Reality check: a winning party needs to win, you know, seats

by Rob Marchant

For some MPs and commentators, suddenly everything has changed about Labour’s situation. But what, exactly? Did we win, as Emily Thornberry thought we did? Has Jeremy Corbyn now become the nation’s best choice for prime minister? Is it just “one more heave”?

Hmm. Not really. In fact, dig a bit deeper and we might observe the opposite: that in fact, very little has changed at all.

Yes, Corbyn confounded expectations of the votes he could poll nationally. As did Theresa May. However, the mere fact that his impressive upswing in vote-share did not actually win him the election should give us pause, for three reasons.

One: an increase in vote-share (in this case, the largest since 1945) is, self-evidently, not just down to the party and its leader in a given moment. Logic dictates that it is down to three other things as well: the opposition, the leader and state of the party last time, and the opposition last time.

In this case we are talking about May, a leader almost universally derided at time of writing, and who may yet turn out to be the shortest-serving prime minister not to resign through ill-health in nearly two centuries; Cameron, who was felt by the public not to be a bad leader (at least at the time of the 2015 election) and increased his vote; and Miliband, who brought Labour’s number of parliamentary seats close to its 1980s post-war nadir.

In this context, Corbyn’s achievement looks somewhat less impressive: he has done better, set against the terrible May, than the terrible Miliband did against the half-decent Cameron. A low bar indeed.

Indeed if, instead of looking at the swing, we look at his vote-share compared with that of other Labour leaders (perhaps a better measure), we can see that he is around the middle of the table. The real news is the confounded expectations, not the absolute result.

Two: the maths. There is also one thing which really stands out about the big upswing in vote-share compared with other general elections: Labour’s abject failure in translating it into seats. In fact, if we map swings against seats for elections since 1945, we can see that it is a marked outlier.

Fig. 1: Swing vs. seats since 1950. Source data:

For the nerdy among you, there are two other cases of outliers the other way – where Labour was “lucky”, if you like – and got way above-trend seats for its swing – in 1983 and 1974 (Feb). But mostly the points lie in quite a fairly narrow band around the trend, and 2017 comes out as the worst post-war case for increase in seats per unit swing.

Why should this be, we ask? Because first-past-the-post dictates that Labour pursue a “key seat” strategy, as it has been doing for decades. It does not campaign heavily except in seats held by another party that it hopes to gain (or, at worst, to defend seats which are at risk of being marginally lost).

What happened this election was unprecedented: the combination of three largely uncoordinated campaigns (the Leader’s Office, Labour HQ and Momentum) meant that, whether by accident or dumb design, quite often heavy campaigning was carried out in a seat which was safe as houses.

The reward for this strategic blunder was reaped on election night: an unprecedentedly poor conversion of swing into seats, because we preached only in areas where people were already converted (or didn’t generally vote). No attempt was made to win over the disaffected Tories in marginal seats that are essential to any Labour win. And don’t forget the simple maths: a Tory vote converted to Labour is worth twice that of a non-voter converted to Labour, towards a win in a particular seat.

It is also notable that of the 21 seats lost during the SNP’s terrible night in Scotland – and where Labour self-evidently must make gains in order to win power – we won only 6. The Tories – the Tories in Scotland, dammit! – got double that.

In short: never, in the field of post-war voting, has so much swing been secured by so many rallies for so few seats. It is a numeric, pyrrhic victory.

Three: emotional effects. It’s understandable that some MPs and even commentators have been swept up in the excitement of it all.

If, like much of the PLP perhaps, you are understandably lost, dying of thirst in the political desert, and a bottle of Alice-in-Wonderland water marked “kiss and make up, and it’ll all be all right” suddenly appears, it is tempting to pretend that you can just close ranks and fight for common sense from the inside. It is even more tempting, with May’s perceived failure allowing a tantalising glimpse of the possibility of power, should there be another election soon.

But it is a mirage. The fundamentals of the Labour equation are just the same as they were on June 7th, when everyone was expecting an easy Tory win and a Labour meltdown. Labour can’t win like this: it’d have to kill the Tory surge in Scotland, for one thing.

For another, “one more heave”, scarcely a good strategy at the best of times, might work if we were dealing with an open-minded and united party whose decision-makers were entirely rational. But the hard left does not work like that and, even if it did, Corbyn has now unleashed forces beyond the party’s control. Like Momentum, which is already functioning as a parallel party; outside the discipline, the normal checks and balances of party structures.

