This would be entirely the wrong lesson to learn from an election in which, as I will argue, Labour’s lost Leave voters were the main reason for its defeat. It is true, yes, that Labour’s vote share declined by 8pts from 2017-19, and that the Lib Dems, SNP and Greens saw their combined vote share rise by 6pts. But these headline figures do not tell us the whole story: beneath the surface, the Tories lost Remain voters to the Lib Dems but gained Leave voters from Labour, whilst Labour lost some of its 2017 Remain voters but lost far more Leave voters. In this article I will demonstrate that Labour lost far more Leave voters in 2019 than Remain voters, and I will conclude that any Labour leader who embraces the cause of re-joining the EU would be unelectable in 2024.
Part 1: Correlation is not proof of causation
In the 2019 general election, the net changes in vote share within Great Britain were as follows:
At first glance, the cause of Labour’s landslide defeat would appear to be simple. Labour’s vote fell; the combined vote of the pro-EU parties rose. Labour’s neutral position on Brexit would seem, therefore, to have cost it the votes of millions of Remainers, and thus the party lost seats – even in areas that voted Leave – as a result of losing Remain voters. The solution to this, some Remainers say, is for Labour to elect a passionate Remainer as Leader who should then oppose Brexit at every opportunity and argue for Britain to re-join the EU once we have left.
But, as with most simplistic interpretations of election results, this interpretation of the 2019 result fails the most basic statistical rule: correlation is not proof of causation. Just because Labour’s vote fell by 8pts and the Remain parties’ vote rose by 6pts, that does not mean that Labour mostly lost votes to Remain parties. Rather, the opposite occurred.
The graphs below show the results of polls by Lord Ashcroft that looked at how different demographics voted in the 2017 and 2019 elections. As you can see, amongst Remain and Leave voters, the changes were as follows:
As you can see, amongst Leavers, there was a net swing to the Conservatives of 11%, with Labour’s vote declining by 9pts and the Tories’ vote rising by 13pts. Amongst Remainers, however, the Conservatives declined by 5pts, whilst Labour declined by 4pts. The net effect was that Labour’s lead over the Conservatives (29pts) was larger in 2019 than it was in 2017 (28pts). There was a 1% swing to Labour amongst Remain voters.
But what does all of this mean in terms of overall vote share? Well, as Lord Ashcroft provided detailed data tables, we can analyse his data and see how many Remain and Leave voters were lost in net terms by each party.
The graphs below show the political composition of the Labour vote and the Tory vote in 2017 and 2019.
These figures were calculated by looking at many Remainers/Leavers voted for a particular party (e.g. 51% of Remain voters supported Labour), and seeing what percentage of the overall total those voters were. For example, Remain voters were 49% of Lord Ashcroft's sample in 2017, therefore Labour voters who voted Remain thus made up 26% of all voters. Thus we can conclude that out of Labour’s 41pt total vote share in 2017, 26pts came from Remain voters.
As you can see from the graphs, the Tories did lose Remain voters – 3pts’ worth of Remain voters, in fact – but they also gained 4pts’ worth of Leave voters, meaning that they made a net gain of +1pt.
Labour, meanwhile, lost 3pts’ worth of Remainers, gained 1pt from those who did not vote, but lost 6pts’ worth of Leavers, for a net loss of 8pts.
Thus, whilst on the surface it appears as if Labour lost votes entirely to the Lib Dems and other parties, in fact the Conservatives lost votes amongst Remainers but gained votes amongst Leavers; Labour, meanwhile, made a net loss of around 935,000 Remain voters (3% of all voters), but made a net loss of 1.9 million Leave voters (6% of all voters).
In short, Labour lost far, far more Leavers than Remainers. And because Labour’s lost Leave voters switched their vote directly to the Tories, in Tory/Labour marginals these lost Leave voters had twice the impact of losing Remain voters to the Lib Dems.
This leads us into the next part of the article – Labour’s lost seats.
Part 2: Labour lost seats in Leave areas, not Remain areas
In 2017 - not including Chorley, which is now the Speaker's seat - Labour won 254 seats within England and Wales. 157 of these seats (62%) voted Leave in 2016, whilst 97 voted Remain (38%).
In 2019, Labour won 201 seats within England and Wales (-53). Labour lost a total of 54 seats to the Conservatives, and of these 54 seats, 52 of them voted to Leave the EU in the 2016 referendum. In other words, Labour lost 54 of its 157 Leave seats (33%) but just 2 of its 97 Remain seats (2%).
