The 2017 election was far from a triumph – Labour must do a lot more to win

We are still not seeing a vision for a fundamentally different and better Britain.

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Myths can fix themselves to events with remarkable rapidity. Established wisdom already has it that the general election was a triumph for Labour, that those who previously doubted Jeremy Corbyn’s suitability to be leader did so solely or even principally on grounds of his electability, and that even those who remain unconvinced by the leadership thought highly of the manifesto.

As the summer ends, I want to look briefly at what seems to have happened on 8 June, and to argue that we are almost as far from power today as we were before the election, that in important respects we might actually be further, and that both our manifesto and our political strategy for the campaign left much to be desired. 

It is testament to the astonishingly low expectations people had for Labour in this election that being 60 or so seats short of an absolute majority, and almost a hundred seats short of our last election-winning performance in 2005, has somehow been cast as a triumph (or at any rate a good result). I am delighted by all the new additions to the Parliamentary Labour Party and pleased that there were so few losses, but I find it hard to rejoice in a result that gives us fewer than ten seats more than we managed in 2010 when we were last kicked out of power.

Seven years of Tory austerity and incompetence have passed since then, but we are pretty much back to where we started: a hung parliament where the Tories have to do deals with a minor party. There has been almost no net improvement to the parliamentary arithmetic for Labour. I am sitting on the same green benches listening to the same Tory ministers take decisions about the future of our country. I have 30 more colleagues than I did six months ago, and that’s great, but I never forget we still need another 60 or so before we can hope to govern Britain.

In the first week or so after the election, the narrative developed that it was young people who won it for Labour. Leaving aside for a moment the point that Labour didn’t actually win, this strikes me as a rather inadequate analysis. If a lot more young people voted than in the past, and yet turnout was still, overall, below 1997 levels and only up slightly on 2015, then others were staying at home. Whether more of them were Tory supporters staying at home, or Labour supporters staying at home, isn’t clear to me – at least, not yet.

Turnout in my seat, where almost half of the electorate has a postal vote, was a little higher than usual, but I am still working through the marked register before forming a judgement about what exactly happened in terms of voting patterns. Among the postal voters with whom I spoke in the first half of May, there certainly seemed to have been a huge swing towards the Conservatives. Yet because postal votes drop early in Sunderland, many people had already voted before the first terrorist attack of the campaign and – critically – before the Tory manifesto started to unravel. Lord Ashcroft’s polling suggests that many Labour voters made up their minds to support us later in the campaign than Tory voters, but what his polling doesn’t cover so clearly is who decided not to vote at all. Crucially, the structure of our vote can change sharply even as the numbers change little.

This brings me to three observations which I think can be safely made already. The first is that the structure of our vote did change in this election, or perhaps more accurately, continued to change. That change should concern all of us who believe that the Labour Party was founded to represent the working people of this country, that we are at our best when we look afresh in every generation at who is most disadvantaged by society as it stands, and what we need to do to improve their lives.

The shift in the Labour vote is borne out by the loss of seats like Mansfield and North East Derbyshire, as well as some traditional marginals such as Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland that we had previously held for 20 years. We hung on only by the skin of our teeth in seats like Ashfield and Dudley North. This underlines that the patterns of the past – rural areas returning Labour MPs if they are also mining country – are slowly fading as the mines pass from memory. Labour is becoming, slowly but unmistakably, a party of the larger towns and cities, a party of graduates and young people, a party of the socially liberal. I do not wish for a moment to suggest that any of these groups of people should be unwelcome among our supporters, but merely to note that we are not the same as the party we once were.

The second observation is about how our surprise at the set of victories we did achieve has blinded us to the bigger picture. It is often said that history is written by the victors, but we have become so self-absorbed as a movement that we have ceased to pay much attention even to the victors, and our narrative of this general election is being written instead by a dominant faction among the losers. By contrast, the real victors – the Tories – are very clear about why they didn’t win a bigger victory. In an era when campaigns seem to matter more than before, senior Tories freely admit that they ran an astonishingly poor one.

ConservativeHome’s recent stories of the string of failings at the heart of the Conservative machine are eye-opening in two ways: they reveal quite what a mess they made of their campaign, and they also identify all the things the Tories will be carefully and painstakingly making sure they don’t get wrong next time. Their tortured navel-gazing is different from the narratives circulating on our side both in substance and in structure: when they fail, the Tories examine their own weaknesses rather than blaming their misfortunes on the Opposition.

