How Labour’s election strategy backfired

Well before last week’s elections in the UK, it was clear that the Scottish National Party was surging. Facing massive losses in its traditional northern bastion, Labour pinned its hopes on winning dozens of seats in England and Wales, some from the collapsing Liberal Democrats, and even more from the Conservatives in head-to-head competition.

From a variety of sources, I have compiled a list of three dozen seats that Labour hoped to snatch from the Tories and where their prospects appeared promising, in many cases just days before the vote. The results indicate that this strategy failed. Of the 36 contested Conservative seats, Labour won only 5. Compared to the outcome of the previous general election in 2010, the Conservatives increased their vote share in 31 of these constituencies, compared to only 20 for Labour.

I managed to locate constituency-level polls taken in 2014 for 23 of these seats, and they tell a revealing story. If the election had been held in the summer or fall of last year, Labour would have won a majority of the contested seats, many by substantial margins. The story since then is not one of Labour losses but rather of Conservative gains. Between mid-2014 and last week’s election, Labour maintained its support but increased it outside the margin of error in only 1 of the 23 constituencies, compared to 22 for the Tories. The Conservative gain in these constituencies averaged 11 percentage points, compared to a 1 point average loss for Labour.

It is hard to resist the conclusion that Labour’s left-leaning campaign solidified its base but persuaded few voters beyond that core, a result likely to influence the selection of its next leader. As veteran UK political advisor and commentator Patrick Diamond observes, Labour’s strategy “dragged the party even further away from the vital centre-ground of British politics. The leadership mistakenly assumed that, following the financial crisis, the country had moved radically to the left. But voters were as wary of government as they were of the market, making it essential for Labour to be the party of economic competence and the party of aspiration. Labour fought the election on policies that would never command an electoral majority or build a dynamic centre-left coalition.”

By contrast, the Conservatives managed to expand their support in contested areas, compared not only to their nadir last year but even to 2010. Which voters contributed to the Conservative surge? Between the summer of 2014 and the 2015 election, support for the UK Independence Party (UKIP) declined by an average of 5 points in these crucial constituencies. The LibDems lost an average of 3 points; decisions by previously uncommitted voters netted the Tories an additional 3 points.

The Conservatives must now contend with the Scottish nationalist challenge to the unity of the UK as well as the English nationalist challenge to Britain’s membership in the European Union. Meanwhile, Labour must figure out how to get back in the game. The reversion to Old Labour backfired. So now what?