The glorious myth of the 2017 election

The Labour left hail it as a great victory. But it wasn’t. And it sowed the seeds of the 2019 wipeout.

Ieuan Joy

Topics Brexit Politics UK

Labour has once again been plunged into civil war. This time, it’s over a leaked report which, while nominally being about anti-Semitism in the party, is in large part devoted to issues of factional infighting. One of the allegations the report makes is that Labour HQ worked to sabotage former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in the 2017 election campaign, thus keeping him from power.

This has fed the stab-in-the-back myth clung to by many on the Labour left – the idea that Corbyn would have been a success had it not been for the party’s right undermining him, and that he was in touching distance of Downing Street at the 2017 election.

This bubble needs bursting. In 2017, Labour did do better than expected and significantly increased its vote share. But it still marked the party’s third consecutive loss to the Tories, and it lay the foundations for the electoral catastrophe that was the 2019 election.

Everyone speaks of 2019 as the year the Red Wall – Labour’s old heartlands – got kicked to pieces. But this didn’t happen overnight. While Labour’s vote share increased overall in 2017, it decreased in its Brexit-voting heartlands. Labour made gains in the inner cities as it rallied younger supporters. But the few seats the Tories did take in 2017 were places like Walsall North, while Labour took places like Kensington.

That Labour denied Theresa May her majority in 2017 stopped the party from taking a closer look at the underlying issues the result revealed. In the Black Country, for instance, Labour seats became ultra-marginals after 2017. All it would take was a small nudge for the area to go blue – and that’s exactly what happened in 2019. How Labour was blind to this threat is beyond me – it reflects a remarkable complacency.

Similarly, many in Labour seem to ignore the fact that, at the 2017 election, the Tories became the second biggest party in Scotland, with Labour picking up just six extra seats after it was wiped out by the Scottish National Party in 2015. Both Labour and the Tories went into 2017 with one Scottish seat each, but the Tories surged to 13 seats while Labour secured just seven. That Scotland, once a bulwark of Labour support, now seemed permanently lost was also completely ignored by many Labourites post-2017.

Right-wing commentators don’t like to admit it, but Labour’s 2017 manifesto was popular with the wider public. Promising public spending after years of austerity contrasted with a Tory manifesto that got torn to shreds by the press over lacklustre promises and back-pedalling over a social-care policy that alienated many Tory voters. Overall, the Tory campaign was a shambles, with a core message of ‘strong and stable leadership’ repeated by a leader, Theresa May, who ducked debates and scrutiny. It left Labour with an open goal.

Mistakes were made by the Tories in 2017. But, for all the party’s faults, it proved to be a quick learner. Plans were put in place to make sure May’s weak leadership would not make it to another General Election, while strategists knew the next manifesto would have to reward the public after nearly a decade of austerity. This contrasted with the complacency of Labour strategists going into 2019, who thought a 2017 manifesto on steroids would be a winner. In the event, in 2019, Labour’s individual policies were popular, but when combined lacked credibility.

Labour landed a blow against the Tories in 2017, but it only left the party wide open for what was coming in 2019. The Tories’ embrace of Brexit – though somewhat feeble under Theresa May – lay the foundations for 2019. By then, the Tories’ more full-throated embrace of Brexit, via new PM Boris Johnson, along with Labour’s embrace of a second referendum, sealed Corbyn’s fate in many Red Wall seats.

Labour went into 2019 complacent, viewing its chances through rose-tinted glasses. If anything, the fact Labour could not beat someone as incompetent as May in 2017 should have set off alarm bells. Now, in the form of this leaked report, many Labourites have found a scapegoat for their loss in 2017: treacherous figures in Labour HQ. If Labour continues to believe its own nonsense, it will never rebuild itself.

Ieuan Joy is a student journalist based in Sheffield. Follow him on Twitter: @JoyIeuan.

Picture by: Getty.

