What the conversation around Labour’s vote share gets wrong

Now that the dust has settled a little and the adrenaline has worn off, it’s worth thinking a bit deeper about the election results from Thursday.

Labour has a majority, a large majority – one that gives it the mandate to make the change that is desperately needed. That this day would come, and come so quickly, seemed almost impossible four and a half years ago as Labour slumped to its worst defeat since 1935.

Reduced to 202 MPs, less than half of the 411 members of the newly elected PLP, it seemed in 2019 that a long march was ahead. It took Neil Kinnock, John Smith and Tony Blair 14 years after the Party’s last flirtation with the far left in 1983 to return it to government. Keir has managed in just over a third of the time.

He and his team have done this by running a ruthlessly efficient campaign, something that detractors to the left and right now want to make a fault rather than a virtue. Vote share, they point out, is down on the defeat last time by around 5%. It’s unsurprising our vote share was down when coverage of the election was almost entirely focused on an unstoppable Labour landslide. That bred complacency amongst some voters.

Many voters might have decided there was little urgency to vote as the election was a foregone conclusion. Turnout was heavily down in long held Labour seats, and many of the party’s targets. This distorted the results in many places. This was added to by the mirror messaging of far left commentators and Reform. The message from these actors were clear, and aided by MRP polls: ‘Labour will win so no need to vote, and if you do, vote Reform, Green or Independent as it will not affect the outcome’ – for some people this was a free shot against Labour – for others it encouraged people to stay at home. Some of these people claim Labour’s 2017 seat count was the real victory and our 2024 haul is a devastating loss for Britain. These people have no interest in serving the British public in government and changing lives.

Take Bristol Central, the successor seat to Bristol West where Labour’s Thangam Debbonaire was defeated by Green Party co-leader Carla Denyer. Turnout was down 7% on 2019, 8% on 2017 and 3% on 2015. In Brighton Pavilion, a Green hold, turnout was down 3% on 2019, 6% on 2017 and 1% on 2015.

Ultimately what makes this election different is that Labour won the election this time, last time it did not (and the time before that, and before that too). In many ways the conversation begins and ends there. But if we do not understand why the party chose efficiency and what that means there is a danger we misunderstand what the party goes on to do in government.

When comparing vote shares we must remember that every election is very different. In 2019, the Lib Dems got 3.6m votes and 11 seats. Last week they got 3.5m and 64 seats.

What changed? Lots of things, but one is most crucial. Labour this year had a Leader that people all over the country could see as, and give their consent to, being Prime Minister. Where people could vote Labour for a Labour majority they did, where they could vote Lib Dem for a Labour majority they also did. Enough people opted Liberal Democrat, content with the idea of Keir Starmer as Prime Minister.

This is not to say there are not loyal and determined Liberal Democrat voters or those who wish for the Liberal Democrats to form a government, or that the Liberal Democrats owe all their success to Labour, but those voters who opted for the Lib Dems as their choice of weapon could have done so in 2019, 2017 and 2015. In all three of those elections, they opted not to, in great part due to the fear, dislike or loathing of the then Labour leaders. Much like in 1997, the Liberal Democrats are a beneficiary when Labour offers the country a credible candidate for Prime Minister. Swathes of the country do not traditionally vote Labour but need to be confident in the party of government.

When you factor in the Lib Dem effect, the efficiency in vote does not show a lack enthusiasm for Labour then, but it is a reminder that Labour wins when we give confidence to the broadest coalition, even those who opt not to vote Labour.

At the Future of Britain conference this week, Pat McFadden, Labour’s campaign co-ordinator and now member of the Cabinet was asked about the prospects for Labour come the next election, accounting for the low turnout and the rise of Independents and the Reform vote. He said “The next political fight is going to be quite different from the last one. I can assure you that we can see the terrain and we know that we are in a different kind of argument in the future and we are alive to it. There is a really important onus on us to win this.”

He’s right. Every election is different. The next election will be about protecting hard fought wins to continue our progress, keep moving forward and stopping the rise of the far right through Reform. When the outcome isn’t obvious, when people begin to see the change Labour can make in government, there will be something to defend.

So, what is the lesson of how the vote is distributed? Not that there is no enthusiasm for Labour, but that voters are better informed than ever, are alive to the background noise of elections, but will now expect results – whether they voted to oust the Tories, or not.

To read more on Labour’s election victory, see ‘We may have turned the page but we now need to write the next chapter’.