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Corbyn's coalition: the voters behind Labour's surge

The Labour leader bound together socialists, liberal Remainers, red Ukippers and protest voters.

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.

Socialists

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.

Liberal Remainers

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.

Red Ukippers

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.

Protest voters

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.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Tackling tuition fees may not be the vote-winner the government is hoping for

In theory, Theresa May is right to try to match Labour’s policy. But could it work?

Part of the art of politics is to increase the importance of the issues you win on and to decrease or neutralise the importance of the issues your opponent wins on. That's part of why Labour will continue to major on police cuts, as a device to make the usually Labour-unfriendly territory of security more perilous for the Tories.

One of the advantages the Conservatives have is that they are in government – I know it doesn't always look like it – and so they can do a lot more to decrease the importance of Labour's issues than the Opposition can do to theirs.

So the theory of Theresa May's big speech today on higher education funding and her announcement of a government review into the future of the university system is sound. Tuition fees are an area that Labour win on, so it makes sense to find a way to neutralise the issue.

Except there are a couple of problems with May's approach. The first is that she has managed to find a way to make a simple political question incredibly difficult for herself. The Labour offer is “no tuition fees”, so the Conservatives essentially either need to match that or move on. But the one option that has been left off the table is abolition, the only policy lever that could match Labour electorally.

The second, even bigger problem is that it it turns out that tuition fees might not have been the big election-moving event that we initially thought they were. The British Electoral Survey caused an earthquake of their own by finding that the “youthquake” – the increase in turn-out among 18-24-year-olds – never happened. Younger voters were decisive, both in how they switched to Labour and in the overall increase in turnout among younger voters, but it was in that slightly older 25-35 bracket (and indeed the 35-45 one as well) that the big action occurred.

There is an astonishingly powerful belief among the Conservative grassroots, such as it is, that Jeremy Corbyn's NME interview in which the he said that existing tuition fee debt would be “dealt with” was decisive. That belief, I'm told, extends all the way up to May's press chief, Robbie Gibb. Gibb is the subject of increasing concern among Tory MPs and ministers, who regularly ask journalists what they make of Robbie, if Robbie is doing alright, before revealing that they find his preoccupations – Venezuela, Corbyn's supposed pledge to abolish tuition fee debt – troublingly marginal.

Because the third problem is that any policy action on tuition fees comes at a huge cost to the Treasury, a cost that could be spent easing the pressures on the NHS, which could neutralise a Labour strength, or the financial strains on schools, another area of Labour strength. Both of which are of far greater concern to the average thirtysomething than what anyone says or does about tuition fees.

Small wonder that Team Corbyn are in an ebullient mood as Parliament returns from recess.

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.