Progressive Futures

Labour’s campaign comeback

18 April 2018

An Open Left paper

Charlie Cadywould
Drimafilm /

This time last year when Theresa May called her snap election, Labour appeared to be heading for a 1983-style landslide defeat, hovering at around 25 per cent in the polls. May’s approval ratings were sky high, while Jeremy Corbyn’s were through the floor.

Within the space of just a few weeks, Labour shot up to the 40 per cent share that it received on polling day in June, gaining 30 seats and denying the Conservatives an outright majority. One interpretation has been simply that the polls were wrong in the first place, but Labour’s disappointing local election results in early May suggests otherwise, and that the party really was in poor shape at the start of the campaign. That such an astonishing turnaround still resulted in a Conservative government demonstrates just how bad things were looking for Labour just a few weeks before polling day. But something unusual happened during the campaign to produce such a surprise.

A year on from the calling of that election, with Labour still struggling to develop a lead in the opinion polls, Policy Network publishes a major new analysis to understand the dynamics of that shift. In doing so, it exposes a series of narratives that have risen around the 2017 result in the service of certain political agendas. The election was not the referendum on Theresa May’s Brexit plans that many arch-remainers would like it to have been, nor was it all about Jeremy Corbyn, as his most ardent supporters would have us believe. There is no evidence to support the idea that millions of people voted Labour because they thought the party wouldn’t win, although few thought that it would. Nor can we put it all down to young people, private renters, austerity, immigration, or any other single issue or group that have been identified as being responsible for the rapid change in Labour’s fortunes. Many of these trends are long-term phenomena that explain changing electoral divides, but cannot alone explain the sharp shift from April to June 2017.

The late comeback cannot be put down to any single or primary cause. However, in very broad terms, the data suggests that of Labour’s 2017 coalition, it was slightly older, more pro-Brexit, socially conservative and less left-wing voters that swung to the party during the campaign, while younger, more enthusiastic left-wing Labour voters tended to already be within the fold by the start of the campaign, even if they had not voted Labour in 2015.

This report is part of Policy Network’s Open Left project.