How in 2024 Labour won a big majority on a similar share of the vote that brought defeat in 2019

Nigel Stanley
9 min readJul 8, 2024


One surprising aspect of the 2024 general election is that Labour won its big majority on a similar share of the vote to that on which it lost in 2019.

Some on the left now appear to argue that Labour could have won this time with the same kind of leadership and policy platform that it put forward in 2019. Connected to this is the view that Labour’s support this time is not just broad and shallow (obviously true) but that there was an alternate route to power with deep support. Neither of these views stands up.

To understand why requires analysis of both the 2019 and 2024 results. There are a number of reasons for Labour’s low winning share. The key point that links many is that the attitude of voters who did not vote Labour towards the party is as important as those who did in giving Labour a majority. In 2024 many who did not vote Labour did so knowing their vote would not stop a Labour victory. Some actively wanted that, while most were probably indifferent. But unlike 2019 they did not vote to try and stop it.

1) Labour’s campaign was ruthlessly targeted. No effort was put into getting the vote out in safe seats, nor wasted in seats that could not be won or where the Lib Dems were better placed to beat a Tory. This will have depressed the turn-out in non-target seats.

2) Some previous Labour voters in safe seats voted Green or for various independents. This undoubtedly depressed Labour’s share of the vote. But many of those votes were cast on the understanding that Labour was bound to win the election. In vox pop terms “they were sending a message” to Labour or felt free to vote as if it were a first preference in a PR or French first round election.

There is evidence for this. According to Lord Ashcroft’s election day poll 61 per cent of Green voters made up their mind in the final week with 31 per cent on the day — figures higher than any other party. That is hard to describe as anything other than shallow support. (In contrast 16 per cent of Labour voters decided on the day).

3) Likewise some Labour voters voted Lib Dem tactically — effectively reducing the number of Tory MPs but also depressing Labour’s share of the vote. Unlike 2019 the Lib Dems positioned themselves as primarily an anti-Tory party. 46 per cent of Lib Dem voters voted tactically (“I voted to try and stop the party I liked least from winning”), with 50 per cent voting positively (“I voted for the party I most wanted to win”) according to the Ashcroft poll.

4) Labour’s changed political positioning meant that Lib Dems felt able to tactically back Labour in seats where the Lib Dems could not win. They wanted to get rid of the Tories and felt comfortable this time with a Labour Prime Minister.

5) There has been a long term decline in the share of the vote going to the three main parties. It continued in 2024. But 2017 and 2019 did not neatly fall into the trend as the graphic shows. The country looked more like a two party (plus SNP) system.

Two factors drove this. They took place after the highly polarising and divisive Brexit referendum. Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson are the kind of politicians that drive polarisation — few are indifferent to either. Both induce strong feelings.

In 2019 the Brexit Party withdrew many of its candidates, encouraging its supporters to vote tactically against Labour. 25 per cent of previously Labour supporting Leave voters backed the Tories. While a minority of voters enthusiastically backed Labour, a majority did not want a Labour government. Just 10 per cent of a YouGov survey thought that Jeremy Corbyn looked like a ‘Prime Minister in Waiting’ in 2019. While in 2024 40 per cent thought the same of Keir Starmer . Tactical voting is usually thought of as an anti-Tory phenomenon but can also take place against Labour and clearly did so in 2017 and 2019. There was little or none in 2024 because of Labour’s strategy and positioning.

6) In 2024 Reform has notably won 5 MPs but on a share of the vote only a little more than that which gave UKIP no seats in 2015. If Jeremy Corbyn had still been leader, how many voters who backed Reform this time would have voted Tory to keep Labour out? Many of Labour’s small majority gains were in seats where Reform took substantial numbers of previously Tory votes to become three-way marginals. Reform voters in most seats knew that their ballot would contribute to a Labour victory.

7) Undoubtedly Labour’s support is shallow. Disillusionment about politics and politicians is hardly contained to Britain. But is Labour’s support more or less shallow than in 2019?

One clue is contained in Lord Ashcroft’s polls. In 2024 25 per cent of Labour voters said it was a bit or much harder than usual to decide how to vote in this election. Yet in 2019 that figure was 44 per cent. For every Corbyn enthusiast that filled a rally or went to Glastonbury there was another reluctant Labour voter. In 2019 at least some voted Labour reassured that the party would lose — hardly deeper support than this year.

8) There is another way to think about the shallowness of support. It may be a simplification but there is truth in thinking that Britain once had a uniform two party system with class as the cleavage and people staying loyal to the party that went with their economic interest or that they took from their parents. It is very different today.

