Never have I been pleased to be proved so wrong as I was on 9 June 2017. Corbyn halted the Tory juggernaut in its tracks and confuted his numerous critics and sceptics, including me.
Personally, I voted Labour more in hope than in expectation: I live in one in (what was) one of the top ten marginals in the country, where a switch to the Tories could have provided May with the mandate she sought to impose a hard Brexit. And, no less importantly, I respected and liked my own hard-working Labour MP, with a long history of service to this constituency. I voted for her, in spite of my doubts about her titular leader. I expected at the most for my vote to count locally but to do nothing, in the wider scheme of things, to change the final result: a Tory victory.
Well, I was wrong – mostly. While I now have much more hope, I still have some doubts. So here I set out my the lessons I have drawn from this and then conclude with a few of my still-extant reservations.
First of all, Corbyn’s critics had plenty of reasons to doubt him. We need not repeat these here but people with memories extending back just a few months will recall the Tory victory at Copeland by-election, a long-held Labour seat, and the disastrous local council election results. As recently as April and into mid-May, when the polls began to narrow, the omens looked ominous. Then the tables gradually turned: May called the vote as a presidential style plebiscite on her leadership and it backfired. A woman whom many joke would like to take us back to the 1950s campaigned as this was an election fought in the 1950. May’s arrogance and hubris pitched in into a pit she had dug for Corbyn.
Battle-tested, May turned out to be a much weaker campaigner than Corbyn. The wheels of the May bandwagon came off in spectacular fashion. Few – if anyone – foresaw this before the calling of the election. In part, Corbyn’s prospects were rescued by the follies and blunders of his opponent. She patronised the young and pissed off the old. But it would be churlish to deny that his campaign was superior, qualitatively better than his opponent. He did not run a weak campaign that looked better just because his opponent ran a feeble one. He ran a superior one and the Tories never adapted in the face of Labour’s nimble ground-based insurgency, instead relying on the Daily Mail and the Sun’s indiscriminate aerial bombardment to do the work for them. They failed. But, as the example of Ruth Davidson proves, some Tories have a more intelligent appreciation of political realities. They could turn the tables in a future contest.
So that brings me to the first lesson: the Tory defeat was in large part due to contingencies like leadership and campaign style. A better leader and campaign could have delivered it for them. We know this because a de facto parallel election was being fought in Scotland, led by a different Tory leader, who fought an insurgency against an incumbent SNP nationalist party who, like the Tories in England and Wales, felt entitled to rule. The Scottish dimension of this contest and its implications have been neglected by the commentariat of the London based press although there is an interesting discussion of this here. In short, Scotland shows two things: the Tories can produce unorthodox leaders who can appeal across party lines and present a ‘detoxed’ Tory brand. However, there is no sign of their being able to pull this off from their current likely contenders for leadership at Westminster. Fortunately for the Tories’ opponents south of the border, Ruth Davidson looks set to remain north of the border, to harry the SNP.
What about that old, hoary wisdom that Labour could only win elections on the centre ground? Well, where is – or was – the centre ground? The answer to that is where Tony Blair and his acolytes thought it was, squaring the circle by improved public services and assiduous efforts to assuage and reassure middle England that this could be done without tax and spend – at their expense. Add to that social liberalism and Europhilia to appeal to the metropolitan elite but tough on criminals and asylum seekers to appeal to the working-class base. We were told that only upon this ground could Labour fight and win elections – any deviation from this would spell electoral doom. In defiance of what was taken as common sense, Labour’s manifesto deviated from the Blairite script and, though its radicalism was exaggerated, it moved into territory that was supposedly located at the base of an electoral cliff. But Labour did not go off a cliff. It was the Tories who nearly went over the edge and it is May who is clinging on by her fingernails.
So has the conventional wisdom been overthrown, then? Yes and no. Yes, the Blairite prophecy that moving to the left would doom Labour has been confounded. That is not to say that Blair had no reason to think they way he did. Milliband’s manifesto was to the left of Blair’s three offerings and he lost. Blair assumed that a further deviation leftwards would produce a greater defeat. But the obvious answer to that was that Milliband did not go far enough. Not in terms of actual policies: Corbyn’s offering is not much more radical to Milliband’s. The key difference was tone. Corbyn ran on an explicit and unapologetic anti-austerity platform while Milliband equivocated. Corbyn made the right call: the message resonated not just with his passionate supporters but also among many in Tory heartlands: the well-heeled bourgeoisie of Kensington plumped for Corbyn. Canterbury turfed out a true-blue incumbent of 30 years (and after the Tories had held the seat for 160 years) and installed a single-mother on his former patch.
It won’t do to explain all this away by claiming that Labour was lifted on the back of bribes to the young to abolish tuition fees and hand outs from the magic money tree. Even before Brexit and the most recent election, I wrote before that there were signs that Tory efforts to push through harsher and deeper austerity were beginning to encounter political limits, as the cuts began to devolve on the working poor, with reservations about Osborne’s tax credit cuts being expressed in unexpected quarters, such as the Adam Smith Institute.
