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11 September 2017

Of course the next election is Labour’s to lose. Why wouldn’t it be?

My article saying “Peak Corbyn” was yet to come attracted some interesting responses, which I've pondered here.

By Stephen Bush

The Conservatives won re-election after recession in 1981, 1991 and after a slowdown that threatened, but never fully developed into a technical recession in 2011.

I wrote last week why I don’t buy the idea that the 2017 election represented the upper limit for Labour in general or Jeremy Corbyn in particular.  There were a lot of responses, some of which I thought were worth responding to in greater length.

People voted for Jeremy Corbyn because they thought he couldn’t win

The difficulty here is that while it is true that a lot of Labour MPs, including ones we would notionally think of as Corbynite loyalists, campaigned telling their constituents that Labour couldn’t possibly win and not to worry about a Corbyn-led government, there isn’t any evidence that Labour voters bought this. The British Electoral Study found that there was no significant chunk of “vote Labour because Corbyn can’t win”, and, of course, Labour and Corbyn’s poll rating has remained healthy since the election.

(This is one of the perils of scoreboard punditry: we look at the bigger vote shares of the big two parties and the stagnant share of the Liberal Democrats and it looks as if no votes changed hands – actually, a lot of Labour voters who were worried about a Corbyn-led government went to the Liberal Democrats or the Conservatives, but Labour hoovered up more than enough votes to replace those voters from Ukip, the Conservatives and people who previously hadn’t voted before.)

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We also shouldn’t forget that people are less changeable than they think.

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Labour only did well because of tactical voting and first-past-the-post

Will first-past-the-post still be the electoral system in place at the next election? Unfortunately, yes. So Labour will still be able to squeeze the Greens, Liberal Democrats and SNP as the only party that is big enough to stop the Conservatives.

Labour only did so well because the Conservative campaign was so bad

As I wrote in the original piece, there is a lot in this argument. And it wasn’t just the Conservative campaign, either. The Liberal Democrats suffered a great deal because their election campaign became a seminar on the nature of sin, which meant they never got to talk about any of their issues.

You’d assume that the next Tory campaign won’t be so woeful, if nothing else because short of promising to test Trident on randomly-chosen Midlands towns, you could hardly devise a campaign that was better engineered to erode the Conservative parliamentary majority.

But one of the things that we’ve forgotten because of what a hash Theresa May made of calling the election is that there were very good reasons for the government to go the country early – that the economy looks pre-recessional is one, and the difficulty of navigating Brexit with a small majority is another. Those problems haven’t gone away.

Think of it like this: if at the last election, a competent Conservative campaign was all that was needed to win a majority then, yes, changing the person in charge matters a great deal. But what if by the next election they need an exceptional one? That might happen. But equally, it might not.

The future is hard to predict

This is true. No one could reasonably have been expected to predict that Birmingham City would win the League Cup in 2011 or that Leicester would win the Premier League in 2016. However, what you can say is that, given their greater spending in the transfer market and their superior playing team, defeated finalists Arsenal ought to have beaten Birmingham in 2011 and Manchester City ought to have done better than fourth place in 2016.

It’s not a prediction to say “given that the government will have been in power for 12 years by the time of the next election, given that we are overdue a recession and that Brexit will result in at least some losers economically, Labour should be the favourites at the next election”. When we talk about the disastrous Conservative campaign, we are, implicitly, making a judgement about the relative ease of the task of winning the 2017 election. 

It is possible that the Conservatives will win the next election. It’s just hard to construct a data-driven argument that they should expect to, that’s all.

People will take Jeremy Corbyn more seriously next time

Will they? If that were true, Sajid Javid’s housing reforms would be criticised for not going far enough, when instead they are largely being attacked by safe-seat Conservative MPs for being too bold. If that were true, even the most diehard of Conservative Brexiteers would be sounding more open-minded about a long and gentle transition from the European Union instead of making demands of May that force a quick and drastic exit. If that were true, people wouldn’t still scoff quite so openly at the idea that the next election’s is Corbyn to lose.