The General Election 2017: What happened and why?

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As someone who gives a somewhat greater credibility to polls than many, I was not among those of the true faith who never doubted that Labour would do well, and indeed was, until late April, in despair as polls had consistently for about five months indicated a Tory landslide, for which the poor local election results on May 4th were a harbinger. But then the first of many rules was broken (Polls do not move much during campaigns). They moved enormously during the last four weeks, so that on the eve of the election they indicated that May would not do much better than before and that Labour would get about 35%, better than Miliband or Brown and as good as Blair in 2005, thus consolidating Corbyn’s position.

As it was we did better than that, mainly because younger people significantly increased their vote, predicted by only a minority of pollsters. But those of the true faith on the Labour right refused to accept, despite these polls, that the result would be anything but disastrous, as Corbyn had breached Blair Rule One (Labour must always pitch to the Blair-defined centre). In an excellent article in Prospect Steve Richards rubbishes the Blairite notion of the centre, which Labour’s new priorities, as spelt out in its manifesto, seem to have successfully replaced.

I should however say that the accusation by some on the left that officials were refusing to redirect resources to Tory marginals that Labour might win is somewhat unfair. At the beginning of the campaign it was quite right to adopt a defensive strategy, and it was only in the last two weeks that the position was reversed, although some officials clearly refused to recognise that. But it wasn’t clear cut, and we did lose seats to the Tories.

But what was amazing about the result was the apparent paradoxes that it threw up. Despite rightly regarded as having failed, May’s election saw the biggest Tory vote as a percentage of those who voted since 1983. Indeed for Labour, if you count the 2001 result as the same (it was 0.7% higher) it was, apart from 1997, the best result since 1970! Those over 55 and the working class, defined as groups C2, D and E, actually swung to the Tories. Labour did as well as it did through the votes of those under 45 and the middle classes, defined as groups A, B and C1. But clearly the election was in part about Brexit, which helps to explain working class and older voters’ ‘Leave’ support for the Tories, and middle class and younger voters ‘Remain’ support for Labour, although not opposing the leave decision enabled some previous UKIP voters to switch back to Labour and existing Labour Leave voters to remain with Labour.

Given May’s previous popularity it is understandable that that she was seen as the key to the Tory campaign, but she was obviously unsuitable for fronting a campaign unless she was kept at a distance, a tactic that only made her seem robotic and frightened of debate. Her policy contortions over social care only made things worse. Corbyn, by contrast, appeared statesmanlike and with gravitas, particularly in his responses to the terrorist attacks. The Tory campaign was nowhere more inept than in their failure to cost their manifesto, meaning that they were in no position to question Labour’s manifesto. And it was clear that social media played an important part, which needs researching more. Labour certainly had more bodies on the ground canvassing, and Momentum would appear to have played a useful role here, but there was little sign of mass participation by the hugely increased and pro-Corbyn membership.

So where does Labour head now. It seems almost unbelievable, but two polls are predicting what would probably be a Labour victory at another general election, and with the instability of both May’s position and that of the coalition, particularly regarding the Brexit negotiations, we must obviously remain on election alert. (And decide what we would do in the event of a run on the pound following a Labour victory).

There are a number of issues that need consideration. Brexit is arguably the most urgent, as it becomes increasingly clear that remaining within the single market is likely to be the only acceptable form of soft Brexit, and that any attempt to promote a hard ‘left’ Brexit will divide the party, the majority of whose members and supporters are Remainers, and even in the unlikely event of being carried would end any prospect of winning an election, apart from such a policy being bound to fail anyway. I think it is likely that we will end up not leaving the EU, with a further referendum confirming that, as the consequences of a hard Brexit become increasingly apparent, but until then we should respect the decision to leave, which has helped to boost our vote.

On policy development generally it is not clear, to me at least, where we are. Clearly, in the light of a likely election soon the manifesto must be sustained in its present form, although hopefully refined and deepened, with background papers elaborating on some areas. I am bound to say that I was pleasantly surprised at the manifesto, given the absence of much policy development in the preceding two years, but although its general pitch was right and in tune with the mood that delivered labour its vote, it remains ragged and undeveloped, and much work needs to go into a Mark 2 for conference. At the same time we are in the middle of the second year of the rolling development through the Policy Commissions, and these two have to somehow be married up. There are many policy areas that need development, but it is crucial, in the light of the Tory proposal and withdrawal on social care, that Labour comes up with a credible policy on this.

It would be a mistake to risk division at conference by reintroducing the Trident debate this year. However, we should certainly beef up our proposals on the disarmament initiatives we are committed to.

The voting support for the Tories by older people, although in part reflecting Brexit, is completely unjustifiable, and we should launch a major campaign aimed at winning back their support.

