Corbyn faces the voters

In the wake of Labour’s severe defeat in the 2015 general election, elections were held for a new leader. To everyone’s amazement, the winner was Jeremy Corbyn, the seasoned rebel on the “hard” left of the party. His hold on the throne was precarious and in 2016 he was forced into a second leadership election, which he also won handsomely. But his popularity among the party’s rapidly expanding membership was not paralleled in the country; his poll ratings were dire.

So the mood in Labour circles was gloomy and apprehensive when Prime Minister Theresa May called a snap election to be held on June 8, 2017. Labour had just suffered major reverses in local elections and parliamentary byelections and was riven by deep fractures. Corbyn was widely seen as a huge liability. Early in the campaign, polls were showing a Conservative lead of around 20 percentage points and a massive Tory majority was anticipated.1

The results were stunning. Far from being crushed, Labour won an additional 30 seats and 3.5 million votes, boosting its poll share by 9.5 percentage points to 40 per cent. This was the biggest swing to the party since the celebrated election of 1945. Theresa May was humiliated and forced into an embarrassing deal with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionists to maintain her majority. Her authority has been severely impaired.

Ironically, the Tories also performed well, increasing their share of the vote by 5.4 points to 42.3 per cent of the vote, their highest since the 1983 landslide. The biggest loser was the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), whose vote collapsed, but other minor parties – the Scottish Nationalists, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens – all suffered significant losses. Indeed, a striking outcome was the return of two-party politics, with the two main parties commanding an 82.4 per cent share of the vote, their highest combined share since 1970.

Many on the party’s right and centre blamed Labour’s 2015 rout on then-leader Ed Miliband’s tilt to the left and clamoured for a return to middle-of-the-road politics. The Corbyn leadership instead pushed further to the left, drafting the most radical manifesto (For the Many, Not the Few) in decades. Denounced by the right-wing press for its alleged extravagance, extremism and irresponsibility, it did indeed mark a rupture from the New Labour paradigm – though its radicalism was exaggerated.

The manifesto contained some notably radical planks, such as pledges to renationalize the railways and the Royal Mail and extend public ownership into water and energy supply – promises that proved quite popular. But generally, the policies it offered lay within traditional social democratic parameters.2 Its fiscal stance was mildly redistributive. Taxes would be raised but only for the wealthiest 5 per cent of taxpayers, those earning over £80,000 each year.3 A new tax band of 50 per cent would be introduced for those earning over £123,000 while those earning over £80,000 would pay at a 45 per cent rate. In addition, recent and planned reductions in corporation tax would be revoked, and an Excessive Pay Levy would be introduced on firms paying salaries of more than £330,000. Emphasis was placed on much tougher curbs to combat Britain’s rampant, out-of-control tax avoidance industry.

But in an attempt to reassure critics, the manifesto included a Fiscal Credibility Rule that promised to balance current spending against revenues, asserting that all spending pledges were fully costed. Nobel Prize–winning economist Joseph Stiglitz commended Labour’s economic proposals as “carefully thought-out … based on taxing those at the top and ensuring that corporations pay what they should.”4

On the social side, there would be a significant increase in National Health Service (NHS) spending and a reversal of privatization and outsourcing. Redistributory measures included a minimum wage raised to £10 per hour by 2020, extended free childcare, new trade union statutory rights and much greater legislative protection to those in insecure and precarious employment. Finally, the manifesto pledged to abolish university tuition fees, which tripled under the Conservative–Liberal Democratic coalition, loading many young people with heavy debts.5

The party leadership ascribed Labour’s unexpected surge to the popularity of its manifesto. There is at present insufficient evidence to corroborate this claim – and it should be borne in mind that most voters have only the sketchiest familiarity with the content of manifestos. But contrary to the expectations of the party right, Labour’s move to the left certainly did not lose votes. While voters may not have paid much attention to Labour’s manifesto, there is evidence that many voters were apprehensive about the Tory promise to make cuts in health and other social spending.6

Voices on the party’s right have also suggested that Labour’s (relative) triumph was due more to the haplessness of the Tories’ campaign than its own merits. It is true that May ran a singularly inept, poorly thought through campaign. She came across as wooden, distant and robotic, lacking any rapport with the voters, whereas Corbyn played to his strengths as a hugely experienced, energetic and surprisingly appealing campaigner. By the polling date, May’s initial poll lead over her rival had dissipated.

