Does higher turnout really help Labour?

Earlier today I came across a controversial New Statesman piece by Tim Grayson, discussing Jeremy Corbyn and, more fundamentally, the idea of Labour winning from the left. This is an idea that has been much discussed of late, in particular the theory that non-voters (plus supporters of anti-austerity parties) could be persuaded to back a more radically left-wing Labour party.

The problem is that the evidence doesn’t back up the idea that there’s a ready pool of primarily-left wing people willing to vote Labour if they could only be coaxed to the polling booth. To cite the most recent evidence, following this year’s election Labour’s pollster GQRR was commissioned by the TUC to poll both voters and non-voters on a range of issues. Among those that didn’t vote at all, the three biggest reasons for not voting Labour were concerns that Labour would spend too much, tax too much and be too generous on welfare. These people do not sound left-wing.

An additional problem under the first past the post electoral system is that when a party runs from the wings rather than the centre, more often than not it finds itself piling up votes in places it doesn’t need them. Tony Blair won a 66-seat majority in 2005 on 36.2% of the mainland vote because those 9.6 million people were in exactly the places he needed them. Labour voters were showing up in Medway and Nuneaton and Loughborough and staying home in Labour’s heartlands – precisely the opposite of what happened in 2015.

But even among those who don’t subscribe to the “shore up the base” view, one piece of received wisdom that refuses to go away is that higher turnout is always good for Labour. The following chart, which plots turnout on the horizontal axis and Labour minus Conservative mainland vote share on the vertical axis, should see to that:

Does higher turnout really help Labour?

There is no sign whatsoever of higher turnout correlating with better Labour performances. In fact, over the four general elections this century, there’s an almost perfect negative correlation between Labour performance and turnout – their 2001 landslide was on the lowest turnout (and the biggest drop in turnout) in the history of the universal franchise, while their heavy defeat this year was on the highest turnout in 18 years.

So I’m not at all convinced by the base strategy theory. It’s true that the future isn’t guaranteed to look like the past – patterns always hold until the time that really is different. But the historical evidence doesn’t support the theory.





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