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Labour risks being blinded by its own – partial – success

The party's biggest gains were in areas where it didn’t need them.

Fulfilling his quasi-constitutional role, John Curtice and his 2017 general election exit poll sent shockwaves through Westminster.

While the blood pressure of candidates, pollsters and journalists rose, the Labour party had reason to celebrate.

Despite failing in its ultimate goal – to win - it goes without saying that the Labour Party had a relatively good election. It performed well above expectations, by all accounts ran a good campaign and gained seats from the Conservatives. The party’s jubilation, however, should not hide the fact that Labour failed to address underlying issues which prevent it from re-entering government.

Labour’s biggest gains were in areas where it didn’t need them. Reflecting Ed Miliband’s performance in 2015, this year the party managed to stack up votes in areas where they made no difference.

To have won the election decisively, Labour needed to win more than 100 new seats, including at least 92 from the Conservatives. Labour won only 28 seats from them.

And these seats are not guaranteed to be Labour again, and therefore do not mark a decisive improvement in Labour’s performance. Of the 100 seats with the greatest improvements in Labour’s vote share since 2015, only seven were in seats gained from the Conservatives, compared to 10 of the top 100 gains in 2015.

Despite being a consciously traditional left-wing platform, Labour’s problem with attracting its core vote, the working class, continued.

Skilled manual and clerical workers split between the Tories and Labour, and only unskilled manual workers and higher management workers were more obviously aligned to either of the big parties.

A lot of Labour’s success came from constituencies with high proportions of graduates and from increases in turnout in ethnically diverse, cosmopolitan areas.

Despite Ukip’s almost complete electoral collapse in the past two years, Labour only managed to secure around a fifth of 2015 Ukip voters, with the lion’s share going to the Conservatives.

If Labour fails to recapture this audience, and instead continues to be successful primarily with graduates, its chances of forming the next government will be hollowed out.

It is patently obvious, and widely accepted, that age has overtaken class as the main divide in contemporary British politics.

Labour’s outperforming of expectation largely appears to be due to increased turnout among the young, including those in their thirties, while the Conservatives have retained the support of the retired and soon to be retired.

While Labour benefited from the votes of those aged 30-44, the party cannot be complacent about its newfound success outside of the 18-24 age bracket. ComRes research has shown that adults in the middle of society’s age range are most likely to favour a new centre-ground political party (53 per cent of 35-44 year olds are in favour of this). Labour runs the risk that this age bracket may be taken from under their nose by a dynamic and renewed Liberal Democrat party.

Equally, despite what is universally described as a muddled and embarrassing U-turn on social care funding, Labour missed its great opportunity to outflank Theresa May and the Conservatives among older voters.

Despite pledges on social care and the state pension triple-lock, Labour did not manage to cut through with this key voting bloc. Labour’s message to this group clearly needs to reach beyond retail policy offers and inspire trust among retirees.

Of course, a two-point swing is nothing to be sniffed at. But, lest we forget, this is less than the swing Neil Kinnock managed in 1992, which still left him disappointed in his pursuit of the keys to 10 Downing Street.

The successes of 8 June threaten to blind the party into complacency, and embedding a "one last heave approach" which fails to take into account the underlying issues which it needs to address. With another election within 12 months on the cards, Labour must move fast to address these issues or face crushing disappointment when John Curtice’s next exit poll drops. 

Dan Holden leads on political research at ComRes. He tweets @DanSHolden.

Photo: Getty
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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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