switched straight to the Tories. In contrast, fewer than one in four of defecting Tory Remainers voted Labour this time; most voted Lib Dem.

Contrary to what Corbyn has been saying since the election, Labour’s main Brexit-specific problem was its failure to retain the support of enough of its own Remainers—and to attract the votes of enough of those Tory Remainers who were willing to defect.
  1. Tactical voting needs a common vision, not just a common enemy.
For anti-Conservatives, one of the great disappointments last week was the failure almost everywhere of tactical voting to deliver more anti-Brexit MPs.

There were secondary factors, such as the proliferation of tactical voting websites, which did not always agree on their advice and sometimes changed their recommendations.

The main factors, though, were political rather than organisational. Liberal Democrat challengers suffered from the weakness of the party’s national campaign. Instead of edging up, as its poll rating used to do regularly as election day approached, the party’s support slipped down. Candidates in its target seats were unable to float higher on a tide of national approval.

Labour challengers faced a different problem. Deltapoll’s surveys in key constituencies found that many Lib Dem supporters were reluctant to cast a tactical vote for Labour. They were torn between their opposition to a Tory Brexit and their fear of a Corbyn government.

The one election in which tactical voting made a significant difference was in 1997, when the Tories lost at least 30 seats they might otherwise have held. That was the election in which Labour and the Lib Dems were both led by popular politicians with centre-left visions for Britain’s future which were not identical but broadly similar. Lib Dem supporters could vote for Blair’s party with enthusiasm; likewise Labour supporters for Paddy Ashdown’s party.

Tactical voting could return, and matter, at the next election. But it will need a political meeting of minds, not just impressive websites, large-scale opinion polls and smart “MRP” algorithms.