This defeat leaves Labour support unrecognisable from 35 years ago | Lewis Baston

The party has lost poor urban areas and gained affluent remainer enclaves since Michael Foot’s historic defeat in 1983

Each election invites us to revisit the lessons of the previous one. Just as the 2017 election showed that while a lot of people had an appetite for change and Labour policies, they had not been willing to embrace Ed Miliband as a leader in 2015, the 2019 election sheds a harsh light on how poor a campaigner Theresa May proved to be in 2017. Boris Johnson, avoiding the media and repeating platitudes as banal as the Maybot, unlocked the mandate that she sought last time around. It was an expertly timed election, thanks as much to the blunders of Jo Swinson and Jeremy Corbyn as to the Machiavellian planning of Johnson and Dominic Cummings. Running against chaos worked for Cameron in 2015, and even more so for the Tories in 2019.

The Conservative victory was comprehensive. Their share of the vote, at 43.6% across the UK, was slightly higher than Labour achieved in 1997 (43.2%) but not quite up to the achievements of Thatcher in 1979 (43.9%) or Heath in 1970 (46.4%). But it is fair to say that it is the biggest share of the vote for a party in the contemporary era. Their achievement after nine years of government of receiving swings of 10-15% from the main opposition across swathes of constituencies is unequalled. Other than on slightly technical occasions such as 1931 and 1906, when a government was formed slightly in advance of an election, the Conservatives have enjoyed the most emphatic upgrade to their mandate of any government in British history. Their popular vote lead of 11.4% over the main alternative is more or less what Thatcher achieved in 1987 but a little less than what Blair and Thatcher managed in 1997 and 1983. Although the Conservative majority stopped short of three figures, it is not unreasonable to think of the 2019 election as a landslide.

Jeremy Corbyn has done a favour to Michael Foot’s historical reputation in displacing his 1983 haul of 209 seats as the worst Labour performance in the post-1945 era. But beyond that simple fact, the comparison between 1983 and 2019 tells an interesting tale. Although the total number of seats is similar, it is amazing how little the diminished remnant of Labour Britain in 2019 has in common with its counterpart in 1983. There are 105 seats, give and take for boundary changes, that were Labour in both elections, and therefore nearly the same number that switched in one direction or the other between 1983 and 2019. The seats that Labour has lost since 1983 are rural and town seats in the Midlands and north, and Scottish seats lost in the destruction that the party has endured at the hands of the SNP. The seats that Labour has gained are mostly in London, and various pleasant suburbs and university towns. In 1983 the Economist wrote that to find a Labour seat, one needed to look in impoverished inner cities and crashed-out towns with obsolete economies – in 2019 one needs to find a pro-European, highly educated enclave huddling around a university.

And yet, the electorate was unenthusiastic. Contrary to the excited claims on social media on election day, turnout was down on 2017. The vile weather offered an escape route for electors wrestling with uncomfortable choices; perhaps had things been a little different the Labour leavers thinking of voting Tory would have opted out. But as it was, it looks as if the unenthusiastic voters of the Midlands and north who might have given a grudging Labour vote did not feel motivated enough to brave the rain. While Corbyn was unpopular, Johnson was not loved.

But the political system does not recognise unenthusiastic mandates: a big majority gives a party the power to do more or less what it likes and there are few constraints. It is up to the magnanimity of the Conservative party whether the full, vague promise of Page 48 of the party’s manifesto, and the removal of checks to executive power, comes to pass. It is also up to the honour of Johnson whether anything is done to update Britain’s electoral laws to cope with dark money, blatant lying and obscure online advertising. This, rather than minor tweaks such as voter ID and boundary changes, makes the election due in 2024 potentially even less of a joyous festival of democracy than 2019.

• Lewis Baston is a political analyst and writer


Lewis Baston

The GuardianTramp

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