In other words, the political consensus that the Tories forged in 2010 that austerity was a regrettable necessity was already beginning to fray before 2017. It seems that the failure of May to respond to this growing public dissatisfaction and to offer any way out from a seemingly endless dark tunnel of austerity played straight into Corbyn’s hands. As Professor Tim Bale of University College London, commentators became so fixated on the culture wars that Brexit exposed that we forgot that the economy was in fact important, ‘especially when it largess is so unevenly distributed.’ Eve The Sun’s Friday editorial conceded that, though it was disheartened by the result, voters had sent the Conservatives ‘deafening’ messages: ‘That young people need a better deal. That Britain wants more spent on health and schools.’ Where the Sun showed some insight, the Daily Mail was obtuse. Its Colonel Blimpish editorial blathered on about the young not living though the dark days the 1970s, forgetting that for today’s young, the 70s are as remote in time as the Second World War was for today’s forty and fifty somethings when they were growing up in the 70s and 80s.
Another setback for received wisdom: Corbyn’s former effusive stances on immigration and freedom of movement did not seem to tell against him in the working-class heartlands of the north. There was some swing to the Tories in the North East and the West Midlands but the predicted mass defection of the white-working class never materialised. He managed to build a coalition of working class Leavers and middle-class Remainers. In part this was achieved by some Delphic utterances, conjuring a soft Brexit stance that avoiding antagonising Labour Leavers by refusing to oppose it but appeasing middle-class Remainders by opposing a hard Brexit. Whether this stance can be maintained in power without making some painful compromises remains to be seen. There is no doubt that one of Corbyn’s unexpected achievements was to combine the socially conservative working class with the liberal middle class, to forge a coalition that saw off both UKIP and Tory challenges in its heartlands while making encroachments in previously true blue territory, winning seats not even Blair won.
On the other hand, the conventional wisdom still stands, in some ways. Labour did not win the election. Technically, it was a defeat. It is still not in power. May won a greater number of votes than Blair did in 1997. Even if this Tory minority government were to fall, a minority Labour administration would nit necessarily be in any stronger position to enact its legislative programme.
In achieving what it did last Thursday, Corbyn and his advisers paid a back-handed tribute to Blairite impression management by working on Corbyn’s strengths and playing down his weaknesses. No one can fail to notice he looks a lot smarter in 2017 than he did in 2015. Impressions count and so do perceptions and his campaign team bent over backwards to portray him as some avuncular English eccentric and making policy shifts to neutralise Tory strengths – accepting Trident and promising to spend 2 per cent of GDP on defence. It’s telling that Labour felt it needed to avoid being ensnared on issues like Trident and other issues on which most voters have no strong ideological views. It spoke up in support of the police and intelligence services in the wake of the Manchester and London Bridge terror attacks – not usually constituencies for which the hard left has tended to support.
Labour’s campaign was a lot slicker than 1983’s when Michael Foot (Labour’s last, truly authentic leader) made no concessions to image management or on softening demonstrably unpopular policies like unilateral nuclear disarmament and paid the price at the polls.
Finally, there is the observation that the one who appeared to deviate most from the centre ground was May – with her pitch to the hard Brexit right. The Daily Mail’s front cover of a glass-eyed May, announcing the election, over the headline ‘Crush the Saboteurs’, no doubt was meant to strike terror in her opponents’ hearts. This it did do – and convinced many people that the Maybot was power mad. We can credit Paul Dacre with helping produce last Thursday’s result.
Which brings me to one conventional wisdom that has been well and truly dethroned – but this one features mostly on the left: that the Daily Mail and The Sun that decide the outcome of elections and not the electorate. This election showed it was the electorate that called the shots. The Tory tabloids did their worst, as they always do, and failed to get the result they wanted. The rants from Corbyn supporters against the ‘Mainstream Media’ (MSM) on social media were always self-defeating and I was never convinced that Corbyn’s supporters really believed it. If the problem with his electability was on account of the masses being brainwashed by the MSM then what was the point of campaigning and trying to persuade anyone? In any case, the relationship between what papers people read and how they vote is anything but straightforward.
So Labour did not meltdown. Its core vote did not desert it. Corbyn confounded his many doubters. While he did not snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, he certainly denied it to May who started this contest 10 feet tall but has now shrunk to the size of a political midget. Even if Corbyn never becomes Prime Minister, he has earned himself a place in British political history. That said, the story is by no means over and it is quite unclear as to whether he is going to write a new chapter or just end up as footnote. What his supporters do over the coming weeks and months may well decide that.
His success, remarkable as it is, will not suffice to see him into power. He needs to persuade more of his opponents to ‘lend’ him their votes. That was a phrase used by May, in appealing to Labour voters. It showed shrewdness in political awareness, if not in political execution. But she understood that any democratic politician needs to appeal to those who do not necessarily like or trust you. Corbyn has succeeded in getting many former Tories to lend him their votes. They may well take these back. He is not owed votes and those that have voted for him are not guaranteed to give them to him a second time, if another election is held in the near future. His supporters need to understand that getting people to vote for him is not akin to religious conversion.
