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  1. Politics
12 June 2017

What drove Labour’s success? A tough line on immigration, and an appeal to the middle class

... and eight other things we've learned from the 2017 election.

By Helen Lewis

Once I’d finished laughing about the election result – and, believe me, it took a good 20 minutes – it became apparent just how many old certainties had been upended. In the aftermath, many people have asked why journalists didn’t see the hung parliament coming. To which the first answer is: it’s not just journalists who didn’t expect these results. MPs, Momentum activists, almost all pollsters, and the leaders’ office were shocked by the exit poll too. Even Paul Mason, who predicted a hung parliament on Newsnight, did so with his “heart” while his head told him to expect a Tory majority. That doesn’t mean, however, that there is nothing to learn from this election. Here are ten lessons:

1. Campaigns do matter

The assumption among political scientists is that while the media loves campaigns – the gaffes, the manifestos, the debates, the adverts – they only have a minimal effect on the result. That wasn’t true this time. The polls picked up a sharp narrowing of support for the Conservatives after the “dementia tax” fiasco. (Yes, the polls were wrong overall, because they were applying incorrect turnout filters to the raw numbers, but you would still expect them to detect changes from the initial baseline.) The YouGov model, which predicted the final result with eerie accuracy, had the Conservatives winning a 68-seat majority two days before their manifesto was released. So it’s entirely possible that the Conservatives really were heading for a solid victory for much of the campaign, and then binned the turkey in the last few weeks.  

At the same time as the Conservatives were making this colossal error, Jeremy Corbyn was making a series of warm, human appearances on television and radio and at rallies. What’s more, the Tories were running a fear campaign they didn’t really believe – how can you frighten people about the prospect of Corbyn as prime minister if you think the idea is laughable? Back in April,Tory MPs voiced exactly this concern to my colleague George. (Of course, if there is another election, the idea of Prime Minister Corbyn will feel entirely plausible, which will change the dynamic. . .)

2. Immigration is neutralised – for now

In 2015, Ed Miliband alienated many on the left with his “racist mug” (which outlined Labour policies including “controls on immigration”). The vote to leave the EU gave Corbyn an absolute gift, as he went into the election promising the most right-wing Labour policy on immigration in more than 30 years. The subject, which was one of the top concerns last year and in 2015, melted away this year and canvassers from many different types of seats say it was rarely raised on the doorsteps. Both traditional working class Labour voters and younger urban liberals felt the party was in the same place as them. However, as the argument moves on, Corbyn will have to answer a divisive question: by how much would you cut immigration?

3. Labour is getting more middle-class

We already knew that Labour’s membership skews middle-class (ABC1) and graduate, and its voter base is moving the same way. “Labour, founded as the party of the working class, and focused on redistributing resources from the rich to the poor, gained the most ground in 2017 in seats with the largest concentrations of middle-class professionals and the rich,” wrote Rob Ford of the University of Manchester in the Guardian. “The Conservatives, long the party of capital and the middle class, made their largest gains in the poorest seats of England and Wales.” 

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Labour went into the election with a solid offer to the middle class, which tends to benefit disproportionately from universal benefits such as free school meals and no university tuition fees. A look at the Institute for Fiscal Studies’ analysis of the distributional effect of the parties’ policies is also instructive:


Credit: IFS/Twitter

Essentially, Labour gave the rich a good wallop – hence the dip on the right. But their tax and benefit policies only slightly ameliorated the effect of the current plans on the poorest. That orange line is the Lib Dems, who pledged to reverse the freeze to working age benefits: a costly promise, but one which makes their overall offer more progressive than Labour’s. (Corbyn and John McDonnell ummed and ahhed a bit about whether they would reverse the freeze on the campaign trail, but the pledge wasn’t in the comprehensive and fully costed manifesto.)

Personally, I find this a bit icky, coming from a strand within Labour which held up Harriet Harman’s abstention on the welfare bill as an unforgivable sin. To be less cynical, though, you could say that Ed Miliband’s Labour failed because its appeal was too heavily concentrated on the poor and the comfortably charitable, and no one wins an election without a strong offer to the middle class.