Who voted Labour?

If it is hard to explain precisely why so many opted for Labour, we can identity who these Labour voters were. The results are surprising.

The New Labour strategy of bland, centrist and cautious policies, Corbynista electoral strategists argued, had produced mass alienation, frustration and disaffection among the party’s “natural” supporters, many of whom simply defected from the electoral process. They – especially the working class and the young – could be effectively mobilized only by a complete repudiation of austerity, a total rejection of New Labour centrism and the espousal of radical policies.

As we shall see, the party succeeded with the young but not with the working class. It made substantial gains across the board, but the largest were among routine white-collar workers (identified in figure 1 as C1) and the least among unskilled and semiskilled workers (DE). In fact, the class differential in voting fell to its lowest-ever level: in the 2017 election there was emphatically no revival in class-based voting.

Labour overtook the Tories among routine C1 white-collar workers (from a Tory lead of 3 points to a Labour lead of 3). But Labour’s advantage among working-class voters actually narrowed. The Conservatives slightly widened their lead among skilled C2 workers and cut Labour’s lead among the unskilled and semiskilled from 8 to 3 points. Among the professional and managerial category (AB), Labour’s percentage rose from 28 per cent in 2015 to 38 per cent in 2017, cutting the Tory lead from 16 to an astonishingly low 8 percentage points. The class profiles of the two parties are now remarkably similar. Overall, the Tories were ahead of Labour among the middle class as a whole (ABC1) by 44 to 40 per cent, and within the working class (C2DE) by 44 to 42 per cent.

Labour actually lost several seats in largely working-class areas in the northeast and Midlands to the Tories; its main advances were in the more affluent south. The Conservatives did better among those who are suffering shrinking incomes than among those whose incomes have risen. In short, Labour attracted what Oliver Heath and Matthew Goodwin describe as “a broad coalition of support, and one that was not especially socially distinctive.”7 Never has class been less correlated with the vote!

However, demographic factors remain very important, with age and education replacing class as the key variables (figures 2 and 3). No less than 66 per cent of the youngest voters backed Labour, compared to 19 per cent for the Tories. Voting among the oldest cohort was essentially a mirror image of that among the youngest: 69 per cent Tory, 19 per cent Labour.

As can be seen from figure 2, the gradient by age is very steady. While Labour garnered more votes from all age groups the increase was very modest among the oldest – 3 points among the over 65s and 6 within the 55–64 group – but much larger among the young: 32 points in the 18–24 and 22 in the 25–34 cohort. The Conservatives also raised their vote among all cohorts, but in the exact reverse way (UKIP and the other minor parties were the big losers). No less than 58 per cent of the 60–69 cohort voted Tory, even though they are the group most reliant on the NHS and social care services, at present undergoing a severe squeeze.8

These figures tell us the proportion of each cohort which voted for the main parties, not the actual number of votes cast. Traditionally, Tory-leaning older cohorts have much higher turnout rates than the Labour-voting young, and many were sceptical whether sympathy for Labour among the young would translate into actual votes. To a large and surprising extent, it did.

Though turnout among the young still lagged behind that of older voters, it rose appreciably, boosted by the registration of an additional 453,000 people under 35 years of age.9 Higher turnout in general was correlated with constituencies with a larger than average proportion of young people, graduates and people from ethnic minorities – as well as the size of the Remain vote in the EU referendum. These were also the ridings where Labour notched its biggest gains.10 Conversely, the higher the percentage of working-class voters, the lower the turnout.

Associated with age is the rising significance of education as a predictor of the vote. In the past, higher educational attainment has been correlated with a Tory vote, largely reflecting a difference in class backgrounds. The reverse is now the case. As can be seen from figure 3, there is now a strong association between educational attainment and a Labour vote: 49 per cent of graduates voted Labour as compared to only 33 per cent of those with minimal educational qualifications. In those seats with a below average number of graduates there was actually a small swing to the Tories.

