Theme: Parties & Elections | Content Type: Blog

Why Did Labour's Grassroots Switch From Jeremy Corbyn to Keir Starmer?

Paul Whiteley and Patrick Seyd


Jon Tyson

| 6 mins read

The scale of Keir Starmer’s victory in the Labour leadership election suggests a significant shift in opinion has taken place among the party’s grassroots members. Whereas 50 per cent of them voted for Jeremy Corbyn in the party leadership contest in 2015, just five years later 56 per cent of them voted for Starmer.

In the past, general election defeats have forced parties into major rethinks – for example, after the Conservatives’ defeat in 1945 or after Labour’s in 1983. But these were initiated by the party leaderships. On this occasion, the impetus has come from the party’s 553,000 individual members. A groundswell of support for Starmer is revealed by the fact that he won an overall majority of the members in the first round of the ballot.

Insight from Constituency Labour Parties

By examining the nominations for the leadership candidates from Constituency Labour Parties (CLP’s) across Britain it is possible to gain insight into the views of the party activists who attended the management committee meetings where the leadership votes took place. The assumption is very often that these activists hold more ‘extreme’ ideological views than the party’s elected representatives or its voters. But the evidence from this leadership contest suggests something rather different.

In the 2020 contest, Starmer was nominated by 374 constituency parties, Rebecca Long-Bailey by 163 and Lisa Nandy by 72. It is instructive to look at the social characteristics of the constituencies nominating the different candidates, using Census data. As the table below shows, constituencies which nominated Long-Bailey won the highest proportion of Labour voters in the 2019 general election, and contained the least affluent, the smallest proportion of professional managers, and the highest number of young voters. A good number of these constituencies were in the ‘Red Wall’, suggesting that these CLPs are more ideologically committed to the Corbynist agenda than their counterparts in more affluent, middle-class constituencies.

However, parties nominating Nandy had the highest concentration of manual workers, so Long-Bailey did not have a monopoly of support from CLPs in working class constituencies. Furthermore it is clear that constituencies nominating Starmer were more likely to be in marginal seats and have more middle-class voters.

But can we infer that more middle class constituencies have more middle class party members? In the event, the British Election Study collected data on party membership in a large-scale online survey conducted just prior to the general election of last year. The survey shows a highly significant positive correlation exists (+0.36) between the proportion of middle-class party members and middle-class Labour voters in constituencies across Britain. Clearly middle class constituencies tend to have middle class party members and activists.

We can add a further dimension to the analysis by comparing CLP nominations in the most recent leadership election with those in the 2015 contest. We can identify the dedicated ‘Corbynist’ constituency parties which nominated Corbyn in 2015 and Long-Bailey in 2020 (50 in total). At the same time we can look at the ‘Switcher’ constituencies which nominated Corbyn in 2015 and Starmer in 2020 (83 in total).

There were in fact 40 constituency parties which backed Corbyn both in 2015 and in the second leadership contest in 2016 as well as Long-Bailey in 2020. But the 2016 contest was very unusual involving only two candidates, and a total of 299 parties refused to nominate anyone. Many CLP activists at that time clearly felt that it was not legitimate to challenge a leader who had won only a year earlier.

What defines 'Switcher' constituencies?

There is little difference between the ‘Corbynist’ and ‘Switcher’ constituencies in either their share of the Labour vote in 2019 or in their loss of Labour vote shares from the general election of 2017. The differences are more to do with the social composition of the constituencies and also the marginality of seats.

The ‘Corbynist’ constituencies had fewer professionals, more workers, lower incomes, and fewer younger people than the ‘Switcher’ constituencies. The more affluent the constituency, the more educated its workforce the greater the likelihood that the constituency party activists would switch their support from Long-Bailey to Starmer.

The more affluent the constituency, the more likely its party activists would switch their support from Long-Bailey to Starmer

The implication is that many of the young, middle-class radicals who supported Jeremy Corbyn’s insurgency bid for the leadership in 2015 switched to a candidate they thought was more likely to win next time than Corbyn’s heir apparent Rebecca Long-Bailey. They did this because they saw the need for a new approach if the party was to win in their own more marginal constituencies in the future. They may be ideologically on the left, but the defeat in 2019 clearly made many of them rethink their position.

By contrast, activists in more traditional working-class parties in relatively safe Labour seats stayed loyal to Corbynism. That said, only a third who nominated Corbyn in 2015 supported Rebecca Long-Bailey in 2020, so their views changed too.

Keir Starmer’s task now is to reach out to voters in the more middle-class constituencies whilst at the same time retaining Labour’s more traditional supporters. The coronavirus crisis has thrown a big spanner in the works of electoral politics in Britain, but since we know that economic failure leads to government loss of support, Labour’s new leadership places the party in a strong position to do well in the future.

  • Paul Whiteley

    Paul Whiteley

    Paul Whiteley is a Professor of politics in the Department of Government, University of Essex

    Articles by Paul Whiteley
  • Patrick Seyd

    Patrick Seyd

    Patrick Seyd is Emeritus Professor of Politics at the University of Sheffield.

    Articles by Patrick Seyd