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Bridget Jones

17th April 2020 at 6:36 pm

Inflated egos blinded Labour to the reason for their relative success in 2017. They were lent many of those votes to block Brexit from the safety of the opposition benches to be the useful idiots of a bourgeois elite that for the first time hadn’t gotten their own way. There’s no way all those big earners were voting to pay a 50p/£1 tax rate, look how often they repeated ‘no one votes to be worse off’ plus both times they campaigned for a hung Parliament in order to stymie a Tory Government not elect a Labour one

Glenn Bell

14th April 2020 at 11:10 pm

If it wasnt for the Corona virus crisis would anybody actually be talking about Labour? If not for Corona we would be well on our way to cutting our ties with EU and transforming the UK into a major, world power again, but the current crisis has put that on hold and Labour are making the most of it by trying to score political points at every turn. Theyre a shambles of a party who lost their way long ago and rejected their traditional core support in favour of the “middle classes” and support for dubious minority fringe groups. Their handling of Brexit proved they simply cannot be trusted. The tories are not much better regards trustworthiness but put alongside Labour and a Lib Dem party so far up its own arse it cant see whats happening in the real world, the tories are the only party I would vote for as I did last GE, the first time I had voted since I voted for Blair in 1997; it was the fear of a far left Labour party gaining power which made me decide to vote again, nothing else.

Jonnie Henly

15th April 2020 at 2:38 am

In what way have Labour been trying to score political points during the virus?

And I’d say the opposite is true: if it weren’t for the virus dominating the headlines we’d be talking about the Labour party a lot more. Their new leadership and this somewhat bombshell of a report.

As it is, the focus is entirely on non political matters.

And of course, the approval of the government has rise during a time of national emergency, as it usually does.

Ronda Roman

14th April 2020 at 10:58 pm

Thousand Of the Peoples are Died From Corona Virus…On The Other Hand Thousand Peoples Are Died By Poorness Its Means Poorness is More Dangerous As Compare to Corona Virus……Help Poors

John Grytpype-Thynne

14th April 2020 at 10:16 pm

Err, did you just make the same rookie mainstream journo mistake? ie; ignoring the sizeable elephant of Blair/Brown/Miliband’s vote numbers.
Labour’s heartlands have been slowly evaporating for 20+ years, virtually collapsing in 2005/2010/2015.

Corbyn slowed the trend in spite of relentless Blairite attacks, co-ordinated with a media that showed its hand after the referendum.

Everyone knew this at the time, and now we have recorded evidence, journos will try to spin some yarn that also ignores the fact the north predominantly voted for Brexit in both elections.

Mor Vir

14th April 2020 at 7:45 pm

Large questions loom: What does the LP even continue to exist for? Is it just a part of the self-perpetuating two-party configuration that is structural to post-war UK politics? Just a shape in the jigsaw of the status quo? LP continues to exist because the jigsaw continues to? It is just a habit?

Has the LP mission already been achieved? LP aims of better working conditions and living standards have already been achieved? Britain has already found its capital-social equilibrium and TP have accepted that. TP policies are simply the implied logic, and in the Britain public mind, of the state of the Britain economy within that equilibrium. TP policies are what they are because that is what the Britain economy can afford and that is what serves the maintenance of its status quo?

And it is not like the Britain economy is about to radically improve. It has an equilibrium of zero productivity growth, like all ‘mature’ economies. Neither TP nor LP can do anything about that, any more than any state abroad, and LP does not even imagine that it can. The policy logic that the economy implies is not going to change. The TP has already nailed that.

So what does the LP exist for? To tinker with the details of the equilibrium? No one is convinced that the LP has that nailed, let alone is inspired by that prospect. LP needs to find some convincing reason why it should even continue to exist beyond being the other option on the ballot paper.

Quite likely the morbidity of the party system is a reflection of the morbidity of the economic base, and that expresses itself as the TP continuing as is, and the LP being basically pointless. Britain is in a deep stasis and politics lacks dynamism; it is smoke and mirrors if it seems otherwise. LP is simply no longer ahead of the curve of the development of the capital-social equilibrium – and that development is anyway in stasis, as is the economic base.

Reformist has done its job, achieved its aims, and now it is pointless? All that remains to be seen is how long morbid-capitalism can survive by way of financialisation and state support. Is there any limit to the viability of that lark? Only time will tell?

Quite possibly the only purpose of LP now is to be the opposition, to keep TP within the capital-social equilibrium. Its purpose is secondary, not to be the governing party but to be a threat of a governing party should TP stray too far. The purpose of reformism was to nudge the state and thus to reform the status quo toward an acceptable equilibrium. Now that equilibrium has been achieved, the purpose of the reformist party is simply to keep the equilibrium in place? LP is a ‘system correction mechanism’ that keeps the system functioning as it is supposed to, by the threat that it might win an election should the TP stray. That threat is enough to keep TP on course, and no actual LP win is needed.

On that reading, neither TP or LP was really in control but the capital-social equilibrium had its own developmental logic and the two parties inter-played to realise that equilibrium. Nor are they in control now, rather the necessity of the equilibrium controls them and indeed assigns them their roles.

Possibly the LP is not in control of its own purpose any more than TP is of its. It is practically fate implied by the historical development. We ended up here because we were always going to end up here? If LP seems pointless today, maybe that is historically necessary too. It has settled into its role as second fiddle, as a correction mechanism that exists so that it is not needed? Its point is to be the opposition and the threat of an alternate government.

Joseph Adam-smith

15th April 2020 at 4:10 pm

Can you speak English, please? TP? LP? An LP is a long-playing record so what does that have to do with a political discussion?

Daniel Goldstein

15th April 2020 at 7:26 pm

I’m guessing that English isn’t the user’s first language. TP is presumably Tory Party, LP is Labour Party. It’s a bit difficult to read, but there’s actually a compelling argument there. I was just reading the list of Labour’s shadow ministers and I began to wonder what the point of them was. Their salary will get a boost, on top of the £81k they are already paid for their impotency. It can reasonably be argued that Labour did push the Tories to the left a little bit, so the party does serve some function in Parliament. It appears that does not extend to governing though.

Mor Vir

14th April 2020 at 6:22 pm

The long and short: LP flunked its post-2008 populist moment. It was obvious that the populist trend was bound up in UK with Brexit. All LP had to do was to get behind Brexit 100%, challenge May’s attempt at sell out, and combine Brexit with left populist policies, which in any case were impossible without Brexit.

They could not do that for various reasons, LP MPs, Momentum hostility to Brexit. LP had the opportunity but it was in no state to seize it. Populism is now aborted in UK, TP is on 50%, LP is way down and populist groupings are vanished. Corbyn is gone. Chance missed, chance lost.

Now we will just to see what comes of the corona crisis. LP is no fitter or meaner, or adaptable than before, probably less so. It is not certain that LP will ever govern again. Like the rest of the left, it is simply too set in its ways and in its own opinions, and it is not adaptable. Another TP2 episode would be pointless.

LP opposition to Brexit may well prove its final undoing, not just a chance lost but the last chance gone. Adapt to survive, don’t adapt die, that is how it works. Do not assume that there will be another chance.

Daniel Goldstein

15th April 2020 at 7:31 pm

I think you’re right about Labour and the left’s lack of adaptability. I wouldn’t write off populism in the UK though – it will probably continue on the right, not in any meaningful left wing movement.

Jonnie Henly

14th April 2020 at 6:12 pm

“While Labour’s vote share increased overall in 2017, it decreased in its Brexit-voting heartlands.”

No it didn’t.
The only places where Labour’s vote share decreased in 2017 were in Scotland, and a habdful of seats in South West London.

Both of which are staunchly remain areas.

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