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9 July 2024updated 11 Jul 2024 9:53am

Labour’s base is not as shallow as it seems

The party's victory was inevitable, so would-be voters didn't turn out.

By Ben Walker

Critics of first past the post will feel emboldened to agitate for electoral reform more than ever after this election. Might there be reason for concern when Labour wins a landslide number of seats with the lowest vote share for a governing party since the First World War? And Labour lost some of its 2019 base – perhaps around a quarter. Seven to ten per cent of it went green, six to eight per cent to the Liberal Democrats, three or four per cent to Reform. This loss is bigger than the fifth of its base the party shed between 2017 and 2019.

In raw totals, more than a million votes left Labour between 2019 and 2024 for parties on the centre to centre-left. That equates to 3-4 percentage points.

Pollsters predicted more non-voters in 2019 would come out for Labour in 2024 than actually did. Savanta’s pre-election poll found 43 per cent of non-voters would show up for Labour. But FocalData’s post-election mortem finds it was just 36 per cent. In fact when it came to the polls writ large Labour underperformed the poll trackers by seven points, while the Conservatives overperformed by three points.

One reason for Labour’s underperformance must be in some sense thanks to an unenthusiastic electorate. Over the course of the campaign the idea that Labour would win – that it was a foregone conclusion – became more robust each day. By 2nd July as many as 70 per cent were sure the election was already won by Labour. And propagating this perception was employed by Grant Shapps and others to recover prospective Reform voters but also – inadvertently or otherwise – to depress the pro-Labour turnout: it’s a done-deal, so why bother to show up? I’m finding it harder to reject the idea that this line will have had some impact. My take has been that most voters don’t pay very much attention to politics at all, so surely it would have passed most people by? But if this sentiment emerged in some kind of imperceptible “vibe” form then it could have seeped through to the median Briton. But the ephemeral “vibe” is a rather tricky thing to measure.

Because of this I do not share such pessimism about Labour’s apparently shallow base. The two-thirds win on one-thirds vote (bad news for advocates of direct democracy, and admittedly not a well-rooted base) is not so worrisome as some commentators zealously argue. There is a different, positive way to frame their argument: The Conservative Party were so obviously not a threat to Labour supremacy that many voters felt comfortable searching for their true party of preference, or not turning out altogether, safe in the knowledge Labour would get over the line. 70 per cent of Britons, two days to polling day, felt the election was wrapped up. It is difficult to conceive such widespread belief did nothing to alter voting behaviour.

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So what for the future? If the next election is closer than this one – and the public’s perception is that it is a competition, not a done-deal – then those who might not love Labour but will tolerate it could probably be convinced red-wards. Until the closing days of the campaign this time round they were prepared to do so. If these prospective Labour voters made up the margin by which the polls got it wrong this time, then the party must target and squeeze them. In this election, defectors from Labour to the Lib Dems and Greens made up more than a million votes.

This is an easy strategy… so long as the Tories remain toxic, and Labour don’t become toxic by the next election. It’s possible.

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