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19 June 2017updated 20 Jun 2017 11:23am

Labour risks being blinded by its own – partial – success

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

By Dan Holden

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.

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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. 

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