Relying on Tory failure is not enough

Labour's vote share in Chesham and Amersham dropped by 19pp between 2017 and 2021 (photo: Diamond Geezer (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Rory O’Kelly on the electoral state of the Labour Party and why it needs to be more than a lesser evil

We have now passed the 2nd anniversary of the 2019 General Election and perhaps the midway point to the next one. It may be a good time to review the state of the parties and to draw conclusions.

The situation of the Conservatives is fairly straightforward. Initially they led a surprisingly charmed life, partly because Brexit continued to focus their supporters and partly because national emergencies like Covid tend to favour incumbents. Recently, however, the impression of corruption has started to do damage and the more analytically people look at Brexit and Covid the worse the Government’s performance looks.

The position of the Labour Party is more complex. Its uninspiring performance and the devotion of its leadership to factional infighting initially held it back, but the Government’s problems seemed to offer it renewed hope. To test this effect, it may be helpful to look at the five Parliamentary by-elections which took place in 2021 and to compare Labour’s results with those in 2017 and 2019:

Year Vote % share Place Turnout
Chesham and Amersham
Year Vote % share Place Turnout
Batley and Spen
Year Vote % share Place Turnout
Old Bexley and Sidcup
Year Vote % share Place Turnout
North Shropshire
Year Vote % share Place Turnout

It can be seen that in all cases the party lost votes between 2017 and 2019 and continued to lose them between 2019 and 2021. In four by-elections it also lost vote share. In the fifth, Old Bexley and Sidcup, it gained vote share, in the context of an extraordinarily low turnout, even by by-election standards.

This way of looking at the figures is perhaps more revealing than the traditional approach of looking at ‘swings’ between two parties. The problem with this comparative approach is that a party can seem to be doing well even when it is losing votes, both absolutely and as a proportion of voters.

Two obvious conclusions suggest themselves. The first is that the replacement of Jeremy Corbyn by Keir Starmer as leader produced no immediate electoral benefits; if anything, rather the reverse. The second is that any subsequent revival in Labour’s fortunes is entirely due to disillusionment with the Government. The best that can be said for Labour’s performance over the last year, and particularly the last few months, is that Starmer seems to be alienating Labour supporters less rapidly than Johnson is alienating Conservatives.

To take this further, it is necessary to look at people’s reasons for voting. Everyone who has been involved in an election knows that there are some people whose interests, opinions or values are sharply opposed to those of the Labour Party and who will never, failing some sort of Damascene conversion, vote for it. Equally, however, there are some who will never not vote Labour. They may be aware that a Labour vote will be futile and that voting tactically for some other party might make more practical sense, but communitarian and egalitarian values may be so much a part of their sense of self that they will continue to express them through their votes, regardless of the consequences.

The figures above suggest that this group may be disappearing. People seem to be voting Labour only where this seems the only feasible way to dislodge the Conservatives. It is worth asking why.

The impression is that the current leadership has little interest in, or sympathy for, lifelong Labour voters. The term ‘core Labour voters’ is used quite often, but usually to refer to people who voted Conservative in 2019. Actual Labour voters have not even been identified as target voters, and since his election as leader Starmer has been anxious to avoid any concessions to what people voted Labour for in 2019 – or, indeed, in most previous elections. It is a matter of everyday observation that, at present, people with a strong and long-lasting commitment to the principles on which the Labour Party was founded are particularly likely to leave the party or to be expelled. It would be surprising if a similar process were not happening, more diffusely, among habitual supporters and Labour voters.

There are two interesting implications for the future. In the short term, for an opposition to rely entirely on the weakness of the Government is a dangerous strategy. Governments have considerable power to change the narrative when it suits them and for the Conservatives a change of leader is a trump card that they can play at any time. For the opposition to have a real hope of winning there must be at least some people who regard it as something more than the lesser evil.

In the longer term, the high hopes which many people have placed in a move to proportional representation may need to be reconsidered. These hopes rely largely on the existence of a pool of ‘suppressed’ Labour voters whose votes are unused or wasted because they live in solidly Conservative areas. It would be a sad irony if the electoral system were to be changed to liberate and mobilise these people only for this to reveal that they were no longer there.

There are two groups who might potentially feel real enthusiasm for the prospect of a Labour government. The first are lifelong socialists. The second are younger people who may be less explicitly ideological but who may feel a deep scepticism about unregulated capitalism on the basis of their personal knowledge and experience. While the heavy focus on these two groups under Corbyn’s leadership may have been excessive, the apparent determination of the present leadership to antagonise both is surely going too far the other way.


  1. much to welcome here, but the issue of the old or core labour voter is strange and disfunctional as the red wall seats are both explicitly the key target and for Deborah Mattinson to be won back by targetting tory style voters. As these are heavily weighted to brexit voting pensioners, the young are neglected but even more strangely, Starmer and his team are opposed to a third referendum on the EU (they do not know there have already been two: history escapes them) even if the majority of the population want one. And the shadow chancellor has said so. Orwellian or what? Trevor Fisher

  2. Jeremy Corbyn and Keir Starmer have one – perhaps two – things in common; a lack of strategic thinking and a failure to grasp the prime importance of building a coaltion broad enough to remove the Tories.

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