How will the main body of MPs prevent local moves for deselections? How will they stop moderates being hounded out of the party? One has only to witness the aggressive social media trolling carried out by Corbynite die-hards to see that it will be difficult to calm such people down. How will they stop their acolytes harassing and alienating the media? What about the people who have stopped voting Labour because they see the party irredeemably tainted?

And even if by some miracle Labour were to end up in government, what about the woeful incompetence of his top table? What happens when Corbyn fumbles his first foreign policy or defence challenge? How could the administration be anything other than so disastrous that the party would not be destroyed in the aftershock?

These things seem not to have been thought through very well by those rushing to forgive and forget, in the hope that they can somehow change this entirely-transformed Labour party from within, incrementally. As if they were dealing with a pragmatic group which would negotiate quid pro quo in the time-honoured tradition.

Let us be clear, Labour moderates: the current Labour leadership, and its adherents do not want to debate with you or negotiate with you. They want you to either drink the Kool-Aid or disappear from the party, as quickly as possible.

Fight, or flight: the choice is still the same as it was last Wednesday.

Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour party manager who blogs at The Centre Left

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24 Responses to “Reality check: a winning party needs to win, you know, seats”

  1. john riches says:

    ‘The reward for this strategic blunder was reaped on election night: an unprecedentedly poor conversion of swing into seats, because we preached only in areas where people were already converted (or didn’t generally vote). No attempt was made to win over the disaffected Tories in marginal seats that are essential to any Labour win.’

    Bugger it, I must have dreamt those 50 or so activists out on the streets of Brighton Kemptown when I was there. And around the same in Hove as well.

    Desperate stuff, Kevin. There’s loads to do yet, of course, and we’ve got a whole bunch of new marginals in our sights now.

  2. ed says:

    The remaining remnant of a remnant herding around the same old message, each time undergoing further qualification in light of each advance by the leadership. A now small band of right wingers, carping as they inevitably give ground and increasingly dwindle, eventually to nothing.

  3. David E says:

    I’m increasingly convinced it’ll be the triumphalism of the left of the labour party that’ll put the Corbyn project back into reverse over the next few months. Rather than show magnanimity toward moderates, the carping and insults from the twitter crazies and the comments of the likes of Clive Lewis toward Chris Leslie is more hindrance than help.

    The Tory party are ruthless and adaptive. They won’t make the same schoolboy mistakes come the next election. It’ll be a sharper campaign with a better figurehead and less dumbo policy announcements. Labour better be prepared for that.

  4. John Wall says:

    I think you possibly agree with my views

    Somewhere I’m sure I read that the overall swing from Conservative to Labour was about 2% – despite a poor, complacent and arrogant campaign, millions more voted for May than Cameron. It seems that there are some 40,000 students in Canterbury, I’ve never voted Labour in my life but if someone was, effectively, offering me at least £27k…….

    What’s the plan to attract millions of Conservative voters to get another 60+ seats and an overall majority? Hi

  5. Just in case we forget, this is what Rob was saying just two weeks ago.

    Finally, there are the polls. Even with narrowing polls, it is as well to remember that this general election, like all others, will be decided in the marginals; calculations based on broad swings in the national vote-share have inbuilt inaccuracy in a first-past-the-post system. Lord Ashcroft, the only pollster regularly to poll in marginals, predicts a Tory majority of 142, and Tory seat count of nearly 400, even after the recent poll narrowing. Oh and yes, YouGov has predicted a hung parliament in its most recent poll, but you can see here why that is a “brave” prediction.

    I guess he’s a bit disappointed that Corbyn did so well. The pseudo-science that Rob wraps his articles in shouldn’t be trusted too far.

  6. Robin Thorpe says:

    Whilst I broadly agree with Rob that the Corbynista elements of the party are exaggerating the succes of this election; I think that they are entitled to feel vindicated in some respects. Labour was not wiped out, as was predicted by many commentators (not just on Uncut), and Jeremy’s message of hope did appeal to young voters, as he promised it would.

