Tony Blair & Cherie Booth on the campaign trail, 1997. Photo: / PA Archive/Press Association Images. All rights reserved. A major discussion point for the Labour party at present is the thorny issue of electability – or their lack thereof. The contemporary charge is that Jeremy Corbyn, whilst apparently on course to prove that he is eminently electable as leader, is not deemed electable as a prospective prime minister. The Labour party is currently locked in the most divisive of internal debates as it attempts to navigate itself into a position of perceived electability by 2020. There are a series of core challenges to be addressed. One is the status of Corbyn as political champion of a re-awakened Left, and whether this enthusiastic constituency is reflective of a broader trend within society. Another is concerned with the wider ambitions of the Labour party itself, and how it should locate itself on the political spectrum. With regards to this latter problem, Tony Blair’s electoral successes between 1997 and 2005 shed light on the potential pitfalls of various electoral strategies.
The Labour party is divided over the issue of where exactly they will find the ‘missing millions’ of voters that could prove the source future electoral success. Corbynistas advocate a view of their politics that is regenerative and reinvigorating, believing that their man has the capacity to capture voters that have simply disengaged with politics entirely. Their most vigorous opponents will offer a diametrically opposed opinion that portrays it as aggressive, uninhibited and self-marginalising. The Corbynite stance diverges, pivotally, from those that remain adherents of a Blairism that potentially remains valid in the post-Iraq War era. This politics views the centre ground as the critical vehicle of electability. At present, it remains unclear as to which side is more in sync with the trends that are yet to fully crystallise within British politics. There is evident uncertainty surrounding any identifiable resurgence of moderate left wing viewpoints (outside of the Corbyn bubble). This uncertainty leads people to defer simply to 'using what we currently know': supposedly, that centrist appeal wins elections. This buttresses the arguments of centrists in the short term. However, historic election results present some fascinating statistical variances that it is worth becoming reacquainted with.
Uncertainty leads people to defer simply to 'using what we currently know': supposedly, that centrist appeal wins elections
Firstly, are there ‘missing millions’ out there? New Labour’s stunning initial electoral success, which was followed by dramatic drops in voters and falling turnout, suggests that there are: in 1997, the project secured endorsement from 13.52 million voters. Blairites frequently venture the mantra ‘played three, won three’ to emphasise the success of the electoral machine that Blair oversaw. But what escapes in such a simplistic summary is the fact that New Labour, when subsequent elections came around, was actually losing significant support throughout its entire period in office. It is the middle election (alas, like a middle child, so often forgotten) that is the most instructive. By 2001, with New Labour in its pomp (benefiting from the experience of governing and with Iraq, at that time, merely a generic foreign policy consideration), Blair managed the incredible feat of losing 2.8 million voters. By 2005, when New Labour won its third consecutive election, an additional 1.17 million voters had been lost – leaving only 9.55 million voters that were still on board. Granted, electoral performance would subside further with Gordon Brown at the helm (reaching a low of 8.61 million voters in 2010) resulting in the forfeiture of office before a small recovery by 2015 with Ed Miliband adding back in just under a million voters to secure an overall total of 9.35 million. Comparing the total number of Labour voters in 1997 against that of 2015 results in a net loss of 4.17 million. Lazier, or more politicised commentators, promulgate the view that New Labour’s electoral success was the result of a magic formula comprised of force of personality, political nous and the fabled spectrum shift away from the murky waters of the Left. This thesis doesn't sit comfortably with the factual reality that, in its prime (the 2001 election), New Labour was seeing voters desert it in the millions – a scenario that would be largely replicated in 2005 and 2010. Data indicates that not all of these voters could have been moderate Conservatives swayed in 1997 by Blair only to begin the slow march back to their more natural home over the course of subsequent elections. In fact, with regard to 1997, it is intriguing to observe the spectacular collapse in Conservative party votes from 14.09 million in 1992 to 9.6 million just five years later – a net loss of 4.49 million voters. It is a statistical impossibility for New Labour to have absorbed this total – given that their net increase in votes between 1992 and 1997 was ‘just’ 1.96 million voters (even in 1992, they had a surprisingly strong base of 11.56 million voters). At best, should centrists wish to claim that, in 1997, Blair was the architect of a decisive switch in traditional Conservative voting mindset and attribute all 1.96 million additional voters won to this, it would still leave 2.53 million Conservative voters (from 1992) unaccounted for. Where did they go?
