The results of the British General Election of 2017 have been received on the British left as a moment of exquisite promise, carrying a firm hope that a fundamental transformation in the politics of the country is underway. Labour Party members and activists have been shot through with a powerful new enthusiasm and sense of purpose, and a newfound confidence that things are at last running again in their direction. The attitude towards the next general election, whether it comes in mere months or in years, is one of eager confidence. At the time, the Labour Party will feel ready to fight it, and will do so on a platform close to the remarkably successful policy program of June 2017.
Is the newfound optimism on the British left well-grounded, or is it an overreaction driven by modest overperformance relative to low expectations?
After the difficult years since the Conservative coalition replaced the exhausted New Labour government of Gordon Brown in 2010, Labour has often been unsure of its direction forward, frequently confused and internally divided, caught in a paralysis of motivation between caution and ambition, and prone to self-destructive bouts of neurosis in which strategic focus went missing, and tactical errors abounded. Everything now feels transformed: instead of lurching from one existential crisis to the next, the “glorious defeat” of June 2017 has brought clarity of purpose and, for a party with a heady history of factional squabbling, a remarkable degree of unity. A confident democratic socialism has been unleashed.
To a dispassionate outside observer, this attitudinal shift might seem puzzling at best, or deluded at worst. The facts of the election are not so remarkable that they could provide the basis for this complete transformation of attitudes and expectations. While Labour’s vote share did increase from 30.4 percent in 2015 to 40 percent in 2017, the biggest upswing in Labour’s electoral support since 1945, this has to be seen against the backdrop of notably poor performances from the smaller parties. The remarkable collapse of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), which lost its central raison d’etre in the wake of the 2016 Brexit vote, certainly contributed to Labour’s gains. So while the almost 10 percent increase in Labour’s vote share seems impressive in isolation, it is suddenly less striking when one bears in mind that the Conservative vote share also increased significantly, rising 5.5 percent from 36.9 percent in 2015 to 42.4 percent in 2017.
The scale of changes in terms of the allocation of parliamentary seats was also relatively minor, with Labour gaining only thirty-six new seats (twenty-eight from the Tories, six from the Scottish National Party, and two from the Liberal Democrats), whilst also managing to lose six seats back to the Tories (in some especially pro-Brexit areas of the English North and Midlands), for a net gain of only thirty seats. The Tories for their part underwent a net loss of only thirteen seats, and remain the largest party with 317 seats compared to Labour’s 262.
‘The simple truth is that Britain is a divided country.’
When read with a cold eye, this appears to be rather meager progress for Labour. The question then arises—is this newfound, energized optimism on the left in Britain well-grounded, or is it an overreaction driven by modest overperformance relative to low expectations? After all, given that Theresa May had been expecting to crush the Labour Party and most of the professional commentariat took the view that she was going to be successful, even a glass half-full could be a source of delight. But it is not just that the worst did not happen, or that Labour lives to fight another day. There is more to the story. The left in Britain is quite right to have extremely high hopes. Some deep features of British politics have changed, and the future is indeed bright. Allow me to explain why.
• • •
The Tories Have No New Ideas
The Tory bloodletting in response to their self-inflicted wound in calling a snap election has hardly even begun, but the very first act was of great illustrative significance. In the search for scapegoats, Theresa May’s main policy advisors and joint chiefs of staff, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, were made to “resign” immediately following the election. Timothy, a self-professed devotee of Joseph Chamberlain’s brand of nineteenth-century municipal conservatism, and a man whose luxuriant beard as well as his ideas seem to owe something to the era of late Victorian politics, released an altogether fascinating “resignation statement” (“sacking statement” might have been more accurate, but there you go). Here is the most striking passage:
“The reason for the disappointing result was not the absence of support for Theresa May and the Conservatives but an unexpected surge in support for Labour.
One can speculate about the reasons for this, but the simple truth is that Britain is a divided country: many are tired of austerity, many remain frustrated or angry about Brexit, and many younger people feel they lack the opportunities enjoyed by their parents’ generation.”
