Study Notes

General Election 2017: Leadership, Image and Policy: the Labour Party Campaign

AQA, Edexcel

Last updated 30 Oct 2018

This study note on the General Election of June 2017 focuses on key features of the Labour Party campaign.


Jeremy Corbyn is arguably Labour’s most left-wing leader ever. Characterised as a new Michael Foot in the media, when Foot was leader, Corbyn was backing the left opposition to his leadership as a Bennite. The great common sense position in Labour politics since 1983 was that Labour could only win elections from the centre ground. It was a position that argued that elections were won in the centre because that is where the voters are. As such, the Labour Party “moderates” had it almost as an article of faith that the party was unelectable while Corbyn was the leader.

It wasn’t just about position on the political spectrum. It was also deemed inevitable that party leaders had to be slick, professional, smartly presented: Jeremy Corbyn had always been a happily-dishevelled backbencher. His brown jackets, beard, somewhat rambling (if sometimes very passionate) speaking style all added up to him seeming to be a leader who could not win.

After all, he hadn’t even planned on being leader! The left could not find a candidate for the job in 2015 and so Corbyn was persuaded to stand in order to “make the arguments” and have a debate. In the end he won with an overwhelming landslide and thousands of new members joined the party as a result of the swing to the left. However, Labour MPs were broadly opposed to Corbyn’s leadership.

Having said that, Corbyn was generally well-liked among colleagues (perhaps more so before he became leader) with most finding him personable and likeable. This quality clearly came through to some voters.

However, Corbyn was very unpopular in the country and his personal ratings were extremely low. In August 2016 (in the midst of a leadership challenge) when Theresa May became prime minister, Corbyn’s net approval ratings were down at -42 (an historic low) which was still slightly higher than Labour’s net approval as a party. Corbyn’s personal ratings continued to fall in the lead up to the election campaign in 2017. Theresa May had unprecedentedly high approval ratings on first becoming leader and they stayed high up until the start of the election campaign. It is during the election campaign and immediately afterwards that there was an extraordinary turnaround with Jeremy Corbyn’s personal rating rocketing up into positive net approval and May getting down close to where Corbyn had been. By July 2017 (a month after the election) Labour were a couple of percentage points ahead of the Conservatives in the polls and Corbyn had a net approval of +9 compared with May’s -26. While, in the light of the 2017 election, we have every reason to be healthily sceptical of polls, it is an extraordinary change in fortunes.

Why did Corbyn become more popular? Partly it was his campaigning style. While May seemed remote and reluctant to engage with the public, Corbyn addressed ever larger rallies around the country. Huge crowds of particularly young people flocked to these rallies, chanting “Oh Jeremy Corbyn!” and online organisation, including organisations like Momentum and Red Labour, helped to harness this enthusiasm in a more organised way.


As for the image of the party overall: it was one of total division, at least in parliament. Corbyn was elected leader in 2015 but a number of former Shadow Cabinet ministers (including leadership candidates Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall) refused to serve in Corbyn’s top team. There were various rumours of coup attempts and public divisions. Then the EU referendum happened and while the Labour Party were largely united in campaigning for a Remain vote, after the result an increasing number of those on the “moderate” wing of the Labour Party accused Corbyn of being half-hearted in his campaigning and even of secretly backing the Leave campaign. This led to a mass resignation from the Shadow Cabinet and then a vote of no confidence in Corbyn in the Parliamentary Labour Party. This presented an unprecedented constitutional dilemma to Labour, as Corbyn still had the overwhelming support of party members and supporters, even though he had very little support among his MPs. Ultimately there was a leadership challenge but Corbyn defeated his challenger, Owen Smith, by an even bigger margin than his previous victory. While this cemented his position, it led to an ever more public split in the party.

There were rumours of a new party being formed or of other ways to dislodge him. There was also a collapse in Labour’s polling. From running the Conservatives reasonably close at the time of the EU referendum, the year of constant division pushed Labour into a very weak poll position. Most of the “coup” supporters from the Shadow Cabinet refused to come back and so the top team was made up of various people who had never really imagined being in a Shadow Cabinet, some of them close to retirement and carrying out multiple roles. It was hard to escape an image of a party in chaos. However, an unintended consequence of the divisions was a Shadow Cabinet rather more united and firmly of the left than the one Corbyn would have chosen for himself. This probably helped Corbyn and his supporters to put out a manifesto they could firmly get behind.

Policy and Manifesto

Labour’s manifesto was leaked ahead of its publication date and crucially before the final text had been agreed by the Shadow Cabinet. It is not known who leaked it, but one theory was that the leaker expected a great deal of public opposition to the document and that enable “moderates” in the Shadow Cabinet to get some significant amendments. As it happened, the manifesto was popular.

Newspapers attempted to present it as 1983 again. It was noted that it was a little longer than the 1983 manifesto and therefore might become the new “longest suicide note in history”. But the public did not react to the pledges in the way that the right-wing press expected or suggested. Strong concerns were expressed by some business organisations, worried about taxes and changes to the minimum wage and workers’ rights. But the general public found much in the manifesto to please them. While there was the inevitable question, “where will the money come from?” the party had tried to answer that by publishing a costing document alongside the manifesto.

The key pledges were:

  • Scrap student tuition fees
  • Nationalise the railways, Royal Mail, water companies
  • Introduce a 50p tax rate for those earning over £123,000
  • A 45p tax rate for those earning £80,000 and above.
  • Free childcare for 2,3 and 4 year olds.
  • Invest £250 billion in infrastructure
  • End zero-hours contracts
  • Four new bank holidays
  • Raise minimum wage to at least £10 an hour by 2020
  • Free school meals to all primary school children

And a range of measures relating to rights at work, including for part-time and temporary workers.

While some of the measures in the manifesto were very costly (with the tuition fee pledge apparently costing £11 billion a year) the costing document went some way to neutralising the “magic money tree” arguments (although it also increased the focus on those measures that were not directly costed, on the basis of them being investments that would eventually pay for themselves, such as the re-nationalisations).

The campaign was effective in other ways too. Labour made better use of social media than the Conservatives this time, with effective viral videos and campaigning tools. Corbyn’s relentless tour around the country paid dividends (with research showing significant poll boosts in constituencies where Corbyn held rallies). Despite all this, the mood in most of the Labour Party was pessimistic.

George Eaton remarked in the New Statesman (after the publication of the Labour manifesto) “Under Michael Foot, the party won 209 seats and 27.6 per cent of the vote (its lowest share since 1918). It is a mark of Labour’s woes that most in the party would now gratefully accept that result.”

The campaign itself, while largely praised in the light of results, was unusual in that there was this high-profile, combative, positive national campaign, rather at odds with a defensive local campaign in many regions, where the focus was on damage limitation rather than pushing for a potential win.

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