The strategy of activating the abstainers had some measure of success: 60 per cent of people who did not vote in the 2015 general election opted for Labour in 2017, though the party failed to reverse the social class trend in voting. Further, the Corbyn strategy of remobilizing the working-class vote failed. This could be Labour’s Achilles heel. As one commentator noted, “Unless the working-class vote can be decisively won … the fragility of the electoral coalition cobbled together by Corbyn could be exposed.”11

So paradoxically, the most left-leaning Labour leader made his largest inroads among middle-class, not working-class, voters. How do we account for this?

Anywheres, Somewheres and Brexit

The key factor was the 2016 referendum over membership in the European Union. Those who swung most heavily to Labour – the young, the well educated, the middle class – were precisely those who voted must solidly against Brexit, and vice versa. Forty-seven per cent of Remainers backed Labour, compared with 33 per cent who voted Tory. Overall, there was a correlation between the strength of the Remain vote and the swing to Labour; the Conservatives benefited more from a Leave vote largely because of the precipitous slide in the UKIP vote, from almost 4 million in 2015 to 600,000 in 2017.12

But did the referendum split itself reflect deeper, underlying cleavages? In a recent influential study, David Goodhart suggests that it did: that it registered a new structural divide between those he calls the “Anywheres” and the “Somewheres.” “Anywheres” are people with “portable ‘achieved’ identities based on educational and career success.”13 These are the beneficiaries of recent economic and technological trends, notably globalization and a labour market that rewards the highly qualified while penalizing the unqualified. “Anywheres” adhere to an ideology of “progressive individualism” which places a high value on “autonomy, mobility and novelty” but tends to neglect “group identity, tradition … flag, faith and family.”14 Progressive individualism is manifested politically in support for the EU, immigration, multiculturalism and diversity – and in support for Labour.

The “somewheres” tend to be older and less well educated, more working-class, more rooted in place and tradition and much less likely to have benefited from recent social and economic changes. They feel very ill at ease with the rapid influx of immigrants, particularly those with radically different customs, norms and values.15 Unsympathetic to liberal stances on race, multiculturalism, gender and other issues, they believe their views have been mocked, disparaged and excluded from the public conversation.

This distinction between “Anywheres” and “somewheres” defined by their education, occupational status, culture and values has, according to Goodhart, created a new societal cleavage that now overshadows all others and was manifested most clearly in the collision over EU membership. Although “the professionally educated and affluent Anywheres” span the partisan divide, Goodhart mostly focuses on (and rails against) the “liberal cosmopolitan” elite. This elite, he contends, hold the main levers of power and has been the driving force pushing the “Anywhere” agenda. In promoting this agenda it has exhibited a stark disregard for (mainly working-class) “somewhere” anxieties about the dislocating social and cultural effects of mass immigration, especially from Islamic societies.16

There is more than a grain of truth in Goodhart’s analysis. It does highlight the internal tensions within Labour’s natural constituency between the pro-European young and well educated who flocked to the party in such large numbers during the election and the socially more conservative and parochial working class in many parts of the north and Midlands. Many of the latter deserted the party for the Tories (and previously for UKIP). Further, the increasing significance of diverging value constellations may well help account for the notably weakening association between class and partisan preference.

However, the division between “anywheres” and “somewheres” is of limited analytical value because it squeezes a far more complex reality into simplistic boxes. It conflates “anywheres” with the “cosmopolitan” or “metropolitan” elite who, in a highly questionable proposition, are alleged to constitute Labour’s ruling stratum. No empirical evidence is provided to substantiate this. Most bewildering of all is the disappearance from view of those interests – the financial sector, multinational business and mass media controllers – who, rather more convincingly, can be portrayed as the most powerful arbiters of the country’s destiny.

Nonetheless, Goodhart does grasp the major impact that the debate over the EU has had on British politics, and it is to this that we now turn.

Europhiles and Eurosceptics, left and centre

The election was supposed to be all about Brexit, a matter of the most profound significance for the country’s future. In fact, internal divisions within both major parties resulted in the issue being sidetracked; neither party’s leadership wanted to debate it. But with the election over, Brexit became the overarching theme of U.K. politics.

