In the weeks before the United Kingdom’s June 8 elections, pollsters had predicted that the Labour Party would lose up to 56 seats, handing Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservatives a massive majority in Parliament. In “Don’t Blame Corbyn” (May 25, 2017), I argued that Labour’s poor prospects stemmed not from the party’s leadership but from the demobilization of its traditional base—especially British youth. The percentage of young British people lacking a party affiliation, I noted, leapt from 14.7 percent in 1989 to more than 41 percent in 2014. “If the snap election were decided by the preferences of voters under 40, Labour would be the clear winner,” I wrote. “Yet many of those voters will stay home on election day, and their abstention will be a decisive factor in May’s likely victory.”
Under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour bucked these trends. Instead of losing dozens of seats, Labour gained 30, denying May’s party a majority in Parliament and damning Corbyn’s critics to eat their words. From only 43 percent in the 2015 general election, youth turnout rose to 66 percent in last week’s vote, becoming a key component of Labour’s late surge.
Why did Labour outperform among British youth? Three factors were central. The first was policy. For British youth, the election was a referendum not on Brexit but on the welfare state: according to a post-vote poll, whereas 27 percent of voters between the ages of 18 and 24 said that the National Health Service was the “most important issue” in the election, only 15 percent said that Brexit was. (Among voters aged 65 or older, those numbers were flipped: 38 percent for Brexit and just 13 percent for the NHS.) Labour’s election manifesto loudly rejected the Conservatives’ spending cuts. The party pledged the construction of public housing, the nationalization of the railways, and—crucially—free university tuition. This muscular socialism appealed to young voters seeking an alternative to austerity in a way that former Labour leader Ed Miliband’s feebler 2015 platform did not.
The second factor is the position of Labour’s leadership outside the political establishment. The United Kingdom, like many mature democracies, has suffered a crisis of confidence in party politics, primarily among its youth. As I noted last month, 90 percent of Labour voters do not trust politicians. Their anger toward the establishment hurt Miliband, a Labour apparatchik, in the 2015 general election—but it hurt May in last week’s election even more. From April to June, her net favorability rating plummeted by 11 percent, as the veneer of her populism faded to reveal a traditional Conservative platform. Corbyn’s long-standing position on Labour’s fringe—once widely considered to be evidence of his inability to lead the party—turned out to be a source of strength in mobilizing young voters. His net favorability rating has nearly tripled since April, from just 15 percent to 42 percent.
Finally, Labour benefitted from a wave of endorsements from cultural leaders. Corbyn has long struggled to win positive coverage in the United Kingdom’s mainstream press. In the runup to the last week’s election, he found a way to circumvent this issue by relying on artists and musicians to popularize his platform and publicize the election. Corbyn may be associated with Old Labour policies, but his campaign was new in its use of social media to energize its young base. Labour deputy Tom Watson has already thanked #Grime4Corbyn—the hashtag movement led by Grime music MCs—for their role in mobilizing voters.
The calls for Corbyn’s resignation—once loud among his critics, quieter among his allies—have fallen silent. But deep cleavages in the party remain, between old and young, Leavers and Remainers, and most important, between Corbyn’s far-left faction and more centrist Labour MPs.
May now looks like a “dead woman walking” on Downing Street, as the former Conservative Chancellor George Osborne recently put it. But her weakness does not guarantee that another general election is around the corner. Voters in the United Kingdom have gotten used to an unusual pace of political life: the country has held two general elections and a major referendum in the past three years, compared to three elections in the 15 years prior. A slower tempo could serve Labour well, as Corbyn attempts to reconcile the competing factions in his party. But it also presents the danger that the youthful energy that propelled Labour’s surprising performance will fade. The challenge for Corbyn will be to sustain it.