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What Labour Could Learn From The Tories’ 2017 Electoral Catastrophe

Keir Starmer (Alamy)

6 min read

A few weeks into the 2017 general election campaign, when the sun was shining and Tory activists were dreaming of eradicating the Labour Party forever, an experienced and knowledgeable campaigner turned to me and said: “we are going to lose this”.

He was talking both about that particular marginal seat on the edge of London and the wider campaign. It seemed almost mad at the time. “CCHQ are sending us to the wrong places,” he continued, gesturing to the constituency map. “We are talking to the wrong voters.” 

A month later, he was vindicated. While the Conservatives did remain in power, they had only just limped over the line to a hung parliament, their government propped up by a confidence and supply agreement with the DUP after Theresa May’s Commons majority was shattered. Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour, meanwhile, was jubilant about a youth vote surge that prevented them from being totally hammered. 

As the UK faces its latest general election, the memory of 2017 looms large. For the ailing Tories, that anguish is now a source of hope. For Labour, consistently ahead in the polls and widely expected to be voted into government by the end of this year, it serves as a warning that big leads can evaporate on contact with campaigning realities and results don’t always match initial forecasts. 

But the real lesson, for Labour in particular, should be understanding how and why May’s Tories threw away their head start, and to guard against repeating history with more than the superstitious humility of Keir Starmer’s anti-complacency directive. 

When the Tories lost from nearly twenty points in front, it wasn’t simply fate. It was the result of a badly mismanaged campaign that failed on almost every level. Not only did they make mistakes in terms of policy formulation, but these carried through into strategic campaigning errors which made it harder to detect and correct when things started going wrong. 

The first pitfall – a lack of readiness – should be easy for Starmer to avoid. When May called 2017’s snap election after spending months dismissing the possibility, she caught even her own party unaware. There wasn’t enough paper in the country to print the initial batches of leaflets. Campaign managers had been stood down and made redundant in expectation of fallow years before a planned 2020 general election. More than that – the party that was aiming at new, Brexit leaning areas had failed to build any sort of data bank on campaign infrastructure in those areas.

While we have no confirmed date for the next general election, legally it must be called by December 2024, giving parties a guarantee a campaign is coming one way or another. Labour so far appears to be using this time wisely, insisting they’re preparing for the possibility of a May election – the earliest it is likely to be called this year. 

Getting a majority means winning seats Labour has not held in years, in some cases ever. Before the election begins, they should be honing in on those voters, finding out where they are, who they are, and what matters to them. They should also be building up campaigning capacity, both centrally and in target constituencies, as well as understanding how to deploy it. When Sunak finally fires the starting pistol on the short campaign, Labour should be slick and well-oiled.

The same goes for policies. The centrepiece of 2017’s Tory catastrophe was the social care reforms which managed to scare true-blue Tories who worried they’d lose their houses paying for care, and gave Labour the hammer of the “dementia tax” to whack them with. Part of the problem was that the manifesto was so quickly assembled, meaning it went through none of the usual sense checks of backbenchers or focus groups that could have picked up its electoral toxicity. Labour should now be battle testing anything they intend to put into the manifesto.

An effective campaign is about finding and mobilising the right voters, and the Tories also tripped up on electoral targeting in 2017. They were unclear which post-Brexit vote switchers to court: former UKIP voters or Labour-leaning Brexiteers? Equally, they struggled to triangulate this realignment with maintaining socially-liberal Cameron-era voters. The result was confused campaigning in the wrong seats, where they were chasing the wrong voters. In some places they were talking up Brexit to pro-Remain Cameron fans, while offering nothing beyond leaving the EU to potential switchers. Crucially, they weren’t talking to enough Tory voters to realise their campaign was tanking.

Starmer also faces the challenge that a polling lead can also be a curse. In 2017, the Tories were too ambitious, pouring resources into seats with Labour majorities of up to ten thousand, and ignoring those where they were on the defensive. Labour needs to be realistic about what seats they can win and where to focus their energies to avoid their efforts being squandered. Equally, they will need plans to deal with the complicated dynamic of winning back Brexit voters, seducing Tory switchers, luring Lib Dems and shoring up their own left. 

All of this will have to flow through the entire campaign. From policy formulation to messaging, to the ground game, the party needs to be ruthless in hitting the voters they need to win. They also need to be agile, understanding what is working, what isn’t and where the election is moving. This was a particular failure by the Conservatives in 2017. Over-centralisation and a lack of feedback mechanisms made it impossible for the party to correct itself as it became clearer that the strategy was erring. Anecdotally, a few successful campaigners just started ignoring CCHQ.

The Labour Party is right to be afraid of how just eight weeks in 2017 saw the Tories turn a commanding polling lead into awkward parliamentary arithmetic, and should be on alert that every mistake could easily be repeated. The manifesto could flop, the leader could be awkward, the campaign strategy could misfire. The challenge for Labour now is using the remaining time before an election to do thorough groundwork and build an agile, effective and ultimately disciplined campaign. Election results are often determined by who fights it best. Labour’s mantra should not be “history can repeat” but “how do we make sure it doesn’t”.


John Oxley is a freelance political journalist, and author of Joxley Writes


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