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

Nick Barlow
7 min readAug 16, 2020
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.

Nick Barlow

Former academic and politician, now walking, cycling and working out what comes next. https://linktr.ee/nickbarlow