Skip to main content

What caused Labour’s decline between the 2017 and 2019 general elections?

RICHARD CRAWFORD crunches the poll numbers – and finds that Labour’s changed Brexit policy cost it dearly

IN THE 2017 general election, the Labour Party received 12,878,460 votes. 

This was a huge increase on what it had achieved in recent elections, indeed the biggest increase in vote share since Clement Attlee led Labour to victory in 1945, and was the party’s biggest tally since Tony Blair’s first victory in 1997. 

It was also a much bigger total than the Tories had achieved to enter government in 2010 and 2015. 

Those who argue that Labour’s defeat in 2019 was due to Jeremy Corbyn and the manifesto being too left-wing fail to account for why the party had fared so well in 2017 with Corbyn as leader and a similar manifesto (only slightly more tame). 

Certainly there are millions of Britons who would not vote for Corbyn to be prime minister, but why did so many who had voted for his party in 2017 desert Labour in 2019?

Comparing the 2019 to the 2017 election, Labour lost nearly 2.6 million votes nationwide. 

The party certainly lost some votes to Remain parties. In Lord Ashcroft’s 2019 post-vote poll, 16 per cent of 2017 Labour Remainers declined to vote Labour in 2019 – twice the proportion of Conservative Leavers who failed to vote Tory. 

However, Labour did not lose any seats at all to the Liberal Democrats, the Greens or Plaid Cymru. 

Labour lost the 2019 election to the Conservatives in England and Wales (54 seats lost to and only one gained from the Tories), and to the SNP in Scotland (six seats lost). 

The Conservative Party vote nationwide rose by nearly 330,000 votes – a 1.2 per cent vote share increase. 

These overall figures do not reveal the full extent of Labour defections to the Conservatives (and sometimes to the Brexit Party) in Labour seats which had voted Leave in the 2016 EU referendum. Some of the declines in the Labour vote in these seats were huge. 

The overall loss of vote share that Labour suffered was 7.8 per cent. In many of the strongly Leave-voting constituencies, the figure was around double that and sometimes much higher. 

The seats where Labour lost the biggest vote share, with 2016 referendum vote in brackets were: 

• Wentworth & Dearne, down 24.67 per cent (70.28 per cent Leave)
• Bassetlaw, down 24.9 per cent (67.8 per cent Leave)
• Barnsley Central, down 23.79 per cent, Barnsley East 21.91 per cent (Barnsley 68.3 per cent Leave)
• Doncaster North, down 22 per cent, Doncaster Central, down 17.9 per cent (Doncaster 69 per cent Leave)
• Normanton, Pontefract & Castleford, down 21.58 per cent (69.26 per cent Leave)
• Jarrow, down 20.05 per cent (61.78 per cent Leave)

Labour lost 54 seats in England and Wales, all to the Tories, and all but two or three had Leave majorities in the 2016 EU referendum (there is uncertainty over how Colne Valley voted, one estimate putting the result there at 50.4 per cent Remain, another at 50.06 per cent Leave. The council area it is part of, Kirklees, which counted all its votes together, returned an overall result of 54.7 per cent Leave). 

The Conservatives’ vote tally of nearly 14 million was their biggest since 1992 (when there was a much bigger turnout), the 365 seats they won was their most since 1987, and their vote share of 43.6 per cent was the biggest achieved by any party since 1979. 

It is clear that the Tories’ persistent slogan “Get Brexit done” was what inspired this success, and that Labour reneging on its 2017 commitment to honour the referendum result was the major factor causing their decline, including the change to support for a second referendum and the perception that the party had been blocking feasible Brexit deals. 

This not only alienated Leavers who feared the potential of the 2016 result being overturned, but may also have affected the votes of some who had voted Remain but believed that the result of the referendum needed to be honoured for democratic reasons. 

The conclusion that Labour’s change on Brexit cost it dearly is reinforced by Lord Ashcroft’s 2019 post-vote poll (mstar.link/PostVotePoll).

In this poll, among those who had voted to Leave in the 2016 referendum 73 per cent voted Conservative in the 2019 general election, while only a paltry 16 per cent voted Labour. (In Ashcroft’s 2017 general election post-vote polls, the difference was still big, but significantly less so: of 2016 Leavers, 54 per cent voted Tory and 19 per cent voted Labour in 2017). 

