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Jeremy Corbyn's 2017 performance was better than you think

The electoral map after 2015 was forbidding and hostile to Labour. The 2017 one, however, is marked by Conservative and SNP vulnerability. 

What’s the balance of forces following the 2017 election, and what do the parties need to do to win power next time?

At the 2015 election, the Conservative position in parliament was of a small majority and just 37 per cent of the vote. However, in the far more important respect as far as British politics goes – seats, and vote share in those seats – David Cameron had created a hegemonic position for his party. There were precious few seats with small majorities and many seats the party had first gained in 2010 were in possession of majorities you’d expect to find in Tory fortresses. Even to become the largest party, Labour needed a swing of 5.4 per cent.

The position was so bleak that I likened the 2015 result to 1983 – an election which realistically wrote off the 1987 contest before it had started.

After Labour’s forward advance in 2017, the picture is very different: from astonishing Conservative strength to acute Tory fragility.

For the Conservatives, the number to fear is nine: that’s how many seats they would have to lose to be unable to do a deal with the Democratic Unionist Party, even if that party won every seat in Northern Ireland. (That is in of itself not going to happen, but we need not let that detain us at this point.)

The bad news is that a mere one-point swing from the Conservatives to Labour would see them lose 15 seats: Southampton Itchen, Pudsey, Hastings and Rye, Chipping Barnet, Thurrock, Preseli Pembrokeshire, Calder Valley, Norwich North, Broxtowe, Stoke-on-Trent South, Telford, Bolton West, Aberconwy, Northampton North and Hendon. In addition, a further 21 seats would fall to Labour if they can replicate their 2017 swing, which was in of itself only their fifth-best since 1945.

A 5.4 per cent swing now would mean a Labour majority of one, even assuming no gains in Scotland. The reality is that the SNP position is so fragile that even in the event that Labour were to gain no votes directly from the Scottish nationalists, a 5.4 per cent swing from Tory to Labour north of the border would add an extra 14 seats to the Labour tally – meaning that a 5.4 per cent swing would likely secure a Labour majority of 28.

To put the ease of Labour’s challenge into perspective: if they replicated any of the swings from Tory to Labour while they have been in opposition since 1964, they will be in office, albeit in some kind of ragbag coalition.

In order to not emerge as the governing party after the next election, Labour would have to be the worst-performing opposition since 1959 and to do worse than any party has done after losing three elections in a row ever. The contrast with the post-2015 picture, when Labour needed to equal its 1997 swing just to get a majority of one, speaks for itself.

As for the Liberal Democrats, their 2017 election result is rather like Labour’s 2015 one: it's a lot more dreadful than it looks at first glance. In fact, at first, the 2017 election looks like a great success: up from eight seats they won in 2015 to 12. Look a little longer, however, and the full horror of their position becomes clear.

There are just 39 seats in which the party is second. In better news, 28 of those are against the Conservatives and just seven are against Labour, while three are against the SNP and one is against Plaid Cymru. It always makes the Liberal Democrats’ life easier if it is clear which target they are better off attacking.

In addition, in only two of the seats where the Liberal Democrats are second to Labour are they less than 10,000 votes adrift: in Sheffield Hallam, where they trail by 2,125 votes, and Leeds North West, where they are 4,224 votes behind. But to make matters worse, both those seats were Liberal Democrat-held until 2017. A large chunk of the Liberal Democrat vote is reliant on the personal popularity of the sitting MP, and there is next to no chance that Nick Clegg will stand again in Sheffield Hallam, though there is some possibility that Greg Mulholland will re-fight Leeds North West.

The silver lining is, yes, that this means there is no tactical headache about whether to attack the Tories or Labour, but is comes with a hefty cloud.

The Conservative-Liberal battleground is more fertile than the Labour-Liberal one, but not a lot more. In 15 of the 28, they are second, but they have to close a gap of more than 10,000 votes to take the seat. In just five of the seats do they need to close a gap of less than 5,000 votes, traditionally the level at which a seat is considered winnable by a rival party. In Montgomeryshire, which the party held at every election from 1906 to 2010 with the exception of 1979, they are 9,285 votes behind – closer to Labour in third place than they are to the Tories in first.

Realistically there are ten seats, five currently held by the Conservatives,  two apiece by Labour and the SNP, and one by Plaid Cymru, that the Liberal Democrats can realistically hope to gain at the next election.