Finally, we must prevent the divisions within the party that would be engendered by deselections in significant numbers. That is not to say that none should take place, but those who wish to rid the PLP of all MPs who voted no confidence in JC last year are saying goodbye to any hope of winning an election in the near future. The election has changed things fundamentally. The left has completely won on the issue of electability, both in terms of policy and JC as leader. Much humble pie has been eaten. There has been no echo of the ridiculous comments from Chris Leslie. Many MPs will want to play their part in something they thought couldn’t happen. They should be welcomed back. For those that can’t, well, Labour remains a ‘broad church’, but it must be made quite clear that the levels of abuse of the leadership perpetrated by some over the last two years can no longer be tolerated.

A related issue is the normal trigger ballot reselection, but also selection in seats not held, as in all cases these were imposed by the NEC, and CLPs must be given a chance to run proper selections for them. It is now probably too late to attempt this before conference, but it should take place over the winter.

Some useful links on the election results

Ipsos-Mori

YouGov

House of Commons Fact Sheet

 

This article first appeared on Left Futures

Labour, The Election and The Polls

There is a tendency on the left to dismiss opinion polls, partly, and fairly, because they have proved to be significantly inaccurate in the two most important votes of the last two years, the 2015 election and the 2016 EU Referendum, and partly, and usually misguidedly, that what they tell us can always be overcome. That is not to say that it can’t, and as Jeremy Corbyn (JC)  has said we should not treat the election as a ‘foregone conclusion’, but polls should be treated seriously as they are normally not too far from the truth.

Labour’s position in the polls now is worse than at any time since 1983 for an opposition party, and JC’s personal rating as leader likewise. How and why did this happen? During his first period as leader Labour averaged about 31/32, only just behind the Tories on 33/34. Although there was much criticism the position pre referendum and coup was not unreasonable, with Labour recouping its six point deficit in the 2015 election by the 2016 elections. However, The gap widened considerably in the post referendum period, with Labour averaging 26 for most of this period, with the Tories averaging 41. Reasons are the coup, with voters being well aware that JC is opposed by three quarters of his MPs, the Brexit vote which inevitably meant that Labour had to adopt a ‘facing both ways’ position, and the continued failure to develop policy and divisions and departures among his staff and within  Momentum. The Lib-Dems increased their vote from about 8 up to December, to about 10 since. The UKIP vote has declined from about 12 to February to about 10 since. 

Labour Remain voters have decamped in large numbers to the Lib-Dems, Leave voters to UKIP and some thence to the Tories, but many directly to the Tories. We cannot be precise about what this would mean, as swings vary between constituencies and regions, but it is reasonable to assume, as Electoral Calculus have done, that Labour could lose up to 50 seats, taking them well below 200, a post war low. It is not likely to fall much beyond this, as many Labour seats still remain relatively safe.

But it could be a much better result than this. There are a number of actual or potential factors that could prove significant. The first is that May, as one journalist memorably put it, has ‘trashed her brand’. She has been transformed from the determined but compassionate vicar’s daughter with an absolute commitment to the country’s interests, to just another two faced politician who is prepared to alter course to suit her own (in particular) and her party’s interests, but is clearly quite happy to continue down a right wing road that completely belies her professed concern for the less well off. 

At least Thatcher never pretended that she was anything other than profoundly reactionary. But she seems to share with Thatcher an authoritarian streak that implies that the normal democratic processes are an unnecessary obstruction. And no, she is not going to lower herself by debating with other party leaders on TV. She is the leader, that should be enough. The ‘unmasking’ of May is  important, and is likely to lose her votes, although how many remains to be seen.

The second is that while Tory support reflects Brexit and corresponding vote transfers from Labour and UKIP, the run-up to the election will see a more widespread reflection on political problems and their possible solutions than is normally the case, and if Labour promotes this with an attractive, coherent and costed manifesto it could win back some of those who have transferred their vote to the Tories over Brexit, as they consider whether Labour is more likely to represent their interests on most other matters, and indeed on Brexit, given their seven year record of abject failure.

The third is  tactical voting. It was right to rule out any formal co-operation with other parties, which would have mainly meant the Lib-Dems, as the degree of mutual antagonism at local level would have ruled out a mass transfer of votes based on one party not standing in favour of the other. However, Compass are right to point out that there are thirty Tory seats that could be susceptible to an agreement, and hopefully some of these will fall on the basis of DIY tactical voting.

The fourth is a very large membership, much more so than for any other party, most of whom are by definition JC supporters, and who constitute a formidable potential campaigning force. However, and any activist will know this, most of them have not shown any inclination to be active, either in the run up to the coming local elections or in last year’s May elections. It has to be spelt out to this largely passive membership that their active involvement in the forthcoming campaign could be crucial not only to Labour’s electoral performance but also to JC’s continuation as leader.

Peter Rowlands

May 2017.