Only 64 per cent of 2017 Labour Leave voters stayed with the party. The Labour Party remained the most popular party among those who had voted Remain in 2016, but Labour’s support here came nowhere near making up for the decline in their vote among Leavers – 47 per cent of Remainers in the poll voted Labour in 2019, while 20 per cent voted Conservative (21 per cent voted Lib Dem). 

Brexit Party performance 

The Brexit Party and Ukip together stood in less than half of seats in 2019, so overall their increase in vote share appears insignificant. 

The combined Brexit Party/Ukip nationwide vote share rose 0.3 per cent to 2.1 per cent (a rise of 22,817 votes). 

However, the Brexit Party did make an impact in some seats which had strongly backed Leave in the 2016 EU referendum. 

It scored over 20 per cent vote share in some seats, including Barnsley Central (30.44 per cent), Barnsley East (29.19 per cent), Blaenau Gwent (20.57 per cent), Doncaster North (20.38 per cent), Hartlepool (25.84 per cent). 

Labour managed to hold onto all of those seats, but the Brexit Party contributed to Labour’s defeat in some other seats, taking a big chunk of Labour’s 2017 vote and leaving the Conservatives to claim victory with a similar or smaller (sometimes much smaller) increase in vote share. 

In the following seats the Brexit Party gained a sizeable vote share (over 4 per cent), and the Conservative majority was smaller than the total Brexit Party vote. In most of them Brexit Party finished third, beating the Lib Dems: 

• Blyth Valley – Brexit Party 8.31 per cent 3,394. Tory majority 712
• Bolton North East – Brexit Party 4.32 per cent 1,880. Tory majority 378
• Burnley – Brexit Party 8.62 per cent 3,362. Tory majority 1,352
• Delyn – Brexit Party 5.14 per cent 1,971. Tory majority 865
• Don Valley – Brexit Party 13.75 per cent 6,247. Tory majority 3,630
• Durham North West – Brexit Party 6.7 per cent 3,193. Tory majority 1,144
• Heywood & Middleton – Brexit Party 8.32 per cent 3,952. Tory majority 663
• Leigh – Brexit Party 6.73 per cent 3,161. Tory majority 1,965
• Stoke Central – Brexit Party 5.27 per cent 1,691. Tory majority 670
• Ynys Mon – Brexit Party 5.98 per cent 2,184. Tory majority 1,968

Abstentions 

Overall turnout declined by 1.5 per cent, from 68.8 per cent in 2017 to 67.3 per cent in 2019. 

Previous Labour voters staying at home doesn’t seem to have played much of a role in Labour’s decline. 

Usually the biggest declines in turnout were in safe Labour seats which the party retained – East Ham, Sheffield Central and the three Hull seats all had declines in turnout of over 5 per cent, and all were retained by Labour. 

In Hull East the 6.2 per cent drop in turnout of 4,196 played a part in reducing Labour’s majority from 10,396 to 1,239. 

Where Labour lost seats, any lower turnouts didn’t make the decisive difference – previous Labour supporters voting for other parties was more important, for example, Great Grimsby saw a decline of 2,434 in voter turnout, but this doesn’t account for Labour’s majority of 2,565 turning into a Tory majority of 7,331.

Lib Dem performance 

As previously stated, in England and Wales Labour did not lose any seats at all to the Remain parties (Lib Dems, Greens & Plaid Cymru). 

The Green nationwide vote share rose by 1.1 per cent, but from a very low base. Their total vote of 865,707 comprised 2.7 per cent vote share, and the party made very little impact beyond the single seat that they retained. 

Plaid Cymru’s popular vote actually declined slightly – by 11,201 votes (standing aside in four seats to give other Remain parties a free run did not fully account for this decline – Plaid was very weak in those seats, having received a combined total of only 6,553 votes in those seats in 2017). 

Even though the Lib Dem vote share increased by nearly 4.2 per cent, gaining nearly 1.325 million more votes than in 2017, this was a very bad election for the party. 

It is nowhere near recovering from the loss of popularity engendered by its participation in the coalition government (2010-15). 

The Lib Dems had double the vote share in 2010 (23 per cent) that they achieved this time (11.5 per cent), and almost double the number of votes (6,836,824 v 3,696,419). 

Apart from the disastrous post-coalition performances in 2017 and 2015, you have to go back to 1970 to find a worse result for the Liberals.

The Lib Dems did achieve some very big swings in constituencies which had strongly backed Remain in the 2016 referendum (and Labour suffered declines in vote share of over 14 or 15 per cent in a few of these), but they were nearly always Conservative seats, and they by and large remained Conservative, for example, Esher and Walton, 27.67 per cent increase of vote share to 45 per cent; Surrey South West, 28.86 per cent increase to 38.74 per cent, Hitchin & Harpenden, 24.76 per cent increase to 35.37 per cent; Finchley and Golders Green, 25.33 per cent increase to 31.94 per cent; Cambridgeshire South, 23.36 per cent increase to 42 per cent; Wimbledon 22.13 per cent increase to 37.24 per cent; Wokingham 21.73 per cent increase to 37.66 per cent. 

The Lib Dems captured two seats from the Tories (Richmond Park and St Albans) and one seat from SNP (Fife North East), but lost one more seat than they gained. 

In the seats lost by Labour in England and Wales, the Lib Dems generally had a very low share of the vote (usually under 6 per cent). 

Although the Lib Dem vote usually rose in these seats, it was generally a very marginal rise of 1 or 2 per cent (occasionally the Lib Dem vote, like Labour’s, fell: in Burnley it suffered a decline of 6.03 per cent in vote share, in Durham North West it was a 1.15 per cent decline, and in Redcar a 1.75 per cent decline). 

The Lib Dems achieved a slightly bigger increase in vote share in Bassetlaw (up 4.35 per cent), Penistone and Stocksbridge (up 6.1 per cent) and Warrington South (up 3.87 per cent), but in all of the English and Welsh seats that Labour lost, it was only in the strongly Remain constituency of Kensington that they made any sort of impression, raising their vote share by 9.06 per cent to reach 21.28 per cent of the overall vote. 

Both the Conservative and Labour vote share declined there, but with an increased turnout – both parties had a rise in the number of votes received. 

Labour lost because its vote rose by a smaller number (285) than the Tories’ vote (455), turning a Labour majority of 20 into a Conservative one of 150. 

Scotland 

Scotland provided a different scenario. It had voted strongly to Remain in 2016 (62 per cent). 

In the 2019 election, both the Conservatives and Labour lost vote share, while the pro-Remain Lib Dems and SNP increased theirs, but it was usually the SNP which achieved a bigger rise than the Lib Dems. 

The SNP vote rose by nearly 263,000 (a nationwide vote share increase of 0.8 per cent). 

All six of the seats which Labour lost were Labour-SNP marginals, and the Lib Dems languished in a lowly fourth place in all of them. 

The decline in vote share which Labour suffered in these seats was significantly less (ranging from 3.07 per cent in Rutherglen to 7.24 per cent in Coatbridge) than the party’s average vote share loss over the UK as a whole (7.8 per cent), again showing that Labour lost far more votes among Leavers than Remainers. 

The only seat where leakage of Labour votes to the Lib Dems possibly cost them the seat (though the Greens and Brexit Party also increased their votes) was Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath where the SNP, Conservative and Labour votes all declined – the larger Labour reduction of 1,691 votes allowed the SNP to turn a Labour majority of 259 into an SNP majority of 1,243. 

It’s worth noting that the theory that Labour lost the 2019 election because its manifesto was too left-wing and radical doesn’t convince in Scotland, where the SNP also had a radical manifesto – in one respect, at least, more radical than Labour’s, as the SNP argued for the scrapping of Trident, freeing up tens of billions of pounds to spend on public services.

OWNED BY OUR READERS

We're a reader-owned co-operative, which means you can become part of the paper too by buying shares in the People’s Press Printing Society.

Become a supporter

Fighting fund

You've Raised:£ 16,827
We need:£ 1,173
10 Days remaining
Donate today