In the wake of the byelections earthquake for Labour Bryn Jones asks is it a firm foundation for victory or signs of more landslips into voter alienation?
Have the electoral tectonics actually shifted fundamentally towards Labour? Is it accurate to describe its recent by-election victories as a “political earthquake”, as mainstream media and Labour spinners have? Do the results vindicate the ruthless brand of neo-conservatism which Starmer’s re-tooled, Blairist machine has, allegedly, re-aligned Labour with popular opinion? At first sight the answers appear to be “yes”. Overturning Tory majorities in the tens of thousands with double digit “swings” seems proof positive. But delving beneath headline statistics to how all voters actually behaved reveals a much less rosy picture for Labour. Scenarios that could, prevent a substantial General Election victory for Labour, or its ability to govern with sufficient popular support.
The root problem here is the concept of “swing”. Party loyalists love this single, unequivocal stat. As do media editors for whom it provides a simple signifier on which to hang clear-cut stories. The by-elections in Rutherglen, snatched from the Scottish National Party, plus Selby and Ainstey, Mid-Bedfordshire and Tamworth where the Tories were routed, were won with an average 22.1 % swing in the vote to Labour, compared to the 2019 General Election. However, the major, under-reported fact that flaws Labour’s triumph is “turnout”: how many, or what percentage of those eligible to vote actually did so? Average turnout of 40% in these contests means that tens of thousands of voters, around 20% of the electorate, didn’t “swing” away from the Tories, or from the SNP in Rutherglen. They simply didn’t vote. !n the real world of polling stations and filling-in of postal ballots, the most significant swing was not to Labour but to abstentions. Indeed in some of these constituencies more voters swung to abstaining than to Labour.
The headline of a 24% swing of votes share to Labour has been interpreted as a shift in both votes and opinion away from the governing party, whether the SNP or Tories, to Labour. Yet the actual numbers voting Labour barely increased. In Rutherglen and mid-Bedfordshire Labour’s vote went down. So what happened to all the votes lost by the Tories, SNP and, less significantly, the Lib Dems? Only representative surveys of the local electorate could accurately reveal that. However, the most probable explanation is that most of 2019’s non-Labour voters simply did not vote in the by-elections. A few may have switched to Labour but it’s unlikely that the abstention rate affected Labour as much as the other parties. Not many non-Labour voters from 2019 shifted to Starmer’s anointed candidates.
It’s much more likely that more of Labour’s past supporters stuck with the party than that other parties’ former supporters moved to Labour. Therefore, Labour’s core support remains at around the level of the past general elections. In Rutherglen that’s 18,000–20,000; with around 15,000 former SNP voters declining to vote. In Mid-Bedfordshire and Selby Labour’s core vote remains at about 14,000-16,000; and in Tamworth about 11,000. Like the SNP in Rutherglen, some 20,000 former Tory voters seem to have abstained in Mid-Bedfordshire, Tamworth and Selby. It might only take a mild restoration of these “natural” Tory voters’ faith to wipe out the recent Labour gains. Elsewhere, smaller Tory majorities could still be salvaged if turnout increases slightly.
However, there’s a broader trend here. In essence Labour has not improved the electoral weakness that has plagued it for most of the 21st century, since the New Labour make-over. It has failed to motivate substantial sections of the electorate – data suggests mostly from ethnic minorities and the marginal and deprived working class – to vote. It wins most seats when its opponents are divided, scandal-riven or otherwise discredited. To win significant numbers of Scottish and English seats in 2024 Labour would need the Tories and SNP images to remain discredited and for turnouts to remain low. It was the 27% swing to the stay-at-homes that won Tamworth for Labour; not an illusory switching of Tory voters. Of course, if Labour adopted the significant redistributive and egalitarian policies which polling suggests working class respondents’ favour, that could re-engage working class voters, who comprise most of the non-voting electorate.
Yet Starmer’s Labour seems determined to stick to the resurrected New Labour image and economic neoliberalism that lost the Party nearly four million voters between 1997 and 2010 in working class occupations. Labour therefore has to pray that swathes of alienated voters in Scottish and “Red Wall” English seats, continue to see their SNP and Tory opponents as beyond the pale and opt out of voting. Such conditions could provide a narrow path into government.
However, they will hardly provide the broad base of popular support, which even a moderately reformist Labour government will need in the accumulating economic, political and environmental turbulence. In this wider world Labour should also reconsider the carte blanche it seems to give to Israel’s slaughter of Palestinians. Many of the 250,000 who marched for Gaza in London on 21st October would have been from constituencies in the twenty-one local authorities with 12% to 40% Muslim populations: enough alienated voters to deny Labour victories in marginal seats.