Quite. One can admire Timothy’s powers of diagnosis while chuckling at his inability to deal politically with the situation. People in Britain are unhappy with austerity and under-investment, tired of the often inane debate over Brexit (for instance, Theresa May’s “Brexit means Brexit”), and are outraged that opportunities for the young have been sacrificed by Tory policies that keep the costs of education high, and play the interests of the elderly off against their children and grandchildren. Timothy references a set of crystallising attitudes to which Labour’s program gives a clear and direct response. There has been zero evidence, either during or since the election, that the Conservative Party has any ideas whatsoever that would address the political and economic questions that need to be addressed. Britain has reached a point where a politics of endless regressive austerity just won’t hack it anymore, but where the Tories have forgotten how to offer anything else. It should cause them some panic that some of their most able political operatives are able to see their problems so clearly, but seem so entirely incapable of creating solutions.
Demography and Political Destiny
Once one burrows into details of 2017’s voting patterns, some extraordinary features of Britain’s new political cleavages emerge. Detailed data from YouGov, the pollster that did best in predicting the 2017 result of a hung parliament (where most other pollsters expected a comfortable Tory majority) shows the degree to which age is now the central dividing line of British political affiliation. Labour comfortably beat the Conservatives in every age group up to 50, with thundering leads of 55 percent to 29 percent among thirty-somethings, 63 percent to 23 percent among 25-29 year olds, 62 percent to 22 percent among those in their early twenties, and a simply extraordinary lead of 66 percent to 19 percent among 18- and 19-year-olds. What allowed the Tories to win most votes overall was that they could command such high levels of support among older voters, with a lead of 58 percent to 27 percent among sixty-something voters, and a truly remarkable lead of 69 percent to 19 percent among those aged 70 or over.
Age is now the central dividing line of British political affiliation, but it is not a simple story of people getting more right-wing as they grow older.
This is not a simple story of people getting more right-wing as they grow older, with familiar and boring predictably. The cleavage seems not so much to be between different age-groups as between different cohorts, who get their information and analysis about the world in different ways. Those reliant on Britain’s cynical and systematically biased right-wing newspapers—especially The Sun, Daily Mail and Daily Express—for their news and analysis are the very same people in these older demographics who voted overwhelmingly for the Conservatives. But newspaper circulations are plummeting as their readers die off with slow but relentless regularity. Younger generations have broken the spell of Britain’s small cabal of self-serving plutocratic press barons, and are able to interact with the media in a more sophisticated and nuanced way than earlier generations of loyal newspaper readers.
As was widely expected, Rupert Murdoch’s The Sun pulled out all the stops in attacking Jeremy Corbyn. Like some sort of pathetically unfunny comic, their election day front page portrayed the Labour leader in a trash can, beseeching readers “Don’t Chuck Britain in the Cor-Bin.” But the old tricks just don’t work well any more. The power of the British press has been in slow decline since its Thatcherite heyday in the eighties, but 2017 was the first election where the breaking of their spell was clear. And so here we have a generational shift, rather than a stable pattern among age-groups; for the British right-wing press, so long a scar on our democracy, the only way is down. In the place of older generations’ reliance on print media, we see an increasingly fragmented media landscape, refracted through a range of social media platforms, including a broader diversity of views from the right and left. Some of it is of a very low quality – ‘fake news’ is a phenomenon in Britain as it is in the United States – but some of it is genuinely insightful, and at least departs from the frequent groupthink of the right-wing print dailies. In any case, the monolithic hold that a few billionaires once had on Britain’s political media has been irreversibly fractured.
Another fascinating statistic in the YouGov data is the influence of education on voting. University graduates voted for Labour by a margin of 49 percent to 32 percent for the Tories, in stark contrast to those who left school at sixteen or who have no formal educational qualifications, who voted Tory over Labour by 55 percent to 33 percent. Here again there is a cohort effect rather than an age effect. As Tony Blair’s Labour governments in the late 90s and early 2000s massively increased rates of participation in higher education, Britain became a country in which younger people were much more likely to have gone to university than previous generations. The alignment of Labour voting with higher levels of education attainment is another reason why support for Labour is only likely to increase in the future, as the composition of the electorate further shifts in an advantageous direction.
The monolithic hold that a few billionaires once had on Britain’s political media has been irreversibly fractured.
It is perhaps not so surprising that the Tories lost the youngest cohorts of voters. It is, after all, the party responsible for trebling university tuition fees to £9,000 whereas the Labour Party promised to make university education free for all, as it is in Germany. What is perhaps of greater significance, though, is that the Tories have largely lost those in the 30-50 age group—those in the middle of their careers, with jobs, mortgages, and children at school. This group has seen its wages stagnate in a low productivity economy ravaged by under-investment, while the quality of its social services have come under threat thanks to years of Tory austerity. A new school funding formula that would have seen real-term cuts for most of Britain’s state schools—rendered unavoidable by the Tories’ ideological commitment to combining austerity for ordinary citizens and tax cuts for the wealthiest—was especially toxic as parents increasingly saw the link between problems at their children’s schools and the Tory rhetoric on public services having to do “less with more.” Britain may be famous for its private schools, but it is a country where 93 percent of school-age children are in state education and where, accordingly, a political party can only expect to survive for so long when it is associated with running down core public services.
Labour had the comfortable lead over the Tories one would expect among students (64 percent to 19 percent) and the unemployed (54 percent to 28 percent), but what should panic the Conservatives is that Labour also led among those in part-time employment (44 percent to 40 percent) and even more comfortably among those in full-time employment (45 percent to 39 percent). The only employment status that preferred the Tories was, inevitably, the retired who broke 63 percent to the Conservatives as against only 24 percent to Labour. But there is no future for a political party whose policies appeal only to a group in the later stages of their lives. As Tory grandee Lord Heseltine, who had been a cabinet minister under Thatcher in the 1980s and then deputy prime-minister under John Major in the 1990s, put it, you can’t have much hope for a party whose voters “are dying off at 2 percent per year.”
Britain’s Electoral Pivot
These demographic considerations give a sense of why Labour should be hopeful that its vote will only increase over the next few years, given the demography of its support. But that is not the only reason for optimism. For although Labour’s net gain of only 30 seats was relatively modest, one thing that the 2017 election accomplished, almost under the radar, was to completely redraw the electoral map of the UK. The proportion of super-marginal seats in the country is now remarkably high, with once-safe Conservative seats now recast as tight battlegrounds where Labour is challenging hard. The British “first past the post” electoral system can operate in somewhat mystifying ways, with small changes in overall support leading to enormous swings in seat numbers as the country approaches strategic pivot points at which large numbers of marginal constituencies can change hands. The data on the distribution of votes across marginal constituencies (many of which are newly marginal) shows that the June 2017 election has left the UK close to one of these strategic pivot points. With a fair wind in its sails, a small gain in support for Labour at the next election could result in disproportionate gains.
With a fair wind in its sails, a small gain in support for Labour at the next election could result in disproportionate gains.
To dig into the data a little, there are now 38 seats which Labour would take with a swing of just 2 percent. Just this small shift would leave Labour as the largest party in a hung parliament, bringing the Tory government to an end, and giving Labour the chance to govern with some level of support from other left-of-center parties. Moving beyond these medium-sized effects of relatively minor electoral movements, things would then start to change rapidly on slightly larger shifts in support—a 4 percent swing would see 68 seats change hands, with a 6 percent swing seeing 90 seats moving. Among the seats that would move into the Labour column on these relatively modest shifts in electoral support are constituencies that had come to be thought of as impregnable Tory fortresses—constituencies such as the Cities of London and Westminster, and Uxbridge and Ruislip South in leafy outer-west London (home constituency of Britain’s buffoonish Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson). Hastings and Rye, the south-coast constituency of the current Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, which had been thought of as a safe Tory seat up until the election, was held by the Conservatives by only 346 votes, a majority which was less than the total votes received by an independent Trotskyist candidate. In short, even in many places where Labour didn’t quite manage to win in June 2017, the battleground of British politics has been significantly restructured by the often unexpected advances the party made. Everything is set for a political battle next time conducted on territory much more conducive to a significant Labour advance, where the balance of political power in the country could easily pivot to a very different new equilibrium.
• • •
And so, in conclusion, the “glorious defeat” of June 2017 was not just a handy tonic for the British left, bringing just enough good news to keep the troops from despair. Rather, it was the first stage in a generational shift in the shape of British politics, pointing a clear path ahead to victory next time.