The third observation starts from an acknowledgement that this was a sharply polarised election, with the two major parties taking over 80 per cent of the vote between them. It is worth remembering that before Paul Nuttall and Ukip imploded in Stoke, and before the Liberal Democrats failed to make any headway in the local elections, it seemed quite plausible to expect the slow demise of the two-party system to continue. Indeed, many confident predictions were made when the snap general election was called that Labour would get less than 30 per cent of the vote – all predicated on an equally confident assumption that minor parties would account for at least a quarter. In the end, nothing of the sort happened, and the minor parties were squeezed across the board. While Labour successfully pulled together a coalition of people who wanted an end to the Conservative government, we nonetheless failed the sole test that matters: we secured fewer seats than the Tories.

***

Given that uncomfortable fact, it’s no good saying that we got a higher vote share than Blair did in 2005: in 2005 the Tories took 32.4 per cent of the vote and this time they took 42.4 per cent. The test for us at every election is to beat the Tories, not to set a new personal best: a parliamentary election is a race, not a parkrun. What this election therefore demonstrated all too clearly was that we have so far failed to make much progress towards attracting that key component of a winning coalition: previous supporters of the Conservative Party. Switchers from the Tories count double: a vote on our pile, and a vote off the pile we need to beat. Without switchers, there can be no victory. Core vote plus protest vote is not a route to Downing Street. We should have understood this lesson from 2015 if we’d not learnt it in the 1980s.

After all, this was by far the worst Tory campaign that anyone can remember. It was led by a Prime Minister running away from the media as if she were afraid, defined by a core policy of their manifesto ripped up after no more than a week, and a tone of relentless negativity – without even a contrasting message about what a Tory government would actually do – on which many of my constituents commented. Even in a fight with that, we lost. Jeremy lost against the weakest Tory leader and the weakest Tory campaign anyone can remember or imagine. The miracle of this election isn’t that we did so well. It’s that up against what appears to have been an election special of The Thick of It, we nonetheless contrived to lose – and then reimagined that as success.

And that distorted history is perhaps most notable for the starring role the manifesto has now been given in the victory that didn’t happen. A manifesto should provide a crisp vision of how Britain could and will be better with Labour, by making clear in-principle commitments that can carry legislation through parliament. Manifestos, as opposed to campaigns, are aimed at the Salisbury Convention, future backbench rebels, and the civil service. They are not aimed at the floating voter, and they need not nail down every detail. If David Axelrod thought our offer in 2015 was too much like "vote Labour and get a microwave", then a whole kitchen’s worth of appliances was on offer this time.

I mean that on two levels. Firstly, there was a lot more on offer in terms of the number of policies that would have required substantial new spending commitments – far more indeed than during the fiscal conservatism of the Balls/Miliband era. My main concern isn’t primarily whether these policies were all properly costed in the funding document released alongside the manifesto, but that – to stretch that kitchen metaphor a little – the policy offerings weren’t fitted together very well.

The manifesto contained plenty of uncontroversial things that should be part of any Labour manifesto, plus a variety of policies and positions for which the case is less clear. There was a healthy dose of ideas popular with the wider movement and activists, but neither straightforward to achieve nor a high priority for my constituents. One notable example was the pledge to renationalise the railways – are railways really the assets a Labour government most urgently needs to acquire so as to pursue social justice? There was also some nostalgic posturing such as the creation of a new Ministry of Labour – is this really a priority in 21st century Britain?

There were some significant resource transfers towards middle-income families, above all through the outright abolition of tuition fees. Welcome pledges for more funding for the NHS were accompanied by a set of detailed commitments to halt local strategic planning of health services, while a promise to deliver health services without any apparent regard to cost could have been transcribed word-for-word from a protestor’s placard. I have also begun to question, following discussion with health professionals and academics, whether Andy Burnham’s much-trumpeted National Care Service is in fact the best way of sorting out the funding and provision of long term social care. By focusing on structures and governance, not outcomes and efficiency, I think it falls into the same trap as Tony Blair’s later public sector reforms. This was all topped off with a marked reluctance to countenance any change to the amount of money we transfer as a society from working people to pensioners. To put it bluntly, our manifesto was a nod to every stakeholder and lobbyist, as if the Clause V meeting was like the caucus-race in Alice in Wonderland where all must have prizes.

The shopping list feel to the manifesto reflected a second, deeper problem: there was no vision or strategy behind our electoral offer to engage in any detail with the context in which we find ourselves. Last year I wrote an article highlighting Labour’s failure to properly come to terms with the transformation of our economy, culture, and society since we last won an election. There was little in our manifesto to give me confidence the leadership is rising to that challenge.