The average Leave vote in the 54 seats that Labour lost to the Tories was 60.1% - 8pts higher than the national Leave % in 2016. It is an irrefutable fact that Labour lost the election because it lost votes in Leave areas, and as we have seen, Labour lost more Leavers than Remainers overall. The fact that Labour lost more Leavers than Remainers in net terms thus had a greater impact in these seats, as the % of Leave voters in these seats was higher than in the rest of the country.
The table below lists these 54 seats, along with the changes in vote share for each party.
The graph below shows the average swing to the Conservatives in constituencies that Labour won in 2017, grouped by the size of the Leave vote in 2016. As you can see, the higher that the Leave vote was in a constituency that Labour won, the larger the swing to the Conservatives.
Losing Leave seats was always a risk for the Labour Party if we alienated Leave voters, as the overwhelming majority of Labour’s most marginal seats voted Leave in 2016. Of the 90 seats in England and Wales that Labour won in 2017 by a margin of 20pts or less, 73 of them (81%) voted Leave in 2016. The average Leave vote was 55.9%. The table below lists these seats
Losing a Leave voter to the Tories in Great Grimsby (where 71% of voters voted Leave in 2016, and where Labour had a majority of 2,565 votes) thus had far more of an impact than losing a Remain voter to the Greens in Bristol West (where 79% of voters voted Remain in 2016, and where Labour had a majority of 33,215 votes).
In short, the seats that Labour lost to the Tories were more pro-Leave (with an average Leave vote of 60.1%) than the country as a whole, and Labour's most marginal seats were more pro-Leave (with an average Leave vote of 56%) than its relatively more safe seats (with an average Leave vote of 49%).
Losing more Leave voters than Remain voters thus had a magnified effect in these marginal seats.
Part 3: is a Remainer really electable in 2024?
As we saw in Part 1 of this article, Labour cannot win over 40% of the vote without winning at least 25% of Leave voters, which means that we need to win back the 1.9 million Leave voters that we lost in 2019. And as we saw in Part 2, nearly all of the seats that we lost to the Tories voted Leave, with the average Leave vote in our lost seats being 8pts higher than the country as a whole. Despite this, many commentators argue that Labour will only win the next general election by becoming a party that supports re-joining the EU, and by winning back lost Remain voters.
But the numbers simply aren’t there for this strategy to have any hope of succeeding. To become the largest party in 2024, Labour needs to gain around 80 seats from the Conservatives in England and Wales. But of the 80 most-marginal Labour target seats won by the Tories in 2019, 67 of them (84%) voted Leave. The table below lists these seats.
Even if the next Leader wins back Labour’s lost Remain voters, Labour would still only win 36% of the popular vote (+3pts) and 218 seats (+16). Because Labour did not lose Remain voters to the Tories, gaining Remain voters does not reduce the Tory vote share by a single vote; the Tories would still win by a 9pt margin, and would win a majority of 50 seats.
By contrast, if Labour won back its lost Leave voters, Labour would win 39% of the popular vote (+6pts), winning 266 seats (+64). Because Labour would be gaining Leave voters directly from the Tories, the Tory vote share would fall to 39% (-6pts), leading to a hung parliament in which Labour would be able to form a minority government.
The only way to actually win the next general election is by winning back the support of the Leave voters that we lost in 2019, and winning new Leave voters directly from the Conservatives. Alienating Leave voters further by seeking to overturn the democratic choice that they made in 2016, and focusing on winning the support of an increasingly small group of quixotic Remainers, is not a route to victory. It is a recipe for defeat.
In conclusion, let’s review the facts:
- We lost twice as many Leave voters (-6pts) as Remain voters (-3pts) in 2019
- 52 of the 54 seats that we lost to the Tories in 2019 voted Leave in 2016
- Winning back the Remain voters that we lost in 2019 will still result in a defeat
- 84% of the seats that Labour needs to gain from the Tories voted Leave in 2016
It is difficult to conclude, in light of this evidence, that electing a Remainer or a re-joiner as our Leader will lead to victory in 2024. Rather, for Labour to focus on winning the support of a small group of enthusiastic Remainers will simply have the effect of leading us to another defeat
By 2024, the question of whether we are going to Leave the EU or not will have been definitively settled. The debate will be over. It would be a mistake for Labour to elect a Leader who will try (and fail) to re-open that debate; and it would also be a mistake to elect a Leader whose major contribution to the 2019 election was a 2nd referendum policy that led to us losing 1.9 million Leave voters (and thus losing the election).
As much as many Labour members might want to stay in the EU, it is very clear now – after Leave won a referendum, a general election, a European Parliament election and another general election – that the country does not. It is time that we finally respected that democratic decision, allowed the country to move on, and articulated a vision for a progressive future outside of the EU.