That means toning down some of the triumphalism that we have seen among his supporters over recent days, especially the assumption that Corbyn is owed power. It does not follow that because the country voted to clip May’s wings it is now ready to give Corbyn the mandate he wants. May won the greater share of the vote and the most seats. Corbyn has to sing for the extra votes and seats before he presses for power. Too premature and insistent on a transfer of power risks falling into the same hubristic pit of entitlement as May did.
As well as that, his supporters need to learn to develop a thicker-skin and accept that criticism – even unfair and one-sided criticism – is part and parcel of the democratic process. They ought to bear in mind Enoch Powell’s aphorism that for a politician to complain about the media is like a sailor complaining about the sea. That means laying off BBC journalists who have displeased supporters. Circulating petitions calling for Laura Kuenssburg to be sacked smacks of a purse-lipped censoriousness and authoritarian intolerance every bit as off-putting as May’s and the Daily Mail’s. Moreover, it means avoiding the temptation to settle scores against opponents – like the head of Unite the Union’s Len McCluskey claiming that Corbyn would be PM if Labour MPs had not tried to unseat him. That is nonsense. Corbyn is not PM because he lost the election. He still needs to convince the doubters out there. As for McCluskey, he ought to reflect on the shortcomings of democratic engagement in Britain’s largest union: he won the recent leadership contest for General Secretary with scarcely 12 per cent of around a million members bothering to vote (and around 5-6 per cent of members actually voting for him). Leave the heresy-hunting and the witch-burning to the likes of the Daily Mail. Do not descend to their level.
This election has shown that the public is prepared to listen to an anti-austerity message. That is a major triumph in itself. It is of course the message the left has been trying hammer home in this country over the last 7 years, till now with not much appreciable success. I suspect that one of the reasons it has struggled to get the message across is the aggressive, confrontational and abusive posturing that much of the left likes to indulge. If Corbyn has done better than many expected, it is because he looks and sounds much more reasonable than a lot of his supporters. Corbyn did the right thing when he rebuked those who took to online abuse of a Woman’s Hour journalist, Emma Barnett, who asked him a question – about the cost of Labour’s proposed childcare policy – that he struggled to answer. Among some of the abuse Barnett received – who is Jewish – were allegations she was a ‘Zionist’. Unless someone can convince me that there is a logical and relevant link between the cost of childcare and the oppression of the Palestinians, then I can only conclude that the use of this epithet was a left-wing version of Trump’s dog whistle politics. If Corbyn wants power, then he will need to intervene robustly to rein in the excesses of his supporters. He will also need to develop more of a ruthless streak and sack the incompetent. Comparisons with Atlee are legion but one thing Atlee would never have done would have been to allow Diane Abbot anywhere near a microphone.
This election has signalled that the public is becoming tired of austerity. The Tories got away with seven years of it because they succeeded in persuading the public that austerity was a regrettable but necessary exercise in balancing the books. But austerity was a highly political exercise and the broadest backs were not bearing the greatest burdens.
It is not enough however to decry austerity’s injustices. If there is to be a viable alternative, then there needs to be economic growth. That means the economy must create more wealth. That can only be done if capitalists generate sufficient profit and Labour must show how it would intend to do this. But much of the left is hostile – or at least, deeply ambivalent – about profit and money making. Put simply, the left has plenty of ideas about how to spend money but fewer ideas on how to make it. Labour would have us believe that its spending plans can be met by soaking the top five per cent of earners, increased corporation tax and a crackdown on evasion. But, as I have written on the NHS, the resource implications of an ageing population and increased life-expectancy are staggering. It won’t be enough to simply throw money at problems to resolve them.
That means, in reversing austerity, it will be necessary to make compromises. It may be necessary to hold down public sector pay, in return for ensuring that services elsewhere are funded. Doing that means balancing demands and deciding which demands for entitlement should be prioritised. Even in rich countries, there are never enough resources to meet all possible demands. Some rationing of resources is always going to be necessary. It seems many Labour activists deny this but the public does not. But failure to inject some realism in devising an alternative to austerity will mean that the Tories ‘balancing the books’ argument will be all that harder to refute and keep Labour out of power.
Then there is the still-festering question of Brexit. Does the seeming return to the fold of many ex-UKIP voters mean that the Labour’s working class backers are on the same page as Labour’s middle-class supporters when it comes to free movement of labour and immigration? That is not a question that can be answered here. It’s too early to tell. Suffice to say, if the answer is yes – and that would be quite an extraordinary development – then Corbyn has the basis of a possible winning coalition that could seem him in Number 10. But if the answer is no, then this coalition is possesses a possible fault line which may prove fatal to his prospects. The Tories or even a revived UKIP could use it as a wedge to break apart Labour’s coalition. Corbyn will need considerable political finesse to ensure that this does not happen.
In summary, Labour under Corbyn has become an effective opposition. That in itself is a stunning achievement. But can he become Prime Minister? My view now is that he can. But he won’t if Labour and its activists remain wedded to the moral high ground of the politics of protest. For the reasons I have set out above, Labour and Jeremy Corbyn have some way to go yet. But perhaps I am wrong – again.