By Election Results And What They Tell Us

In a previous article I looked at the polls during Corbyn’s period as leader, noting the deterioration in the period post the referendum/coup compared to that preceding it. I also noted that actual election results up to and including May 2016 were not bad, and for the parliamentary by-elections and mayoral elections were very good. 

Let us now have a look at the actual results since the referendum/coup in late June. There have been only by- elections during this period, four parliamentary with two pending, and many council by-elections.

There is no point in considering the Batley and Spen by-election, as none of the other major parties contested it out of respect for the murdered Jo Cox, so it cannot tell us anything, except rather sadly demonstrating that despite the circumstances of the by-election some 2,000 voters were prepared to vote for  an unsavoury bunch of candidates from the far right.

However the other by-election fought on that day, October 20th, at Witney, Cameron’s seat , was significant in that it saw a substantial swing from the Tories, who lost a quarter of their vote, to the Lib-Dems, who trebled their’s. The Labour vote was marginally down, but the UKIP vote collapsed, in part a reflection of their  leadership crisis, but also perhaps  a move from them back to May’s new Brexit  party. This was a Remain seat, but fairly marginally so, at an estimated 54%.

It  is clear that this vote represented a switch, or at least a one off protest vote( this distinction is not unimportant ) by Tory Remainers to the Lib-Dems along with a few Labour and Green Remainers, but despite their losses to the Lib-Dems the Tories would appear to have avoided what might have been an even worse showing by some movement back to them from UKIP.

But  the Lib-Dems had a much greater treat in store six weeks later on December 1st, when they  won the Richmond Park by-election.This was ostensibly about the decision to go ahead with a third runway at Heathrow, which the sitting Tory, Zac Goldsmith, had previously committed himself to oppose by standing down and fighting as an independent.  However, as none of the other candidates had alternative views, and neither the Tories, Greens or UKIP stood,  the election effectively became a n EU Remain/ Leave contest, with a sub plot of revenge against Goldsmith  for what was widely perceived as a racist campaign by him against Sadiq Khan in the election for the London Mayor. Unlike Witney, there was a strong possibility of defeating Goldsmith, in what was a very strongly Remain constituency, (72%), but probably only by Labour voters voting tactically for the Lib-Dem candidate.This is what happened, with the Labour vote turning out to be smaller than the number of Labour members in the constituency! ( This should come as no surprise. There is a long history there of tactical voting by Labour for the Lib-Dem to keep the Tory out.)

A week later the Sleaford and Hykeham by-election, unlike the other two a predominantly Leave seat, ( 60%), accounting for the Tories retaining virtually all their vote, and UKIP only slightly down( Nuttall had just  been elected as the new leader), but with a heavy 40% loss of the Labour share of the vote to a Lib-Dem share that almost doubled.

It is also worth looking at the council by-elections that have taken place. These are less reliable as an indication of main party support, as local factors and independents play a larger role, but the trends are clear. The Tories, despite the May surge, are still losing slightly, Labour and UKIP are marginally ahead, but the Lib-Dems have increased their vote share by a substantial margin of about  5%, consistent with the parliamentary by-elections and the polls. Labour has done best in London, the West Midlands and the North West.

So what conclusions can we draw from all this? Basically, that there is a substantial Tory and to a lesser extent Labour Remain vote that is prepared to vote tactically for the Lib-Dems over this issue in a by-election, with some of that vote permanently transferring to them. This would explain why the Lib-Dems have not risen hugely in the polls, as the by-elections would indicate, but they have certainly grown in support, from about 7% to 9%,or about a third. However, this is from a very low base, and further growth is dependent on the complex politics of Brexit which are difficult to foresee, to say the least. They obviously hope to put themselves at the head of a Remain campaign, which Labour, because of the position it has taken, correctly in my view, cannot do. However, these are early days. If  the predicted dire economic consequences of Brexit start to become apparent then those who deserted Labour for UKIP or the Tories will probably return from whence they came rather than move to the  Lib-Dems.

But yes, for the reasons given all the results for Labour were dire, much more so than even the poor position in the polls would indicate,  particularly at Sleaford, because of its strong Leave vote.

I am writing this less than a week before the two crucial by-elections at Copeland and Stoke. They were both strong Leave seats (60% and 65% respectively) which does not bode well, but the appeal for support in seats that Labour is defending, unlike the previous by-elections, could be a factor,  coupled with the impossibility of the Lib-Dems making much impression in either seat. Local campaign factors could be important as well. Nuttall in Stoke seems to be in serious difficulties over Hillsborough,  and the Tories over the NHS in Copeland.Let us hope that these are exploited to the full.

Peter Rowlands
February 2017

Labour, Corbyn and the Polls

Pollsters in the UK do not have a very good standing, having got the two most important voting tests of the last two years, the 2015 election and the 2016 EU referendum, wrong by significant margins. Nevertheless, they are collectively not completely at variance with the results, and an average of the results of polls over a period of time is probably a fair indication of the actual inclination of voters towards the various parties.

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