Whether you are socially liberal or conservative is now as much, if not more, important in deciding your voting preference as the traditional economic left-right divide. While people do not naturally divide into distinct groups in the new political landscape, it is possible to identify clusters of voters who tend to consistently share common attitudes and values over time. John Curtice and Lovisa Moller Vallgarda ran the gold-standard British Social Attitudes Survey through a machine learning tool to identify six groups.

· Well-off Traditionalists (12%)

· Apolitical Centrists (17%)

· Left-Behind Patriots (15%)

· Urban Progressives (16%)

· Soft-Left Liberals (14%)

Other similar exercises have been conducted by polling companies using different methodologies yet produce similar groups. The point is that “the people” so often talked about by populists do not all agree or have the same interests. We have things in common, but also disagree about much and do not even split into two neat groups on the left and right.

The art and science of modern politics is putting together a winning election coalition from enough voters from across these groups. While Brexit may have forced the country to divide in two, it is usually much messier. Parties that only represent one group in the way Reform speaks for many Left Behind Patriots may have enthusiastic — even deep — support, but from not enough to build a winning coalition in all but a handful of seats. Parties that can hold enthusiastic rallies may be deep but narrow. Electoral success needs breadth, but perhaps doesn’t deliver rallies wider than the party faithful.

Boris Johnson was said to have realigned British politics for good, but despite still enthusing sections of the right today, the claimed permanent realignment turned to dust.

Yet in an age where social media lets us easily connect with the like-minded it is easy to think that our individual views are more widely shared than they actually are (particularly when we are at a rally).

The first questions for any campaign are

· what is your theory of change?

· How do you build broad support that goes beyond your obvious base?

· How do you win power?

· How do you neutralise your opponents?

Labour answered those questions in 2024, it did not in 2019.

9) We have some indication of how a 2024 election might have panned out with unchanged 2019 party leaders.

More In Common ran a poll at the end of June that asked how people would vote if the parties had the same leaders as they had in 2019 ie Johnson, Corbyn and Swinson. The Conservatives beat Labour by 36 per cent to 30 per cent.

This may be the mother of all hypothetical questions and should not be taken entirely seriously, but it is still a striking result at a time when Labour’s poll lead was consistently over 20 per cent.

Why Labour won

Labour won a big victory because it changed strategy and leadership — and it is wrong to argue that a similar share of the poll in 2024 to 2019 meant that Labour could have carried on regardless and still formed the government.

Labour needed to broaden its support to new groups of voters living in different parts of the country to win and thus use its vote efficiently. And it had to present itself in a way that did not cause non-labour voters to gang up on it through tactical voting.

Of course it is possible to recognise the necessity of Labour’s broad strategy while disagreeing about some of the choices along the way. Most would recognise that some undoubted mistakes were, perhaps inevitably, made.

Perhaps Labour over-compensated when moving on from some of its 2019 positions, but that may have been necessary to demonstrate real change — voters do not always respond to nuance or even notice it.

And those who argued that Labour’s policy pledges were unambitious run the risk of under-estimating the damage done to the economy and social structure of the country by the mix of austerity, Brexit and incompetence of the last 14 years.

Voters have limited expectation of a new government precisely because they understand just how much trouble the country is in and how difficult it will be to make immediate improvements. Liz Truss demonstrated in just a few short weeks that ignoring reality does not deliver what you expect. Voters both want change but are sceptical about how much can be delivered — a mood that Labour had to capture and largely did. Better to over-deliver than under-promise.

But while any winning electoral coalition is inevitably going to be broad and somewhat shallow, Labour still did exceptionally well to win quite so many seats. There are many with small majorities, and for the first time a range of parties challenge from second place. Labour has to deal with challengers from both the Greens and Reform, as well its traditional Tory foe.

The electoral system

Finally — and at a tangent — here are some reflections on the electoral system. The 2024 result looks extremely unfair. Labour has a big majority on less than a third of the vote. Yet the electoral system influences how people vote and how parties behave. As shown above people vote tactically, or abstain where it will not change the result. But there are other more subtle effects. In 2024 the question at stake was seen as whether a Labour government should replace the Conservatives. Many people voted for other parties, but on the basis that they were content or at least indifferent to Labour forming a government. That makes the new Labour government as legitimate as any other.

If you set out all the criteria you might use for designing an electoral system it is quickly apparent there is no perfect system that meets them all or a single definition of what makes an electoral system fair. You might want every vote to count, make it hard for extremists, maintain constituency representation, stop a minority of voters gaining total power and encourage a strong government. But no system can deliver all of these. Choices and trade-offs have to be made.

While I personally favour change — the Jenkins Review would be fine by me — I am not sure this election changes the argument much. I have seen people argue 2024 both ways. The case for a changed system is that the balance of advantages and disadvantages will be somewhat better than first-past-the-post, not that it will solve all our problems.