Friday, 16 June 2017

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

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: http://www.ukpolitical.info/ConvLab.htm
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.


This post first published at Labour Uncut

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