The story of the general election was not a Conservative collapse but a Labour surge. Theresa May won 42.4 per cent of the vote, the Tories’ highest share since 1983 and an increase of 5.5 points since 2015. But this was countered by a Labour share of 40.0 per cent, the party’s highest since 2001 and an increase of 10 points since 2015 (30.4 per cent) – its largest rise since 1945.
By drawing together a diverse electoral coalition, Jeremy Corbyn outperformed expectations (including those of his allies). Below, I profile the voters who enabled this success.
Though “socialist” can feel hackneyed, there is no better term for those who believe in redistributive taxation, a universal welfare state and nationalised utilities. Corbyn has attracted hard-pressed public sector workers, older voters who deserted the party during the New Labour years and younger ones who have caught the egalitarian bug for the first time.
As elsewhere in Europe, austerity and stagnant living standards have created a renewed audience for socialist ideas. Ed Miliband grasped this insight after becoming leader in 2010 but his manifesto ultimately left Labour stranded between “radicalism” and “credibility”. By presenting an authentically socialist programme, Corbyn reminded them of the defining purpose of his party.
Labour voted for the triggering of Article 50 and, unlike the Liberal Democrats and the Greens, opposed a second EU referendum. But support for it surged in pro-Remain London and Scotland, and in student and graduate-heavy areas such as Brighton, Bristol, Cardiff, Reading and Warwick.
Corbyn’s liberal rhetoric on immigration appealed to such voters, who were repelled by the “controls on immigration” mug of 2015 (though Labour quietly vowed to end free movement). By promising to unilaterally guarantee the rights of EU citizens, and avoid crashing out without a deal, Labour sufficiently distanced itself from May’s Brexit stance. Even affluent former Tories, disdainful of their party’s anti-business turn, were attracted.
Cosmopolitan liberals liked the party’s promise to tackle air pollution and loved its pledge of free train Wi-Fi. May’s support for a free vote on fox hunting and the abandonment of the ivory trade ban retoxified the Tories in their eyes. Though this group may not identify as socialists, rising housing costs, stagnant wages, student debt and a gnawing sense of narrowed horizons, have given economic interventionism fresh appeal.
At the campaign’s outset, Brexit appeared to be an electoral curse for Labour as Ukip voters defected en masse to the Conservatives. But it proved to be a blessing. Though Ukip’s collapse handed seats such as Mansfield, Middlesbrough South and Stoke-on-Trent South to the Tories, it allowed Labour to gain elsewhere.
While socially conservative, “Red Ukippers” were attracted by Corbyn’s promise of a £10 Living Wage, universal free school meals and higher NHS spending. Labour’s manifesto commitment to Trident renewal and its promise of 10,000 more police officers even allowed it to challenge May on her home turf of security.
Corbyn’s foreign policy, which warned western interventions had increased the terrorist threat, similarly chimed with such voters’ isolationism. By backing Brexit, in the face of much liberal criticism, and conceding that free movement would end, Corbyn gave Ukippers permission to return to Labour.
There will always be a substantial number of voters who, after losing patience with the government, back the best available alternative. In 2017, strained public services and falling real wages gave them ample cause to do so.
The Tories’ dismal campaign, marred by the “dementia tax” and the absence of a positive offer, merely confirmed their instincts. To floating voters, May appeared to believe that Brexit and antipathy towards Corbyn were sufficient to secure her a landslide majority. They were not. “Voters smelt a rat,” a Conservative minister told me. “They could see that we were exploiting Brexit for partisan gain and they hate that.”
But Labour MPs, including some Corbyn allies, fear that voters would act differently if they believed that Corbyn could become PM (as few did this time). Though the Labour leader was a net positive for the party, dramatically increasing youth turnout, some candidates won in spite of him. MPs in marginal seats spent hours reassuring voters that Corbyn would not become prime minister and that they could afford to back a local candidate. At the next election, whenever it falls, that appeal will not be possible. Labour will need to devote this parliament to reassuring such voters that it can be entrusted with office.