4. Diverse, educated voters help Labour

Paula Surridge, a political sociologist at University of Bristol, has compared the constituency results with area demographics. The five constituencies with the biggest increase in turnout? Hackney South and Shoreditch, Ilford South, Hackney North and Stoke Newington, Cambridge and Slough. Three safe Labour seats and two marginals in which it handsomely increased its majority. They are all younger, more educated and more diverse than Britain as a whole. 

5. Jeremy Corbyn can do compromise

Far from being an inflexible socialist relic, Corbyn has largely led his party as a pragmatist. On Nato, he went from calling it a “danger to world peace” six years ago to embracing it; on shoot-to-kill, he went from “not happy” in 2015 to telling an audience in Carlisle after the terror attacks that police should use “whatever force is necessary”. He shrugged off a barbed question from Jeremy Paxman about his republican history, noting that the abolition of the monarchy was not in the Labour manifesto. And he triangulated successfully on Trident, saying in May that although he was personally opposed to nuclear weapons, renewal was still party policy. Add that all up and there is now little in his domestic agenda which his MPs find indefensible.

6. We heard too much from the left behind 

Like pollsters, journalists over-corrected for their past failures. We spoke to too many older non-graduates in traditional working class areas who were angry about politics in general and Corbyn in particular, and not enough ethnic minority and female graduates under 40 living in cities. Canvassers probably did the same, because older people are more likely to be at home, among other things. But while the first group were louder, they were not more representative of Britain as whole.

The emblematic moment of the campaign: the Question Time special, when a series of older white men harangued Corbyn for his stance on the nuclear deterrent, before a young woman asked why everyone was so keen on a nuclear holocaust, anyway. 

7. It’s the revenge of the thirtysomethings

Although many students were enthused by the election (and helped to topple Nick Clegg in Sheffield Hallam), the biggest and most significant switch was among those aged 30-44. According to the YouGov model, 30 per cent of 2015 Tory voters in that age group defected to Labour, mostly Remainers. 

8. The 1970s happened a long time ago, guys

I’m 33. I was born in 1983, and thus emphatically do not remember the 1970s. Neither, really, do people ten years older than me. Thus, stirring invocations about the three-day week and rubbish piling up in Trafalgar Square have literally no emotional resonance with me.

Similarly, I just about remember the time when they had to get someone on telly to dub over Gerry Adams’s voice, but barely. I remember Gerry Adams standing next to Tony Blair, so pictures of him standing next to Jeremy Corbyn, even if you tell me it was shortly after the Brighton Bomb, prompt an intellectual rather than visceral response.

Similarly, most people my age and younger consume their news online. To them, the Daily Mail is their number one source of news on Millie Mackintosh’s holiday plans, not their political lodestar.

9. Online spending is worth less than organic sharing

Labour, and the campaign group Momentum, produced some incredible adverts and graphics during the campaign. Here’s Lily Allen’s Labour video, set to a song most people vaguely know and featuring soft-focus, heartwarming scenes of Britain. It’s designed to produce an emotional reaction – just like Danny Boyle’s 2012 Olympic opening ceremony, this is patriotism for the left. This gives young, socially liberal people who are at ease with diversity a Britain they can be proud of:

Crucially, this advert is also highly shareable. It says something positive about the person who posted it, and people wouldn’t be ashamed to be associated with it, unlike a fear-based attack ad. The Facebook algorithm likes organic shares, and they are far more cost-effective than stumping up for each iteration of a paid advert. 

There are other adverts I’m more sceptical of, including Momentum’s “You voted Tory, Daddy? Why do you hate me?” which I can’t imagine would have swayed many swing voters. Though as fear messages go, it’s funnier than its Tory counterparts.

On a similar note, Snapchat is Corbyn’s Twitter. No, I haven’t gone mad. What I mean is that Twitter is a niche service which nonetheless shapes the conventional political wisdom, because so many politicians, activists and journalists are on there. Similarly, the version of Jeremy Corbyn his team have created on Snapchat – a loveable, train-obsessed, tea-loving eccentric – has had great traction more widely on the internet. 

10. Voters are smarter than everyone assumed

Always end with a crowd-pleaser, eh? The Westminster consensus on Theresa May was that she was “hard work over lunch”. By the end of the campaign, the public agreed, no matter how much CCHQ sold her taciturn nature as quiet resolve.

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