On 5 May 2005, the Labour government won a general election. It was the last time the party could say that – but clear problems were emerging. Labour had won with the lowest vote share of any majority government ever (35%) and had lost the popular vote in England. Following the election, the party’s leader had a net approval rating of -13 that would fall to -40 within twelve months.
In 2010, the party lost office in a disastrous defeat that saw them drop 97 seats (the biggest loss of seats since 1931), winning just 29% of the popular vote (the lowest since 1983). But seven years later, Labour bounced back, winning 3.3 million more votes than in 2005 and gaining seats for the first time in 20 years. The leader who presided over this remarkable comeback was Jeremy Corbyn.
We all know how that story ended. But the 2017 election—in which Labour gained more votes than in any general election since 1945—has been subject to far less analysis than it is due. Labour’s share of the vote in England in 2017 exceeded what it achieved even in 2001 and 2005 (when it won), and it performed astonishingly well in areas that it hadn’t come close to winning even under Blair.
At a time when his New Labour model is being advocated once again—and the Labour Left damned—it’s worth re-examining the record.
In 2017, the Labour Party came within 2.4pts of winning, making 2017 the closest election result for nearly 50 years. The party won 40% of the vote, its highest share of the vote in 16 years, and gained seats (+30) for the first time since 1997.
Comparing the results to previous elections is difficult because Labour (led by the party’s right-wing) lost Scotland—40 of 41 seats—just before Corbyn became leader. But what about the results within England and Wales?
In 2017, the Labour Party won 42.3% of the popular vote within England and Wales – an astonishing increase of +10pts compared to 2015. [Correction: this article originally said 45%.]
This was a higher share of the vote than Labour had achieved in 2015 (31.9%), 2010 (28.5%), 2005 (35.8%) and 2001 (41.8%). Indeed, in the previous 50 years, Labour had only won a higher share of the vote in England and Wales once – in 1997.
The 2017 election proved decisively that there was support for left-wing policies; it showed that, absent a diversionary culture war, a left-wing leader standing on the most left-wing manifesto since Foot could win more popular support for his policies than Tony Blair achieved in two of his election victories.
The 2017 result was driven by massive Labour gains in areas in which the party had not been competitive even under Blair. In the Southern county of Avon, for instance, Labour’s share of the vote rose to 41% (+15), higher than in 2005 (32%), 2001 (37%) and even 1997 (37%). In Cornwall, Labour’s vote share rose to 27% (+14), a vast improvement compared to the party’s performance in 2005 (16%), 2001 (17%) and 1997 (17%).
But the result was also driven by a strong performance in Labour’s heartlands, with Corbyn outpolling Blair’s 2005 and 2001 results in places like Cheshire, Greater Manchester, and Lancashire. And as for Wales, in 2017 Labour won 49% of the Welsh vote – its highest share of the popular vote since 1997.
Some individual constituencies saw Labour support rise by 15-20pts (such as in Truro and Falmouth), turning what had been safe Conservative seats into marginal constituencies. One notable example was Wycombe, a safe Conservative seat where the Tories have won every general election since the 1950s. In 2017, Labour won 38% (+15), its highest share of the vote since 1966, transforming a seat that the Tories had previously won by 30pts into a marginal constituency. Labour has not won Wycombe for over 70 years, yet the seat is now so friendly to Labour that the party actually achieved a 5pt swing in its favour in December 2019.
2017 was a success story for exactly the kind of wide geographical coalition that many in the party leadership now claim to pursue. Yet, for some reason, it is discarded. To put this in perspective, Labour saw huge increases in support across England – from Bedfordshire (+13pts) to Merseyside (+9pts) to Norfolk (+11pts).
When the 2017 election was called, Labour was polling disastrously; the Conservatives were ahead by an average of 18pts, Corbyn’s net approval rating was -40, and Theresa May was 31pts ahead in best PM polling.
What’s interesting about 2017 is that support for the Conservative Party did not change much throughout the election. In April 2017, the Conservatives were averaging 45% in polls; on election day itself, they won 44%. What changed was that Labour’s share of the vote rose from 27% in April to a stunning 41% on election day (+14).
This was accompanied by a similarly amazing rise in Corbyn’s approval ratings: between April and June, Corbyn’s approval percentage rose from 20% to 41% (+21), and his net rating rose from -40 (April) to -5 (June). His best PM polling, meanwhile, rose from 17% to 35% (+18).
This surge was heavily influenced by the campaign. Labour won by 13pts amongst those who decided how to vote in the final week, and YouGov polling of marginal seats in May 2017 found that among voters who had been contacted by political parties (around a quarter of all voters), an incredible 80% had been contacted by Labour – and just 35% by the Conservatives.
The unavoidable truth of 2017, of course, is that we did not win. Labour under Corbyn may have received more votes than Blair even when he won, but the party still lost.
However, it’s also true that, in 2017, Labour support dramatically increased across the country, Labour’s polling improved by an enormous margin, and voters’ opinions of the party leader changed for the better.
The election should be a compelling model for a party long out of power; one which saw it come tantalisingly close to winning – despite the situation in Scotland. It is inevitable that the 2019 result is clearer in people’s minds, but there is also a deliberate attempt to erase 2017 by the centrist commentariat. They prefer a path trodden 20 years previously which seems substantially unrepeatable.
The lesson to take from 2017 is clear: left-wing policies are popular, can build broad coalitions (even in England) and can result in tremendous gains for Labour. Keir Starmer should pay it greater attention.