Gaining ten seats would be a great night for the Liberal Democrats by anyone’s standards, but the worse news is that once you go beyond that ten, the picture is bleak in the remaining 29 seats where they are second, and even worse elsewhere. They have fallen away even in areas of Liberal Democrat strength. Watford is probably the most dispiriting example for the party: they hold the mayoralty and the majority of seats on the council, but are an astonishingly poor third, a little under 20,000 votes behind second-placed Labour, and 22,000 votes behind the triumphant Conservatives.

In Inverness and Brent Central, both Liberal Democrat-held until 2015, they are fourth. In Southport, which they held until 2017, they are third, almost 3,000 votes behind Labour in second and close to 6,000 votes behind the Conservatives. And these are representative, rather than particularly awful snapshots of the Liberal Democrat position in the country.

Another party who have a worse electoral map than the headline result might suggest are the SNP. They not only lost seats but have gone from being a party of super-majorities to one that has just four seats – Kilmarnock and Loudoun, Dundee West, Dundee East, Ross Skye and Lochaber – with majorities over 5,000, and none with a majority over 7,000.

More troubling for them is that the pattern in both the 2016 Scottish elections and the 2017 general election was of increasingly effective tactical voting to defeat the SNP. It wasn’t clear in a lot of seats which the best way to kick the SNP was – it will be much easier for anti-nationalist voters to make that calculation next time. In addition, even if they hold on to their votes, they are intensely vulnerable if there is any kind of Conservative to Labour swing or vice versa.

And here, it is once again, Labour, who are the best-placed to benefit.

That’s the major story of the battleground in 2022: one in which the Liberal Democrats have a great deal of work to do, and the Conservatives and SNP are both highly vulnerable given they will be 12 and 15 years in office at the time of the next election. Meanwhile, Labour face an electoral map that makes them, on paper at least, the heavy favourites next time. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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Thatcher’s long shadow: has the “miserablist” left exaggerated her legacy?

A new book argues that Britain is far from the “neoliberal nightmare” decried by Corbynites.

In the archives of Newsweek magazine is a 2,000-word article credited to Margaret Thatcher, published in April 1992, and headlined “Don’t undo my work”. It is an amazing thing: a vulgar rendering of the basic argument of Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man, mixed with the pain of a once-powerful politician who now had precious little to do with her time, and outrage at the European Union’s Treaty of Maastricht. “I set out to destroy socialism because I felt it was at odds with the character of the people,” she wrote. “We were the first country in the world to roll back the frontiers of socialism, then roll forward the frontiers of freedom. We reclaimed our heritage.” In its final flourish, she refers to herself in the third person: “Thatcherism will live. It will live long after Thatcher has died, because we had the courage to restore the great principles and put them into practice, in keeping with the character of the people and the place of this country in the world.”

Up – or down – in the hereafter, what must she make of the strange point reached by the country she once ruled? Britain’s exit from the EU is an essentially Thatcherite project, which may yet result in the kind of laissez-faire dystopia she and her followers always wanted. But at the same time, we have seen something they thought they had ruled out for ever: the revival of an unapologetically socialist Labour Party, which is seemingly backed by a convincing majority of people under 40, and is possibly on the verge of taking power. Meanwhile, no end of wider developments – from the crises of such outsourcing giants as Carillion and Capita to mounting public unease about corporate tax avoidance – suggest that a sea-change is coming. Perhaps, in the midst of Brexit’s mess, we might be starting to wake up from what some people see as the 40-year nightmare of neoliberalism.

But what if Britain was never that neo-liberal, and there was not much of a nightmare in the first place? This is the argument attempted by Andrew Hindmoor, a professor of politics at Sheffield University. He wants to discredit an oft-told story: that “Margaret Thatcher’s election in 1979 marked the start of a still-continuing fall from political grace”, manifested in “dizzying levels of inequality, social decay [and]  rampant individualism”, and the surrender to free-market ideology of the Blair-Brown governments.

His contention is that “neoliberalism has had a surprisingly limited impact on our collective understandings of the world around us” – and that the realities of inequality, privatisation, and the shrinking of the state have not turned out to be as awful as some people think. He wants to nudge Corbynite readers away from the idea that the New Labour era represented a long period of political drought. Britain, in his reading, has obvious problems but is hardly the scene of a disaster – and the people he maligns as left-wing “miserablists” ought to recognise it.

At a time when polarised argument on social media has obscured the fact that politics is usually cast in shades of grey, his nuanced case ought to be welcome. Indeed, as a trigger for thinking deeply about what has happened in and to this country – particularly since the mid-1990s – the book just about does its job. Part of its argument is based on a familiar script, and a list of (mostly) undeniable New Labour achievements: “significant public expenditure increases, the introduction of tax credits, a minimum wage, devolution, and freedom of information”.

