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The Progressive Policy Think Tank

All changed: Labour after the election

When Theresa May announced on 18 April 2017 that she was calling an early election, despite her earlier assurances to the contrary, this was interpreted as a tactical decision to capitalise on popular support for the Conservatives. On 19 April, YouGov reported that when asked who they would vote for if an election were held the next day, 48 per cent of people polled said Conservative and only 24 per cent supported Labour. May might also have been motivated by the very high levels of support for her personally, which were far above generalised support for the Conservatives, and mirrored by Corbyn’s very low ratings; in April, again according to YouGov, May had a ‘favourability rating’ of +10, compared to a staggeringly low -42 for Corbyn. She might also have been thinking of regular Conservative attacks on Gordon Brown for his ‘unelected’ status as Prime Minister; perhaps she felt an election victory would give her a personal mandate, too. 

Post-election, this all looks very different. The election has been cast as a disaster for Theresa May. Like Edward Heath, who called a snap election in 1974 to attempt to win a mandate to defeat the striking miners but ended up with a hung parliament and conceding power to a minority Labour government, Theresa May miscalculated badly. Rather than building a large majority with which to push Brexit through Parliament, the Conservatives lost 13 seats; with a hung parliament, May is now seeking a confidence and supply arrangement with the DUP, which will further impede her ability to pass legislation. Labour gained 30 seats, including Portsmouth South, Canterbury, and Kensington, which have never previously been held by the party; they built up very slim marginals such as Ealing Central, Cambridge and Ilford North to majorities of thousands; and they increased majorities in their safer seats to staggering levels, with Diane Abbott winning her seat of Hackney North and Stoke Newington by more than 35,000 votes.  

YouGov are now reporting that May and Corbyn have roughly swapped places in the electorate’s hearts, the prime minister’s plummeting approval levels matched by a surge in personalised support for Corbyn. Videos from around the country of crowds chanting Corbyn’s name like football supporters cheering a star striker, the widely shared memes proclaiming him to be the ‘absolute boy’, and celebrity endorsements, ranging from Danny DeVito to what seems like the entire UK grime community, all reflect an exciting moment in British political culture. This popular response, driven by youth culture but reflecting much more than only youth support, not only demonstrates Corbyn’s change in image – it also actively worked to overturn the more accepted media portrayal of the Labour leader as a hapless incompetent, who was predicted by the Fabian Society to retain as few as 140 seats.

Although Corbyn remains a divisive figure across the country, with many on the right seeking to portray him as a dangerous revolutionary or a 1970s throwback, it is hard to think of another politician whose supporters were quite so enthusiastic. Tony Blair was caught up in a moment of hope and optimism, the poster boy for all who wanted to overturn eighteen years of Conservative rule and wind back Thatcherite reforms; the 1997 election victory was celebrated raucously up and down the country. But Blair’s battle to rewrite Clause IV in 1995 foreshadowed how his policies would prove divisive among grassroots Labour supporters, and many felt his courting of Cool Britannia to be contrived, desperate and embarrassing. Perhaps it is not Tony Blair, but Tony Benn, who provides a better blueprint to explain Corbyn's popularity: adopted by a left wing youth audience who saw his politics as authentic and trustworthy in a time of spin, Benn's regular Glastonbury appearances and fondness for tea became emblematic of a particular style of left wing politics, not shorn of revolutionary potential but softened by an avuncular warmth. Corbyn's success might be understood in connection with his old comrade. (Another comparison might be - whisper it - Thatcher, who was truly loved by her supporters and really, bitterly, personally, hated by her opponents). Corbyn still has to deal with divisions within the parliamentary Labour Party, who have only been quietened, not won over, by an unexpectedly positive election result. The issue of Brexit – whether Britain should leave the EU and, if so, how exactly this should be done – remains divisive among MPs and voters. But certainly when compared to Theresa May, the levels of support for both Corbyn’s policies and his personality are extraordinary; the news that he is to appear at Glastonbury this year is somehow unsurprising. 

The Labour Party manifesto also received much popular support. Whilst many commentators had predicted another 1983-style ‘suicide note’, they had perhaps forgotten that many of the key pledges from that apparently unpopular document had been implemented by the Blair government to widespread support. The tactic of leaking the 2017 manifesto early (whether intentional or not) had the benefit of giving Labour uninterrupted coverage, and their headline pledges – extra bank holidays, an increased level of income tax for the top earners, free childcare and the abolition of tuition fees – compared favourably with unpopular Conservative policies. 

Corbyn has reportedly told the PLP that they need to remain in campaign mode, and this is good advice. The Labour Party needs to push for another election, and soon, in order to win an outright majority. With the exception of minor dissenting voices such as Chris Leslie, very few people are saying that this election result was a missed opportunity for Labour; it represents an incredible mobilisation of support for a party that only very recently seemed resigned to a long term future in opposition. Labour may yet achieve power, as Harold Wilson did in 1974, through a Conservative collapse, but they would need to follow his lead and hold another election soon after (although they would to gain a more than three seat majority). As Ramsay MacDonald and Jim Callaghan discovered, minority governments are hard work, certainly not conducive to a government wishing to implement reforming policies such as those contained in the manifesto. The 2017 election was greeted with dismay by the public, the media and many politicians – with elections and referendums in 2010, 2011, 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017, it was understandable that many were feeling fatigued. But the mood now is different. Victory for Labour feels like it is within sight – but not inevitable. Remaining in campaign mode means trusting Corbyn to build on the 2017 result to deliver a majority in the next election. It also means continuing to galvanise a local grassroots network, which did so much to get out the vote and which must be respected as an integral part of the Labour machinery. And it means rallying round the manifesto, which proved so popular with voters, and holding the Conservative party to account: not just for Brexit, but for the horrors at Grenfell, for the proposed coalition with the reactionary and bigoted DUP, and for seven years of austerity which have served to disempower, impoverish and in many cases physically and mentally harm working people. The Labour Party has a duty to stand up for the most vulnerable members of society; forming a strong and coherent opposition to the government, and fighting for victory in the next election, is the only way to do this effectively.