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Seats vs vote share – what does success in the 2017 general election look like for Labour?

The definition could have a bearing on what happens after 8 June 2017. 

By Julia Rampen

At the start of January, any hope progressives had that 2017 could be better than 2016 was punctured by the Fabian Society. A report deemed Labour “too weak” to win a general election and predicted the proportion of voters willing to back it could slump to 20 per cent. After Theresa May announced a snap election in April, the author of that report, Andrew Harrop, took to these pages to warn of Labour’s worst result since the 1930s. “Labour’s task,” he added, “Is to show that the history books are wrong.

Some in Labour feel they are living up to that task. A YouGov/Times poll put Labour on 39 per cent to the Conservatives’ 42 per cent voting share. A projected result suggested a hung Parliament. This is a long way from the Tory landslide predicted at the start of the campaign. Some expect the embattled Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, derided by much of his parliamentary party, to increase Labour’s vote share from that achieved in 2015. Len McCluskey, the Corbyn ally who has Unite in his limpet-like grip, deemed Labour winning 200 seats to be a success. Chuka Umunna, on the other hand, a man perennially touted as a future leader, told The New Statesman  that “the ultimate test here is we’ve got to get more seats than the Tories – end of story”. So on 9 June, how will we judge whether Labour did a good job or not?

It matters because, so long as Labour MPs are opposed to the leader foisted on them by members, the battle over the party’s future rages on. New Labour veterans hope a general election will bring it to its senses – Peter Mandelson famously prayed for one – while Corbynistas believe the campaign will invigorate the members who vote for the leader in the first place.

The first measure of success is – fairly obviously – the number of seats Labour wins on 8 June 2017. Unsurprisingly, Labour incumbents facing imminent unemployment consider this the only definition of success. One tells me between door knocking sessions: “It is really straightforward – it is seats, seats, seats.” He points to the 1951 general election as a cautionary tale. “Sure, we won the popular vote share but we lost power. That inaugurated a long, long period of Conservative government. 

“It’s like Hillary Clinton winning the popular vote but losing the Presidency. No one thinks Clinton succeeded.”

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The idea of seats as success is enshrined in Clause I of the Labour Party rule book, which states that “the party shall… promote the election of Labour Party representatives at all levels of the democratic process”. 

Since no pollster is putting Labour on course for the most number of seats, the 2017 general election by this metric is likely to be a failure. 

However, for supporters of Corbyn, and those on the radical left, vote share is also important – at least for the policy battles ahead. For this wing of the party, Corbyn’s leadership has been the opportunity of a lifetime to rethink policies. If, as they hope, Corbyn can increase the vote share, it is a sign that the shift to anti-austerity and pro-nationalisation rhetoric has, on at least one level, worked. 

Michael Chessum, a pro-Corbyn commentator who writes for The New Statesman, suggests Corbyn could be on course to get a higher vote share than both his predecessor Ed Miliband in 2015 and Labour’s last election winner, Tony Blair, in 2005. 

“Given that Corbyn’s Labour has been through two years of internal fighting, with much of the parliamentary party openly at war with the leadership, that would be an achievement,” he says. “Then again, if the polls are to be believed, Labour could be on course for something much, much bigger than merely hold its ground.”

One trend in 2017 most commentators agree on is that the election looks less like the multi-party tustel of 2010 and 2015 and more like a traditional two-horse race. This is down in part to the decline of Ukip, which received nearly four million votes in 2015, but collapsed in the local elections in May. 

Chessum believes this underlines the fact those voters have moved to the Conservatives, which could “make a strong performance by Labour look weak”. 

However, Tom Baldwin, Miliband’s director of strategy, disagrees. He argues many Ukip voters were former Labour ones. Their votes, he tells me, were “up for grabs”. 

It’s easy to characterise the debate over the definition of success as one of realists vs idealists, or left vs right. In reality, views are more nuanced. Baldwin addressed the question at length in The Sunday Times, and concluded that “a significant advance” by Corbyn, which included winning seats, might allow the leader to stay on. 

Chi Onwurah, the incumbent for Newcastle on Tyne Central, and a Corbyn critic who nevertheless remained in the shadow cabinet, told me success “has to mean winning an election”.

Nevertheless, she praised the campaign strategy: “Our election campaign has gone a long way about how we talk about the economy and public services, and that is to be celebrated.”

Other MPs have been encouraged by the appearance of volunteer Momentum doorknockers and a costed manifesto full of popular pledges.

Yet even if the election campaign has created a camraderie unseen since 2015, unless the result defies all expectations, the end of the campaign is likely to see that solidarity dissolve – and the return to the bitter struggle over Labour’s future.

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