The promises on the NHS could not have been kept in a country without easy access to migrant medical labour. Above all, the economic backdrop following the EU referendum was not one we were prepared to spell out to people. Unless there is a deal, or at least a transitional period to soften the blow, the impact of leaving the EU will be a very long winter for working people in which any spending promises – from either Labour or from the Conservatives – will be extremely hard to deliver. Tony Blair was therefore quite right to point out that there is no majority for a hard Brexit, that the supposed advantages of a soft Brexit over continued membership might not in fact exist, and that in time people might reconsider their vote in the referendum as the reality of leaving came close, or came to pass. While we successfully dodged taking a clear view on Europe in the manifesto, and I am very pleased we are now in our opposition to the government’s horrendous repeal legislation, we should take a long hard look at ourselves. A jobs-first Brexit is a great soundbite, nothing more.

The final criticism of the manifesto’s depressing inadequacy I want to make is perhaps the most personal. Before I came into parliament, I managed a refuge, near where I grew up, for women escaping domestic violence. I will always argue in favour of funding refuges properly, because I know what it’s like to manage a tight budget with little long term security. Managing a service that helps desperately vulnerable people taught me that starving those services of money is a vile and cowardly saving for any government to make. But refuges, by their nature, are a symptom rather than a cause of domestic violence.

Tackling problems in our society always takes more than a blank cheque for the victims, even if there are many worse places to start. It requires imagination to identify causes, the determination to introduce policies to tackle them, and a willingness to track results, so as to learn from failure and from success alike. This was all completely absent from the section on domestic violence in our manifesto: in fact you could read it through without discovering that domestic violence has perpetrators as well as victims. More broadly, the rich vein of learning from the successes and failures of efforts at improving outcomes in public services between 1997 and 2010 seems a foreign literature to the leadership and the advisers around them. Perhaps more charitably, it is at best a form of learning they wear lightly.

But incoherence and inadequacy do not exhaust the criticisms of the manifesto we should make. Those of us who remain unpersuaded that the current political turn will take us into government and keep us there need to be clear about that right now, for I suspect that adherence to the 2017 manifesto will be a political battleground to come in trigger ballots and selections up and down the country.

There are two much more serious problems I would point out. The first is whether our manifesto matches our values. If you believe, as I do, that Labour’s historic mission is to achieve and sustain a radical transfer in power, wealth and opportunity towards working people, then it is hard to see our manifesto as anything but an extraordinary failure to focus on how to bring that redistribution about. Tuition fees and their associated repayments are, in their current shape, an impossible burden on young people and in time on the whole economy. Yet the total abolition of tuition fees, coupled with an ambition to write off all existing debt, is for me a far lower priority than free childcare and improved early years support for young working people, or decent in-work pay and benefits for working families.

As the Resolution Foundation has observed, our manifesto either left most of George Osborne’s benefit freeze intact, or hid an absence of funded plans to reverse those cuts behind a fudged commitment to reviewing them. If we are serious about the redistribution of power, wealth and opportunity, we have to be serious about in-work poverty and the living standards of working people and their children. A Labour Party that is genuinely for the many and not the few should prioritise that above the immediate abolition of fees for university education.  

The second problem concerns the wider political strategy enshrined within the manifesto. Take tuition fees, again. We won majorities, often huge, in university seats like Oxford East, Sheffield Central, Leeds North West, Cambridge, and most spectacularly, Canterbury. An important reason for that was Jeremy’s character and politics appeal strongly to people who are both hopeful about the future and more than a little fed up of what politics has been like in recent years.

There are lessons there, as there have been across Europe and North America, but we are kidding ourselves if we think that a degree of self-interest, however enlightened, was not there. If the offer to students was to have tens of thousands of pounds of their debts cancelled, should we be surprised that they voted for it with such alacrity? It is, after all, a lot of microwaves. Yet winning over groups of voters by segment-specific promises – whether that means a triple lock for pensioners or no more debts for students – isn’t a strategy that we can either afford in general, or sustain anywhere.

Imagine for a moment that we had formed a government and we had carried through that promise. Imagine that we had fulfilled the manifesto in full. There would still be plenty of reasons for idealistic students to vote against a Labour government that froze benefits and renewed Trident, even if it was a government that had abolished fees. Gratitude for previous munificence is not an emotion that long sustains political loyalty, or else Gordon Brown would still be prime minister. A political strategy that secures and shores up support through election-specific fiscal transfers rather than by putting forward a convincing, relevant, and clearly articulated vision to command the country for the long term is unsustainable. It wouldn’t take much for that electoral house of cards to come crashing down.

