Labour versus Tories – Rory O’Kelly looks at the figures from recent by-elections
We have reached the point where the immediate consequences of the 2019 election have played themselves out. There have been recent claims of a major breakthrough for Labour. The record of the eight by-elections in this parliament provides hard evidence on actual voting behaviour. What light do they throw on trends?
Caution is always needed in handling by-elections. Turnout is lower than general elections and protest votes are easy. The Lib Dems frequently scare the Tories, but typically, their three by-election victories this last year helped undermine Boris Johnson but did not resolve the Lib Dems’ identity problem. Minority groups can express discontent, and the Batley and Spen by-election nearly saw George Galloway and a Muslim protest vote deliver a Tory victory. With all their limitations, however, by-elections, unlike opinion polls, show people actually voting. Watching what people do is more generally reliable than listening to what they say.
The actual figures for the Labour Party are as follows:
Chesham and Amersham
Batley and Spen
Old Bexley and Sidcup
Tiverton and Honiton
In eight attempts, Labour improved on its 2019 vote share three times and on its 2017 share once. It is significant that the three best results for Labour were those with the lowest turnouts.
Labour leadership’s claim that it has made progress in recovering from the 2019 election relies heavily on Wakefield. David Lammy told Sky News: “[a] 12.7% swing from Tories to Labour – if that was replicated across the country, we would be forming the next government”. This is fundamentally misleading. The idea of a ‘swing’ between two parties makes no sense when both are losing votes and vote share.
The belief that Labour is gaining support is widespread and has appeared slightly better evidenced over the last few months. A closer look, however, suggests that the only real change has been accelerated self-destruction by the Conservatives. Certainly, the idea that replacing Corbyn with Starmer as leader benefited the Labour Party conflicts with the evidence. The best that can be said for Starmer is that he is alienating Labour supporters less rapidly than Johnson alienated Tories.
This leads on to a wider point: the need to test perceptions against facts. An objective evaluation of Corbyn’s leadership would start by saying that Corbyn became leader in 2015 after a general election in which Labour secured 9,347,275 votes – a 30.4% vote share. He resigned in 2019 after a general election in which its vote was 10,269,051 and its vote share 32.1%. The Labour Party also had a vastly higher membership in 2019 than in 2015 and much sounder finances. Undoubtedly, the 2019 result was disappointing, particularly by comparison with 2017, and there is plenty of room for argument as to whether the blame lies with Corbyn or with the parts of the Labour Party which refused to support him, or both, or neither. A dispassionate observer, however, could simply look at the figures and conclude that the party was in better shape at the end of Corbyn’s leadership than at the beginning.
How would such an observer explain the widespread conviction that Corbyn’s leadership was an unmitigated catastrophe for the party? Essentially, it relies on rejecting figures in favour of anecdote. We hear, for example, many stories of people who would not vote Labour because Corbyn was leader, and no doubt they existed. Equally, however, there were some who did vote Labour for that reason. The second group receive less media attention than the first, but the figures suggest that there must have been more of them.
The best advice for the party leadership in preparing for the next general election would, therefore, be to study the figures and to be sceptical about anecdotes, particularly those which confirm what they want to believe. Unfortunately, the leadership seems to be going in precisely the opposite direction. It relies increasingly on focus groups which, by their nature, confirm the assumptions of the person setting them up. In essence, the focus group represents the sacralisation of anecdote.