    However, the Corbyn led party won fewer seats than Callaghan in 1979 (269 seats, resigned) and Kinnock in 1992 (271 seats, resigned.) Corbyn, 2017, 262 seats, claims victory & orders the winner to resign

    I don’t agree that the prospects for Labour moderates are fight or flight. I side more with Jonathan Todd in that unity is required to bridge the divide between losing an election and winning one. The Labour party has always been a broad church. Those who claim that Corbyn is returning the party to it’s roots are no more accurate than those who say that a return to Blair’s “third way” is the only way to win. Labour is not just the party of Corbyn, Michael Foot, Aneurin Bevan and Keir Hardie, but also Gordon Brown, Harold Wilson, Hugh Gaitskell and Arthur Henderson.

    I believe that combining the optimism of the Corbyn campaign with the professionalism and co-ordination of the Blair campaign then Labour could regain power. The current leadership team did not appear to have a strategy, as you report here, and they did fail to be properly briefed on several occasions during the campaign. I think that the manifesto, although hopeful, was too broad and invited criticism by the public and commentators for not being realistic.

    If the likes of Yvette Cooper and Chuka Umunna, who I accept aren’t universally liked within Labour circles, were to return then I think that they would bring a more professional approach to media presentation. I know that the recent campaign was successful in social media circles, but broadcast media is still important for many voters. Getting your policies and ideas across in the broadcast media, and being able to answer questions succintly and clearly is a skill (look at Theresa May for an example here) and other MPs within Labour do it better than, for example, Emily Thornberry.

    One of the things that I do think Corbyn and McDonnell did well is that they learned to moderate their language. They dropped phrases like “neo-liberal consensus” and focused instead on the “for the many not the few”. Corbyn was also able to explain that he could hold personal views separate from the party approved line, which is grown-up politics.

  7. Alf says:

    No front bench jobs for the #chickencoup plotters. Ever. They are the lowest of the low. Owen Smith, in particular, is a political dwarf and a grinning pipsqueak.

  8. John P Reid says:

    I agree with Danny Spwight and John wall, Robin Thorpe, chuka Ammuna who doesn’t want to leave th single market, there’s no leadership competition going in, for now

    As for the article, Rob,it does sound a bit sour grapes,but yes you’re right, fact is we still need Tory votes,and post Brexit, post austerity ,there has to be issues that appeal to Tory voters, the fact we’ve neatly scrapped the army, armed police,and neighbour hood police, also devolution is something that appeals to both
    But hoe about us proposing, delaying trident scrapping the third heathroe runway,and HS2 that will free up a few billion.

  9. Peter Kenny says:

    OK Rob, I’ve been coming here a while now but I am now officially finished with this place.

    I don’t even actually know what the word ‘moderate’ means any more. I think it’s probably Corbyn.

    You’re no use to the cause – no encouragement, no advice, no hope.

    Not a word about how wrong you’ve been – the biggest increase in vote share since 1945 leaves us ‘about where we were’. the first election we’ve increased our number of seats since 1997. young people politically engaged again. Scum sheets like the Daily Mail printing their 13 pages of hysteria about Corbyn to no avail.

    The Tories on the ropes – ‘this mess’ as Teresa May put it.

    All we have is your know-all nonsense when the events of the election have demonstrated you know actually nothing. Go back and look at your adamantine certainty that nothing like this could ever happen.

    I don’t mind reading centrist, right wing stuff, otherwise I’d never come here. I do object to writing that seemingly is incapable of learning, of reflecting.

    Have you never thought about politics as dynamic? It’s about shifting ‘common sense’, it’s about the tide being with us. You. of course won’t be, will you?

    Have fun with Chris Leslie.

  10. steve says:

    Rob: “It is a numeric, pyrrhic victory.”

    Our task now must be to ensure the pyrrhic victory doesn’t become a real victory.

    Clearly Corbyn is popular, far more popular than his supporters would have dared imagine. And, it appears, a large section of the PLP, previously antagonistic towards Corbyn, have now joined the Hard Left in supporting Corbyn.

    Personally, I believe in speaking truth to power, particularly when the ‘power’ in question is the Hard Left. So let’s be frank, the electorate, by voting for Corbyn in their millions, have got it wrong. They have mis-voted. The same happened in Scotland when a cruel electorate maliciously refused to back the very deserving Jim Murphy. Our brave response: we must rally support for May and the Tories.

    We should remember, Dan Hodges and Jonathan Roberts who both wrote for this site, have joined the Tories and proudly vote Tory. Let’s honour their foresight. We must do the same.

    Come on, Rob. You know it makes sense. Let go of your vestigial loyalty to the no longer existing Labour Party of Gaitskell. Face reality, recognise and respond to the Hard Left assault on the party we love – do all that you can to prevent the Hard Left, with the complicity of a depraved electorate, from grabbing power in the U.K: join the Tories.

  11. John Wall says:

    @David E – I think you’re right. Unless it’s completely unavoidable I can’t see any enthusiasm within the Conservatives for another election any time soon. This is because their MPs are probably scared that the Corbyn (small m) momentum would take him into No. 10. That’s why they’re sticking with May – for now – as they want to avoid new leader/PM = General Election.

    It’s also worth remembering that the Article 50 clock is now ticking. Whether the May strategy is good, bad or indifferent – and there are reports it might change – it wouldn’t make sense to try and tear it up with a change of government in, say, the Autumn, irrespective of having to stop the process for the duration of the campaign.

    I don’t know how long May will survive but, if the arrangement with the DUP holds, there might not be an election before 2020/21 at the earliest. Looking across at Labour they probably reckon that, sometime, disillusionment will set in when some finally realise that they’re still 60+ seats short of an overall majority.

  12. Bob-B says:

    Before this year I voted Labour in every election this century. But I will not be voting Labour as long as it has a leader who has supported Hamas and Hezbollah, who has worked for Iranian TV, who has had extensive links with antisemites, who has supported the Castro dictatorship, and who has not one but two apologists for Joseph Stalin among his closest. Ask me again when you’ve a less dsguisting leader.

  13. e says:

    Robin Thorpe please note that a major difference between Labour’s recent advance and the other elections you mention is that, under Jez, labour deprived the Tories of an overall majority (and also made a lot of Tory marginals). the Tories won those other elections with clear overall majorities.

    I’m not alone in noticing herding right wing suggestions that having Ummuna and Cooper in the Shadow Cabinet would be, somehow, a ‘good’idea. Without presuming on the Leader’s authority, somebody ought to let you down as gently as possible. They aren’t coming back and it certainly would not be a good idea. Do yourself a favour; forget it-ain’t gonna happen, not no how.

  14. Landless Peasant says:

    Lies, damned lies, and Statistics!

    Corbyn has put Labour back on track . Just admit it. He’s the best Labour leader for many decades .

  15. Eamonn says:

    Good article, though sadly given the collective amnesia gripping the PLP at the moment and the ill advised embrace of Old Labour policies, I can’t imagine that it’ll make any difference in the grand scheme of things. Let’s face it the likelihood of a moderate centre left Labour Party ever running the country again is zero. As long as the PLP shamelessly embrace the hard left agenda of Corbyn and his allies they’ll simply become the perpetual party of protest putting forward an endless stream of ever more fantastical and costly policies which are unlikely to win back many Scottish voters or indeed wavering Tory voters throughout the UK as a whole. What next? Reopen the coal mines? Renationalise telecoms? Where will it stop?

  16. john P Reid says:

    e, so did Gordon Brown

  17. Dom says:

    Eamonn- not sure if the irony is unconscious or not. FYI – it’s not going to stop. Absurd idea that itt should or will.

  18. NickT says:

    “Corbyn has put Labour back on track . Just admit it. He’s the best Labour leader for many decades .”

    Corbyn lost to the most grotesquely inadequate Tory leader in human memory. What does that tell you? HE LOST. HE IS NOT CLOSE TO A MAJORITY – EVEN AGAINST THERESA MAY!

    As for the popularity of St Jeremy, remember that he didn’t dare campaign in marginal seats. He stayed in the safe cult areas. Where marginals went for Labour, it had more to do with May’s bizarrely repulsive affect and rage against austerity than with Jezza’s magical mystery tour. If the Tories find a halfway competent leader and dump austerity (which they are now halfway to doing) Corbyn’s devotees are going to be left wondering where his “popularity” disappeared to. Remember, until May made the mistake of actually meeting the public, Corbyn was losing Labour by-elections in seats that the party had held forever. And yes, the Tories held on to Copeland, despite the “Corbyn” surge. That should tell you something about what the future holds.

    The brutal facts are these: May lost seats rather than Corbyn winning them. Find a competent Tory leader, put Corbyn’s record and fantasy manifesto under the microscope rather than May’s gurning robot act – and watch as those newly won seats slide back into Tory hands once again. Then you can watch as Corbyn clings on until an equally unpalatable “leader” emerges to lose the next election. Rinse and repeat.

    And, of course, we still have to deal with the idiocy of Brexit and the harm it is already doing to standards of living and the economy. Corbyn and McDonnell have committed Labour to supporting this idiocy. When the roof falls in, there’s no way that voters are going to forget that fact.

  19. e says:

    NickT. Another contribution toward the ever decreasing band of right wingers’ herding. The pre prepared message has still got to be the same as if the longed for catastrophic defeat had actually happened. We really don,’t believe in credit where it is due, do we? Hyperbolic rants about dreampt of future Tory victories are stock in trade of what is left of ‘New’ Labour.’ Electoral momentum is with Jez led Labour. New never coming back. Never was Get over it.

  20. e says:

    John P Reid. So did Brown do what?

  21. jon P Reid says:

    E ,Gordon brown deprived the tories of a overall majority

  22. DS says:

    The reason Labour’s big increase in vote share did not translate into a huge number of seats is very simple – the Tory vote went up as well (let’s see a similar graph of Tory vote increase and seat gain, and this election will stand out like a sore thumb).

    The actual swing from the Tories to Labour was just over 2% – about the same as 1992 or October 1974. And, surprise, surprise, Labour’s gains were in the same ballpark (better than Wilson’s, worse than Kinnock’s).

    Oh, and the reason the Tory vote went up despite their campaign? The collapse of UKIP – which I note is not mentioned once in this entire article.

  23. Peter Carabine says:

    This is about the only Labour site remaining which talks sense. Corbynism has taken over everywhere and as we got a 2% swing and gained net what 30 seats we see the deluded cult believing it’s won when in reality May got 1 million more voters and we need another 70 MPs to beat her. Even Progress has lost it by inviting D. Abbot as if that shows anything except the collapse of any force remaining that could have stood for the centre left, for progressive European Social democracy, for social justice and pro- business, post modern digital age thinking. No the final victory has gone to the trio and we are back to the 1980s class war, tax the rich, nationalise it mentality which has been the kiss of death for Hollande and French hard socialism.

  24. James says:

    You are all both insulting and delusional. You tarnish anyone who is more on the left of the party as some hard-left nutter whose opinions are more dangerous than the Tory cost-cutting, privatisation agenda that has led to cuts in our schools, hospitals and little investment in our country. Furthermore, many here are not even members of the Labour Party and rather than seeking to achieve the conditions in which Labour can win elections, are seeking to change the party itself for ideological reasons into a party which would be more right wing than Blair.

    What’s even more crazy about the views expressed is that they ignore political reality. Corbyn did strike a cord with many people which led to them voting for the first time. Labour people who did not like Corbyn did turn out nonetheless and vote Labour. There is no reason to think this will change in the future considering the Tory party’s commitment to austerity, public sector cutbacks and the exceptionally poor selection of candidates they have for future leader. In fact it is the Tories who have many problems as it was their chief politicians who spouted the Brexit lies, and it is not unreasonable to think that many people voted May because of their views on Brexit but will not do so once we have left the eu and it is revealed what a foolish decision this was.

    The idea that a centralist candidate could’ve won this election is wrong in 2 ways. One in that May called an election because she believed Corbyn was useless and extremely unpopular. There would have been no election with another candidate and Labour would have 30 odd less seats. For the other more crucial point, we only have to look at neighbouring centre-left parties across Europe which have suffered greatly in the polls. People vote for parties which they believe agree with their principles and which they believe (or hope) will change their lives for the better. By offering a selection of radical policies, Corbyn gave a reason to vote Labour. A watered down selection of not quite as bad as the Tories policies would not have cause people to leave their homes and vote. It is absurd to say well if we had targeted these Tory voters we would’ve won more, when this targeting would have meant losing many of the new voters we gained. Furthermore, there is much evidence that the so called hard-left Labour manifesto attracted those in their thirties and forties who were sick of austerity, voted largely remain and wanted a different future. Many of these people had previously voted Tory.

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