Blair managed the incredible feat of losing 2.8 million voters
The answer, potentially, to the curious case of the missing Conservative voters in 1997 could lie within the vagaries of turnout figures. This could also prove instructive when probing other electoral conundrums, such as why voting support for both of the UK’s most established parties has seen notable periods of decline since then. The turnout figure in 1992 (an election that incumbent prime minister John Major was widely expected to lose to Neil Kinnock’s Labour party) was an astonishing 77.7%. For context, this figure was only surpassed on four other occasions – 1950, 1951, 1959 and February 1974 (with the latter two by just a small margin). Was 1992 the last modern hurrah of such widespread voter engagement? By 1997, and the arrival of New Labour in a blaze of publicity that heralded this new wave of political engagement, turnout actually fell 6.3% to 71.4%. Could this fall be translated into the unaccounted Conservative voters that disappeared between 1992 and 1997? It is a tricky conclusion to draw but it at least merits consideration Remarkably, the Conservative party continued to haemorrhage support throughout the same period that Blair’s New Labour was forfeiting millions of voters. The Conservative nadir was prolonged across the 2001 and 2005 elections (where they secured just 8.34 million and 8.78 million voters respectively). Given the travails of both major traditional parties in this era (despite presentation of the Blair era to the contrary), it is no surprise to identify that turnout was lamentable – recorded at 59.4% in 2001 GE and 61.4% in 2005. There has been an element of improvement in the two subsequent elections – the net result being an improvement to 66.2% by 2015. One outcome, which enabled a decisive electoral victory rather than another prospective coalition government, was the increase in Conservative voters to a total of 11.3 million. This confirmed the party’s return to a semblance of political dominance but it must be noted that their 2015 total voters still fell short of their 1992 peak by 2.79 million voters. It appears that the most notable beneficiaries of the increase in turnout in 2015 were actually “other” parties (most notably UKIP) whose total number of voters increased by 3.12 million. Exactly where UKIP voters will feature either on the political spectrum by 2020, and whether large numbers of them would re-align with a more established party, is a huge unknown.
the most notable beneficiaries of the increase in turnout in 2015 were actually “other” parties (most notably UKIP)
It is evident that politics is undergoing a process of transformation – and it may be proven true that traditional assumptions no longer apply. In the short term, it would be unwise to definitely claim that a revolutionary new era of politics has arrived. Nonetheless, there are missing voters out there – exactly what colour their political hue is, or could become, remains more difficult to analyse. We have to go back to 1992 to witness the last occasion that UK voters turned out in earnest (when 33.61 million people voted). The most recent effort in the 3015 general election (and bear in mind this took place with an increased overall population) only mustered 30.7 million voters. In short, and reducing an article entirely focused on statistical analysis to the most pertinent numbers, it is evident that there is much to play for – which is why the debate for the soul of the Labour party is particularly pivotal. The complexity inherent within the electorate is such that the Labour Party must identify a brand of politics that harnesses the emergent trend of popular left-wing attitudes meshed with a consideration for the forgotten constituencies that have not recently participated in electoral processes. They also need to remain aware that there are traditional 'small c' conservative mindsets out there that also need to be harnessed as part of any attempt to build a platform of electability (and head off any potential continued resurgence of Conservative voting numbers) indicates the scale of the challenge. The most productive next step that post-New Labour could engage in is reasoned and constructive debate with regard to arriving at a clear and decisive understanding of the 1997 results. I am a staunch critic of Blair (for reasons directly related to the Iraq War); however, the electoral performance he oversaw at the start of his tenure proved that Labour was capable of winning the support of 13.52 million people. Blairites would benefit from a dash of humility and, rather than blandly trot out the ‘played three, won three’ argument, promote a more nuanced discussion of electoral appeal. Corbynistas would be wise to focus on identifying, in detailed fashion, just what brand of politics the ‘missing millions’ might be motivated by as opposed to relying on the internal momentum they seem to have built for themselves.
Summary extract of relevant election statistics:
Online source for election statistics (including extract above):