There are lessons for all sides from this general election
Just weeks ago Labour looked consigned to the opposition benches for decades. The Tories had a lock on older voters, a prime minister with impressive personal ratings, and talented campaigners in the back rooms. They had plans to use the levers of power to manipulate politics in their direction – individual registration, boundary changes and new requirements to show identification at the ballot box – and the danger Brexit presented to shut Labour off from many of its traditional supporters made the task look more daunting. The electoral map told a similar story: the Scottish National party dominated in Scotland with over 50 plus seats, and Labour’s route back to power meant needing to win Canterbury and Kensington and Chelsea to form a majority government.
Yet weeks later Labour achieved 40 per cent of the vote – better than any losing party since 1951 – and gained nearly three million votes and 30 seats in parliament, including Canterbury and Kensington and Chelsea. Young people turned out in greater numbers and, to a far lesser extent, some ‘non-voters’ did the same. Parts of Jeremy Corbyn’s manifesto were met with acclaim, and the Tories ran the worst campaign in living memory.
This election showed the role hope can play, and the effectiveness of a policy agenda that is optimistic about Britain and its people. It showed that political parties can make the weather on this positivity and with it will come young and non-voters. New Labour had this in abundance in 1997; it should not be something we have to relearn.
The run-up to the 8 June also provided an insight into a political strategy that leaves the mainstream media marginalised, although not irrelevant, to national campaigns. You cannot but take your hat off to Corbyn, his team and Momentum for their use of Facebook and their supporters’ willingness to share the content they generated. It would be wrong to put this down to talent, designs or particular content – it was a combination of them all.
Does this mean that those from the progressive and modernising wing of Labour should eat humble pie and admit that all they believe is wrong? Palpably not.
Labour is understandably buoyed by this result. Yet, despite Corbyn being at his best in the campaign and Theresa May being at her worst, Labour still came second.
The result last month also showed some truisms to be worthy of that name.
First, the Tories being bad enough to lose is not in itself sufficient to win. Labour must be good enough to win and be a genuinely alternative government, with a programme ready to govern. For all that is popular about the 2017 manifesto – see pages 6-9 – few thought it was ever going to be implemented. Those who considered its application found the document wanting. Just look at the Socialist party in France for lessons in promising what you know you cannot deliver – one François Hollande term and the party is hollowed out and at an unbelievably low ebb.
Second, that radical parties must reassure that the risk involved from the change they offer is worth it. Not including the mansion tax in last month’s manifesto was clear learning from 2015. But it goes for personnel as much as policy. Corbyn can be proud of the fact 12.8 million people voted Labour. Someone serious about becoming prime minister would, however, ask what role they played in their abysmal opponents getting 13.6 million votes – more than Tony Blair in 1997 – and act accordingly.
Third, the only route to Downing Street is via those who voted Tory at the previous election. The pool of voters could not be higher; in 2017 the Conservatives increased their vote share as an incumbent party. Finding an additional million young or non-voters will be tough; convincing a similar number who voted Tory to become non-voters might be easier. Persuading half as many to switch to Labour would make victory easier still.
Fourth, a progressive coalition is no substitute for winning outright. