Labour’s electoral strategy was more successful than expected – can it deliver victory next time? Ellie Mae O’Hagan and Conor Pope debate whether the next campaign should continue to focus on non-voters and youth turnout
YES – Ellie Mae O’Hagan
The general election provoked a lot of unexpected reactions, but perhaps the most surprising was the sight of Matthew Goodwin, professional political commentator, eating his own book live on Sky News.
Much has been made of this ceremonial book eating, not least by a left delighted with the election result, but I am more interested in what it represented: that the vast majority of people paid for their political judgements in this country in fact hold axioms in their heads that are simply wrong. Or, to put it in kinder terms, out of date.
The most dominant of these axioms is that there is a certain electoral formula that political leaders must follow in order to win elections. This formula was alchemised in the late 1990s and goes like this: disregard non-voters and young people, lifelong Labour voters and hardline Tories; and instead focus all energy on wooing that elusive beast – the swing voter.
That Corbyn and his team abandoned this formula completely was taken as a sign that the left is only interested in a kind of self-satisfied morality, rather than winning elections.
The assumption was that Labour would be utterly trounced in a general election and wind up with fewer than 150 seats – a view that was backed up by many pollsters’ own modeling, which projected a collapse across the party’s traditional heartlands.
In fact, the abandonment of this formula was one of the shrewdest political moves made by a Labour leader in decades. The formula applied to an era that is gone and is never coming back. Any advice given or predictions made on the basis of this formula are very shaky indeed. The general election fundamentally changed the way in which we should view both electability and electoral strategy.
Thus, there really is no reason why Corbyn should not continue to prioritise attempts to win the support of young people and non-voters.
Those who argue against this strategy have primarily been the same people who assumed we would stay in the European Union because people always vote for the status quo; or that no one would really vote for a megalomaniac like Donald Trump. Many of these are the same people who, less than a month ago, were arguing with an almost religious conviction that Labour would be wiped out as an electoral force for pursuing such a strategy.
The inconvenient fact is that these people are no longer able to make reliable analyses, because their methodology broke some time ago and they are yet to find a new one. They can – and believe me, they will – argue over and over again that Labour should focus on winning around Tory voters, that focusing on young people is too risky, and that it is better to go for the demographic we apparently know will turn out. But any rationale for this is outdated and does not take into account the 12 million people who voted for Corbyn’s Labour party last month.
The leadership’s best tactic is to continue to ignore all of the advice of these self-appointed gurus and keep doing what they are doing. And the best thing people who want to tell him why he is wrong could do is to go back in time and try to pinpoint the exact moment they stopped knowing anything about politics.
Ellie Mae O’Hagan is a freelance writer. She tweets at @MissEllieMae
NO – Conor Pope
An electoral strategy that adds 3.5 million votes to our total and only results in the gain of 30 seats is not, in fact, that successful – especially if it still leaves us 64 seats short of a majority of one. In a return to two-party politics that still somehow contrived to deliver a hung parliament, Labour won a larger voteshare than any losing party since 1970. In what is, admittedly, a larger population, Labour amassed more votes than a second-placed party has managed since October 1951, and more than a winning party has received in 20 years.
But having proven that he was more widely popular than his critics believed, Jeremy Corbyn has yet to prove he can win an election. In seat terms, we are still further behind the Tories than we were in 2010, despite polling 11 percentage points higher in this election. It is remarkable, but a remarkable failure.
Our strategy of targeting young and previously non-voters was more profitable than many suspected, myself included, with turnout among 18-to-24 year olds rising to a 25-year high of 54 per cent, yet it was not enough. It was the second election running where Labour had made an appeal to young voters central to its strategy, with the lower age bracket still casting less than half the number of votes as the over-65s – an ever-growing section of the population.
The reason the Tories are able to stay put in Downing Street – with Theresa May or whoever might replace her – despite their desperately bad campaign, is that we allowed them a pool of swing voters to appeal to unchallenged. We ended up fighting two different elections, with two entirely different electorates. Theirs may have only been marginally deeper, but it was much broader.
Look at the swing we need against the Tories to get a majority of one: around five per cent. Now look at the swing we achieved in 2017: two per cent. Although we piled on all those millions of votes, we still need more than double the swing in order to scrape into power without relying on smaller parties. Even then, it is not the kind of working majority needed to deliver a transformative, radical agenda.
Those seats we now need are also unlike the gains we made last month: they have older demographics, fewer universities, more ‘Leave’ voters and are less diverse.
What we did not see from the tumultuous shift in public opinion during the short campaign was any real movement in support for the Conservatives. The Tory support barely even wobbled as a result of May’s abysmal campaign; all it seemed to do was solidify a Labour base that has swollen under Corbyn.
What little downward trend there was in the Tory vote in the final weeks of the campaign came from a depression in turnout for older voters, which was likely a result of the disastrous dementia tax and refusal to back the triple lock on pensions. While that slight turnout dip enhanced the effect of the rise in young voters, it is not something to bank: there is no reason to believe the Conservative party will be so complacent as to centre its manifesto around policies that repel its own support base again.
This electoral strategy has already surprised us. Perhaps it will again. But the evidence from this election suggests that ‘one more heave’ is not the answer.
Conor Pope is deputy editor of Progress. He tweets at @Conorpope