***

To return to the observations about the changing pattern of our support, it isn’t at all clear to me that there is much road left to run for the strategy we have for now adopted as a party. We have taken Ed Miliband’s supposed 35 per cent strategy – mop up the protest votes, hold as much as possible of the core vote – to its logical conclusion, and yet still we are behind the Tories. As we have done so, we have lost important components of our own historic support.

As the academic Paula Surridge’s work has already shown, working-class voters – especially white working-class voters – moved even further away from us than they did under Ed Miliband. These are hardly groups that are numerically insignificant in Britain. If we are losing more of these voters directly to the Tories with every election, the struggle to overtake the Conservatives amongst other voters becomes ever harder. And as ever, the challenge we need to understand is among the seats we lost, not those we gained. Among the seats we had hoped to win back in 2015 (and which still stand between us and a Labour victory), we closed the gap sharply in urban areas like Swindon, but old mining country marginals like Erewash and Sherwood moved that little bit further out of our reach.

To hang on to the student and pensioner vote next time, and at the end of our first term in government thereafter, will require substantial commitments. Behavioural economics teaches us that people hang on more tightly to what they have already, than they are drawn to what they might have.

If we are wedded to a strategy of straightforward fiscal transfers to attract and reward voters defined by not being a full part of the workforce, we will be even less of an appealing proposition to the working families whose labour funds those transfers. Worse, we will become even more exposed to the political tensions that have been awakened by a manifesto at variance with our founding values.

We need to win more than 60 seats to secure a Labour majority government. The progress we made this year will be illusory if we lock ourselves into positions that are unappealing to voters in target seats, yet in backing away, we risk losses that we will need to make up elsewhere. 

All that is quite apart from the challenge that faces us in Scotland. While the return of more than one Scottish Labour MP is fantastic, we are still over 30 seats shy of what Blair achieved just 12 years ago. Just as the Tories ran a dreadful campaign, the SNP were all too visibly caught on the hop. Last time our electoral system delivered them a near clean sweep: take almost half the votes in a multi-party system with first-past-the-post, and you take almost all the seats.

On this occasion, the timing was not to their advantage. Just as the Scottish referendum in 2014 was probably too soon for them to win independence, so another general election in 2017 came too soon for them to consolidate their position in Westminster. The chaos that they expected Brexit to unleash had yet to manifest itself, while their preoccupation with another independence referendum had not yet yielded results beyond annoying a decent proportion of their less enthusiastic supporters.

Even so, the SNP still block our path back to power, not just in terms of seats in parliament, but also as the party of social democratic rhetoric in too much of Scotland. Moreover, some of the seats we lost to the SNP in 2015 have now fallen to the Tories, leaving us third-placed and with a much harder battle ahead. Without significant progress in Scotland, the challenge in England and Wales is much harder than in 2010. Yet – and we must never forget this – even if we reverse every 2015 loss in Scotland, we still need almost as many seats again in England and Wales.

Now that we are back in Westminster, the coming weeks, above all at conference, give the leadership a chance to reach out. Not just to those Labour MPs and members who have previously been unconvinced, but more importantly, to speak directly to the people of Britain who weren’t persuaded by our message on 8 June, especially those who have voted Labour in the past. It was great to see Jeremy out in newly marginal seats, but speaking to rallies of the converted in places where they are a minority is no more of a strategy for victory that speaking to them where they are in a majority.

The first week back in parliament has given us a major and welcome change in our European policy, but it has also seen a characteristic focus by the leadership on issues that are marginal to too many electors’ lives. We are still seeing not seeing a vision for a fundamentally different and better Britain. A focus on a particular company that mistreats its workers is neither a substitute for a clear articulation of how the wider problems could be solved, nor obviously the biggest failing over which the government is presiding.

I sat in the Chamber for five years wishing that, week-in week-out, Ed Miliband would rip into what was at once the government’s central case and central weakness – the state of the economy. Instead, a fascination with headline-chasing led PMQs in those years from one soon-forgotten issue to another. Jeremy has moved from the backbenches to the front, but he has not yet shaken off the habit of fixating on the details of current injustice rather than addressing the detail of how it could be better.

I hope – hope desperately – that over the next month we will start to see a reappraisal, realism and honesty about the economy and Brexit, and to sense a willingness to look beyond the politics of shopping lists towards advocating positions in which we believe and which we know we can achieve. I fear another turn inwards to the pursuit of imagined internal enemies, to procedural battles with the PLP over selections, to a greater fascination with how to pick the next leadership team for the Labour Party than with being the next leadership team for Britain. Time will tell.

Bridget Phillipson is Labour MP for Houghton and Sunderland South.