What if Corbyn’s Labour had a chance at government in 2017?

What could have been? (picture: The Times)

There’s nothing people in British politics like more than refighting old battles, and so we continue to discuss the 2017 election three years and one election after it happened. On one side it’s the argument that Jeremy Corbyn was just 2,227 votes (or similar) away from becoming Prime Minister (which appears to have started with this article), on the other it’s “well at least we don’t have Corbyn in charge during Covid” or similar.

There’s no question that 2017 was a close election, and like first past the post elections, you don’t have to shift many votes in key constituencies to put the parties into a very different position on the Friday morning. However, that all begs a question of how you get from that position to a Corbyn-led government, which isn’t as easy as it might seem.

I’m not going to go full alternate history here and lay out a blow-by-blow day-by-day account of how you go from a slightly different election result to an Corbyn-led government, but I think it’s interesting to look at the possibilities that could have ensued. As we have so few examples of actual coalition or confidence and supply negotiations in the UK, considering what might have happened can be interesting in shedding some lights on our assumptions and expectations.

So, let’s establish our scenario, and we’ll go with a slight variant on the “2,227 votes” idea and assume a small shift in votes in some key seats. Keeping everything else equal, we’ll assume that Labour won every seat the Tories actually won by less than 1,000 votes. That’s 14 seats with a combined majority of 7,460 which feels a reasonable shift, which would leave the Conservatives on 303 seats and Labour on 276 and everyone else remains where they were. That means 35 SNP, 12 Liberal Democrats, 10 DUP, 7 Sinn Fein, 4 Plaid Cymru, 1 Green and 1 independent (Sylvia Hermon). Because Sinn Fein don’t take their seats, that means 322 MPs are needed for a Parliamentary majority. Theresa May’s route to that in 2017 — a confidence and supply deal with the DUP — now doesn’t work, giving only 313 votes, while everyone else combined is 329. That would be a significant gap because it means Labour wouldn’t need to consistently get everyone on board to vote down a Conservative-DUP government.

Theresa May would, however, still lead the largest party who’d received the most votes and have the advantage of incumbency — she’d be the Prime Minister sitting in Downing Street until the House of Commons voted no confidence in her, or someone else could show the they had the “confidence of the House” to form a new government. One aspect of 2017 that I think gets little attention is how much May played this to her advantage by getting to the Palace early, getting the Queen’s commission to form a government, and then going on to negotiate the deal with the DUP. (There’s an interesting question to be asked of those who pushed prorogation in 2019 if they’d noted the Palace’s swift acquiescence to May in 2017 and if it was part of their own calculation in pushing the scheme forward, knowing the Palace would go along with it)

While May would likely be able to continue as effectively a caretaker Prime Minister as negotiations amongst others began, there was a very low likelihood of her being able to form a government with a sufficient majority, because beyond the DUP, there simply weren’t the coalition/confidence and supply partners available. Most of the others had either explicitly or implicitly ruled out any deals with the Conservatives, would demand far too high a price for any agreement, or would baulk at the idea of being seen to work alongside the DUP. Even the Liberal Democrats, who had been in coalition with the Conservatives until May 2015, would be extremely reluctant to even consider talks with a May government committed to delivering Brexit, even before getting to Tim Farron’s red line of delivering electoral reform.

This then leaves us with two options: May attempting to hold everything together until Parliament delivers the coup de grace and another election is held, or Corbyn and Labour stitching together a deal that would put them into government. In a sense, it’s the position everyone found themselves in during the last few months of 2019, only without the Brexit clock ticking quite so loudly. Imagining what might have happened in a second election of 2017 would be piling a hypothetical onto a hypothetical, so I’m not going to consider that as an option here, but it would be something hanging over the heads of everyone as the likely result of any negotiations ending without a deal.

The Labour leadership of that period, especially John McDonnell, would often say that in that sort of position they would form a minority government and dare the other parties to vote them down. There is precedent for this in the first ever Labour government of Ramsay MacDonald in 1924, but like that government it would require at least the tacit agreement of other parties to go ahead on the understanding that the government would not fall to an immediate confidence vote. And while MacDonald had to come to some sort of arrangement with the Liberals of his time, Corbyn would have to come to an agreement with the SNP.

The scenario I’ve outlined above — and remember, this is more optimistic than “2,227 votes from victory” — would mean that if Labour could get the support of everyone non-Conservative except the SNP, they’d only be able to beat the Conservatives by a single vote: 304 to 303. Given that the number of issues on which one could expect everyone from the DUP to the Greens to line up alongside are quite small, those 35 SNP votes would be the key to Corbyn getting into Downing Street.

There’s a whole lot of things with other parties to consider in trying to put together the possibility of a Corbyn-led government (Does Tim Farron still resign in this scenario? Could a similar £1bn for Northern Ireland sway the DUP’s attitude to Labour?) but the SNP are the key plank in any deal. The question is whether Corbyn and Labour could give them enough policies or promises to bring them on side and allow a Labour government some freedom of manoeuvre and ability to implement policies. Anyone dreaming of a Labour government that managed to get in power after a slightly different 2017 election is dreaming of a government that would be as, and possibly more, dependent on the SNP as the actual May government was dependent on the DUP.

What would the SNP have demanded in that scenario? My guess (though I’m open to correction from people with more knowledge of the party than me) is commitments around Brexit and Scottish independence would have been high on the list. Most likely, a commitment that any Brexit deal Corbyn’s government negotiated would be the softest deal possible, possibly tied to either a UK-wide referendum on the deal with a veto power for any of the four nations, and/or a path to a second independence referendum for Scotland. There’d likely be lots more negotiations over policy and the prospect of further powers being devolved to Holyrood, but these would be based more on conventional give and take negotiation, whereas forging an agreement on Brexit and independence would be fundamental to anything going ahead. Of course, any agreement with the SNP like this would also then trigger other parties either wanting similar deals for their nations, or for their concerns about Brexit and independence to be acknowledged and dealt with.

Some sort of agreement would likely have been possible, especially given a shared motivation to remove May and the Conservatives from government after they’d been riding so high in the polls at the start of the election campaign. However, getting into power is one thing, being in government is another and whichever poor sod drew the short straw of being Chief Whip for the Corbyn government would have found themselves doing a hell of a lot of work to put together a majority on each vote in Parliament, while on the biggest issue of all — and remember when Brexit was the biggest issue of all? — Corbyn and his team would likely find themselves with few opportunities to go for the sort of deal they might want rather than the one political circumstance obligated them to seek.

In short, with a few more seats changing hands in 2017, Corbyn could have formed a government, but I’d question how much that government would be able to be the transformational government his supporters dreamed of. Rather, it would likely end up in the very transactional position of having to continually seek Parliamentary support on an issue-by-issue basis, while — like the May government — finding its time continually absorbed by Brexit and its associated issues and arguments.

One thing wouldn’t change from what we had, however. Sinn Fein still wouldn’t take their seats in the Commons, and everyone would get just as frustrated at having to explain why not to every bubble of social media speculation that they might.

Many, many things. PhD student at QMUL. Councillor. Ran the 2019 London Marathon for Brain Research UK. @nickjbarlow on Twitter.

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