The broad consensus was that the decision of the referendum could not be reversed: the matter in dispute was the precise form Brexit would take. Would it entail a radical rupture – a “hard Brexit” with the U.K.’s departure from the customs union and the single market, a cessation of the free movement of labour and an end to the jurisdiction of EU law? Or would it be a “soft Brexit” with Britain retaining full access to EU markets, a compromise over the remit of EU law and only a minor modification to free migration? All were agreed that a transition period would be required after the U.K.’s exit from the EU, but what form would this take?

Labour’s initial position on these immensely complicated issues was hazy and uncertain. This stance, called “calculated ambiguity,” served its purpose for the election but was not sustainable. In the late summer, there was some significant clarification of Labour policy on one major question, the shape of the transition period between departure from the EU (end of March 2019) and the reaching of a final Brexit agreement. Keir Starmer, the highly capable shadow Brexit secretary, announced that Labour now favoured the continuation of the status quo, notably membership in the single market and the customs union and acceptance of the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (which arbitrates and enforces EU law).

But what of the shape of a final agreement? Does Labour propose retaining membership in the customs union and the single market with all its complex rules and regulations, including guaranteed free movement of labour?

The obvious forum to determine policy was the party’s annual conference, held every September. Under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, the conference had been relegated to the status of showcase and talking shop, but Corbyn insisted that its status as the supreme decision-making body of the party be restored. But if its decisions were binding, this raised the risk that the conference would pass resolutions unpalatable to the leadership. There was a real danger of this occurring on the EU since there is a strong head of steam among Labour members (and MPs) demanding that the party commit itself to continued post-Brexit membership in the single market, a proxy for the softest of soft Brexits.

Resorting to the traditional toolbox of party management, the Corbyn leadership averted the possibility of the conference reaching an embarrassing decision which would constrain its room for manoeuvre by ensuring that only the most anodyne resolutions were placed before delegates. There was a lively and heated debate but no clarification of policy.

Chuka Umunna, a leading right-wing Labour MP, protested that we should “not be ducking this debate, we should be leading it,” but in truth there were solid reasons for Labour’s continued equivocation.17 The party is experiencing multiple fractures over the single market and the free movement of labour – criss-crossing fractures that complicate normal left-right alignments. One can distinguish among at least three groups, although to do so ignores overlap.

First, left-wing Eurosceptics regard the EU as an institution that enshrines pro-market, economically liberal principles. The rules of the single market, in particular, are seen as a serious impediment to the pursuit of socialist industrial and economic policies, This is a view that Corbyn historically supported and is suspected of still supporting in private. He recently expressed anxiety that, with its restrictions on state aid and public ownership, membership in the EU single market could inhibit Labour’s domestic program.18 Some who hold this view combine it with advocacy of free movement of labour on the grounds that immigrants are being exploited and scapegoated for the country’s economic woes.

The second group consists of the Europhiles who favour continued membership in the single market or, failing this, the closest possible relationship with it. The group spans all sections of the party: the right, the soft left and the Corbynista radical left.19 Some members of this group also call for a second referendum over the terms of the final negotiated settlement. Europhiles are convinced by the economic case for a soft Brexit (most pro-Labour economists fall into this category); they also bear some resemblance to Goodhart’s “anywheres,” at least to the degree that they associate a pro-Europe stance with openness, enlightened values and tolerance. Most Europhile MPs of both parties represent constituencies (especially in London) which voted Remain in the referendum.

Senior Corbynistas, whatever their Eurosceptical affinities, are aware that their two major power centres contain many Europhiles. The trade union leaders, who still play a major role in the party, have become increasingly vocal on the damaging economic and employment consequences of quitting the single market and the customs union. Similarly, the much increased membership (nearing 600,000, the largest of any political party in Europe), while strongly Corbynista, is fervently Europhile.

The third group is the centrist Eurosceptics. Mainly on the right and centre of the party, they represent constituencies (mainly in the north and Midlands) which voted Leave. They are primarily actuated not by policy matters (which they tend to disregard) but by electoral ones, principally the fear that too weak a stance on immigration controls will precipitate further working-class defections to the Tories. For instance, pointing to “bubbling tensions in this country” arising from fears of immigration, one former frontbencher, Rachel Reeves, warned that these could “explode” unless addressed.20 The corollary is that accepting the single market obligation to maintain free movement of labour is electorally far too risky.

