To kick off our political weekend at the Biteback Book Festival, author Philip Cowley shares his insights on Labour's 2017 election defeat all the way from Hong Kong...


Trapped indoors, as many of us are, we need ways to pass the time. There are the delights of a good page-turner. For those with kids, there's the unmitigated joys of home schooling. Perhaps you prefer a film or a good game of Scrabble.

Or, if you are a certain type of Labour Party member, you can choose to refight the 2017 general election.

Having written a book on the 2017 contest, I should be delighted by the current revival of interest in the subject. It may have taken place a mere three years ago, but it now seems so far away from our current predicament that it may as well be something from the late-Cretaceous era.

The current uptick in interest – and, maybe, just maybe, sales? – began with Jeremy Corbyn's claim that he would have become Prime Minister in 2017, but for the attempts to overthrow him a year earlier. Things then really picked up with the leaking of an internal Labour document that documented the extent to which Corbyn's leadership had been resisted by many of the party's staff. John McDonnell described the claims that party staff had undermined the 2017 election campaign as "the most shocking act of treachery against the party, its members and our supporters in Labour’s century-long history".

That report found what it described as "an abnormal intensity of factional opposition to the party leader", which didn't really come as much of a shock to those of us who spoke to anyone in the Labour Party at the time. But in turn, the refighting of the 2017 contest serves an important factional function of its own. For the left, it's what we might call the Scooby Doo defence. Labour would have won the 2017 election, if it hadn’t been for those meddling kids.

The only sensible response to these sort of claims is: maybe.

The central case being made is fairly simple. Labour came close to government in 2017, certainly closer than most people expected when the general campaign began, and closer than I think many people still realise. Had the party pulled together, it would have made it over the line. "This," tweeted Zarah Sultana, "is how close we came, even with their sabotage", linking to a news report headlined "Jeremy Corbyn was just 2,227 votes away from chance to be Prime Minister".

It is certainly true that it would not have required many votes to have changed hands for the 2017 outcome to be different. In the eight most marginal Conservative-held seats after the election, some 944 votes changing hands would have resulted in five seats going Labour, two to the Liberal Democrats, one to the SNP. This would have produced a sufficiently large anti-Conservative block that Theresa May would not have been able to form a majority, even with the support of the DUP.

You will see different versions of these numbers. Some add up the size of the majorities that needed to have changed, some look at the number of people who needed to change their mind (which is half the former); some focus just on the most marginal seats where Labour was challenging, some on the most marginal Conservative-held seats. It doesn't really matter; however you calculate it, it's all small fry in the context of an election in which 30 million voted.

This wouldn't have been enough to give Labour a majority in the Commons– they were a long way from that – but it would almost certainly have been enough to have prevented Mrs May continuing as Prime Minister and it might then have been enough to put Mr Corbyn in as Prime Minister, heading up a minority Labour government. Given the lack of a Commons majority, I doubt it would have turned out to be a government marked by stability or longevity (McDonnell's claim that we would now be in the third year of a Labour government strikes me as a particularly heroic assumption), but it would have been a government nonetheless.

So maybe.

But then again: maybe not.

The first problem with these sorts of claims is that while this might have been enough to create an anti- Conservative block in the Commons, it is not inevitable that this would then have led to Mr Corbyn entering Number 10. The Lib Dems in particular would have been in a particularly painful quandary. Another possible outcome would have been a second general election, the outcome of which would have been anyone's guess.

The second problem is that two can play at this game. For if Labour were under 1000 voters away from blocking the Conservatives, Theresa May was a mere 51 votes away from having a Commons majority of her own. May would end election night in 2017 just seven seats of a Commons majority – and there were four constituencies that the Conservatives lost with majorities of between just 20 and 30 votes. Just 51 people voting differently in those four seats would have been enough to give her a majority.

At best, all these sort of calculations do is show you how close the election was. But there are much bigger problems with the sort of political what-if than just a handful of votes here or there.

For example, let's assume that disunity in 2015-2017 hurt Labour's poll ratings (which seems a fair assumption). And let's assume that all of the blame for that can be attributed to the factional behaviour of the centre/right of the party and that none of it was the fault of the left (this is more contestable but stick with it for the sake of the argument). Had Labour been more united, it might well then have polled better.

But if it had polled better, there might not have been a 2017 election in the first place. Would Theresa May, who was decidedly sceptical about the arguments for an election when she was 20 or so percentage points ahead in the polls, have been willing to go for it had the gap been smaller? It's doubtful.

And even if there had been an election, it would have been fought in an entirely different context. Had Labour been polling better, the campaign would have been fought on the basis that they were realistic challengers for government rather than the thing being a shoo in for the Tories. This would have had all sorts of consequences. There almost certainly wouldn't have been any risky announcements about social care, for example, which we know badly hurt the Conservatives.

And while Labour did extremely well in the election to fight back to within a few percentage points of the Conservatives, had they been polling better in the first place, it is likely that their campaign fight back would have been less dramatic. Much of Labour's improvement during the campaign came from former Labour supporters who had become disenchanted with the party; these people presumably wouldn't have left Labour to begin with, but for the events of 2015-2017.

It probably won't take you very long to come up with counter-hypotheticals – some plausible, some less so – all focussing on things that could have helped Labour and got Mr Corbyn into Number 10 in 2017. But by now we're a long way from the original claims of Labour being desperately close in 2017.

So maybe. But then again: maybe not.


Philip Cowley is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University. His recent books include The British General Election of 2017, Palgrave, 2018 (with Dennis Kavanagh) and Sex, Lies and Politics, Biteback, 2019 (with Robert Ford).