Hindmoor also eloquently sets out evidence that public opinion, in so far as it is measured by pollsters and academic researchers, is now more socially liberal than it has ever been, and also full of the kind of left-of-centre thinking (redistribution of wealth, nationalised utilities) that Thatcher thought she had expunged. From time to time, all this skirts close to the blindingly obvious, but it’s at least built on solid facts about the country’s recent history. Hindmoor’s problem comes when he pushes his arguments into much more contentious areas, and everything threatens to unravel.

Whether his points are always sincere or sometimes part of an academic thought experiment is unclear. Among his other arguments, he underplays the severity of post-2010 austerity by citing both slight increases in real terms in overall public spending, and the Conservatives’ failure to convincingly cut the deficit. But neither detracts from millions of people’s experience of cuts, whether through the NHS crisis or the savaging of services provided by local councils – something he half-acknowledges before dropping a real clanger. “The costs of austerity have not been loaded on to the poorest and most vulnerable,” he writes, which is most of the way to being absurd.

Elsewhere, Hindmoor claims that in education policy, “academisation [sic] is not a form of privatisation”, on the basis that schools run by independent trusts are funded by government and subject to Ofsted inspections. He apparently refuses to entertain the idea that if schools are snatched away from elected local authorities and put in the unaccountable hands of often questionable organisations (some of which are now in grave financial difficulties), something significant has happened. In an equally flimsy treatment of the health service, he says that there should be an argument “whether the contracting out of NHS services to private companies is… tantamount to privatisation”, which is some logical somersault to attempt. And he has almost nothing to say about what has happened to the benefits system, in which a once collectivist, benign set of institutions and arrangements has been replaced by a machine that represents individualism – or, if you prefer, neoliberalism – at its nastiest.

A section about inequality is stuffed with graphs and desiccated numbers that ought to strengthen his case, but end up adding to its weakness. “The UK is a country in which a significant redistribution of income still occurs,” Hindmoor says, which is true, but still leaves open the question of whether “significant” equates to “enough”. His evidence for an upbeat verdict largely rests on a rather laboured concept – also used by the Office for National Statistics – which includes basic public services in its definition of “final income”. The problem there is that you end up trying to make a positive case for the state of the country based on the continuing availability of free roads, schools and hospitals, which strikes me as an argument built on somewhat lowly aspirations.

His reliance on macroeconomic statistics, moreover, cuts him adrift from reality. Inequality is not just about numbers but people’s sense of opportunity, having a stake in the future and connection to the rest of the country. In the end, even Hindmoor does not seem convinced. “Inequality did rise significantly in the 1980s,” he writes. “Wealth inequality is growing. Social mobility is poor.” The abiding impression is of someone needlessly tying themselves in knots.

Does believing that Britain has been repeatedly pushed in the wrong direction over the last three decades make you a “miserablist”? Not at all. Like many others I think Thatcherism wrought damage that has never been healed, and that New Labour swallowed far too much of its legacy and set precedents for subsequent Conservative politicians. The invasion of Iraq was probably the single biggest policy disaster in post-war history, and compared to the hallowed Labour government of 1945-51, the Blair administrations’ institutional legacy – beyond Sure Start centres, which are now being closed at speed – was pitiful. At the same time, I well know that Blair and his colleagues improved the country in lots of ways, and it would perhaps be nice to go back to the halcyon period of 1997-2003. But that is now impossible, thanks to a range of watershed developments that point to the need for something very different.

Hindmoor’s text only briefly touches on them, but in case anyone hasn’t noticed: wages have been stagnating for more than a decade, near-zero interest rates have not triggered any surge in investment, unsecured private debt is at its highest level since the 2008 crash, and the idea that profit-making corporations are the answer to the modernisation of the state looks increasingly threadbare. Put another way, an era that began in the early 1980s may well be in its death throes, a realisation etched on to the upbeat faces of the people who now crowd into Jeremy Corbyn rallies, and rarely look like “miserablists”.

For many reasons, their politics is not really my thing, but I can see why their movement fits its time, in a way that this book’s glossing-over of deep political and economic failures does not. Its author should maybe bear in mind the closing lines of Thatcher’s Newsweek piece: “You always have people who take the soft option. The apparently easy way out is the way that gets you into deepest trouble. The lesson is, you don’t soften fundamental principles. You positively push them forward into the future.” 

John Harris writes for the Guardian

What’s Left Now? The History and Future of Social Democracy
Andrew Hindmoor
Oxford University Press, 285pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist