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People didn't vote Labour thinking Labour would lose

August 10, 2017 2:26 PM
In Liberal Democrat Newswire
Originally published by South Lincolnshire Liberal Democrats

One of the pieces of rapidly established conventional wisdom about the 2017 general election is that Labour did so well because people weren't expecting Labour to win. People had big doubts over Labour as a government or Jeremy Corbyn as a Prime Minister, but people were expecting a Conservative victory people and therefore, the argument goes, voted Labour despite these concerns in order to give the Conservatives a bloody nose and clip their wings.

But is this true? In short - no.

Brexit opinion 3

The evidence comes from the British Election Study shows the opposite was true: "Although undoubtedly there were some people who voted Labour because they thought they could not win the election, the evidence is very clear that this was not true in general. Indeed the opposite is the case - the more likely people thought Labour's chances of winning the election were, the more likely they were to vote for them".

Aside from its importance in its own right, this finding has a particular relevance for understanding what happened to the Liberal Democrat vote and the failure to win over more Remain supporters. There wasn't a shortage of people who thought a referendum on the terms of Brexit a good idea. Nor was there a shortage of people who thought Brexit was the most important issue. But what there was a shortage of was people who thought the Liberal Democrats could do well enough for a vote for the Lib Dems to be an effective pro-European vote.

Instead, with the chances of a Labour victory rising, many Remains thought that voting Labour was the better bet for the Remain cause. Yes, Labour may have been led by a life-long Eurosceptic who went on holiday for a key part of the European referendum campaign. But Labour were still not the Conservatives - and so many Remainers thought that the best way of restraining the power of Hard Brexiters in the Conservative Party was to reduce or even remove their power by voting Labour.

There are two conclusions to draw from that. One is that the problem for the Lib Dems was not so much one of the line on Europe as of the absence of political momentum, leading to Remainers to vote for a less pro-Remain but more politically more successful party instead.

The second is that the logic of the first point works for voters who were fully aware of Labour's shortcomings on the pro-Remain front. The tendency of some to assume that Remainers who voted Labour were ignorant, stupid or both is great if you want to feel morally superior, but dangerously elitist if you want to work out how to do better next time.

It's not that voters were stupid; it's that they made a logical choice. If you don't think the party that most closely matches your views is going to win, you instead pick the lesser of two evils amongst the other parties. That is, after all, the logic by which Lib Dems often appeal for tactical votes from supporters of other parties. This time, however, the tactical voting was not a local constituency choice based on previous election results; instead, it was a national political choice based on issues.