The leadership has a difficult job building consensus among these very disparate groups. It recognizes that formulating a clear, coherent and credible policy on Brexit will inevitably alienate some, which is why it sought to avoid a binding conference decision.

While the balance of opinion certainly favours a post-Brexit participation in the single market, it is not clear how this can be reconciled with what Starmer has called “more effective management of migration.” The failure of the party to move toward tighter immigration controls risks a backlash from working-class voters in the north and Midlands, which could scupper Labour’s prospects in the next election. On the other hand, only limited access to the single market would certainly imperil the country’s economic prospects, with signs already multiplying of stagnating investment and minimal economic growth.

At Labour’s party conference Corbyn promised delegates that the party would guarantee unimpeded access to the single market without spelling out what this actually meant.21 Labour is still able to capitalize on the government’s acrimonious divisions, but its own plausibility will drain away unless it can clarify its own position. Accomplishing this – while avoiding damaging internal splits and reconciling Labour’s Remain and Leave voters – will be the major test of Corbyn’s capacity to manage the party.


1 Oliver Heath and Matthew Goodwin, “The 2017 General Election, Brexit and the Return to Two-Party Politics,” Political Quarterly, Vol. 88, No. 3 (2017), p. 345. It is worth noting that if Labour had been pulverized in the polls this would have been part of a pattern of successive social democratic defeats throughout Western Europe.

2 Ben Jackson, “The Politics of the Labour Manifesto,” Political Quarterly, Vol. 88, No. 3 (2017), p. 143.

3 As of election day (June 8), the pound sterling was worth 1.75 Canadian dollars.

4 Joseph Stiglitz, “Austerity has Strangled Britain. Only Labour will Consign it to History,” Guardian, June 7, 2017.

5 Labour Party, For the Many, Not the Few, (London: Labour Party, 2017). Some within the party saw the pledge of abolishing tuition fees as regressive since the major beneficiaries would be the middle class.

6 Lord Ashcroft, “How did This Result Happen? My Post-Vote Survey,” Lord Ashcroft Polls, June 9, 2017, retrieved from

7 Heath and Goodwin, “The 2017 General Election,” p. 350.

8 Peter Dorey, “Jeremy Corbyn Confounds His Critics: Explaining the Labour Party’s Remarkable Resurgence in the 2017 Election,” British Politics, Vol. 12, No. 3 (2017), p. 328.

9 Ibid.

10 Heath and Goodwin, “The 2017 General Election,” pp. 349–50.

11 Craig Berry, “Answering the Mansfield Question: Labour’s Proletarian Problem,” Progressive Review, Vol. 24, No. 2 (2017).

12 Paul Whiteley, Harold Clarke and Matthew Goodwin, “Was This a Brexit Election After All? Tracking Party Support Among Leave and Remain Voters” LSE Brexit, June 15, 2017, retrieved from Scotland, as ever, was different. Labour, in a shock result in 2015, had lost all but one of its seats. This time it won seven. But the big winners in Scotland were the Conservatives, who won 13 seats, a gain of 11, all at the expense of the SNP which, however, remains the largest party in Scotland. The unexpected scale of Tory gains in Scotland saved the May government.

13 David Goodhart, The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics (London: Hurst, 2017), p. 3.

14 Ibid., p. 5.

15 Ibid., pp. 3, 5, 7–8.

16 Ibid., p. 22.

17 Jessica Elgot, Anushka Asthana, Ewen MacAskill and Rajeev Syal, “Labour MPs Accuse Corbyn of Ducking Discussion about Brexit,” Guardian, September 25, 2017.

18 Ibid.

19 Ibid.

20 Heather Stewart and Rowena Mason, “Jeremy Corbyn Rules Out Pledge to Cut Immigration,” Guardian, September 28, 2016.

21 Anushka Asthana, Jessica Elgot and Rowena Mason, “Jeremy Corbyn: Neoliberalism is Broken and We are Now the Centre Ground,” Guardian, September 28, 2017.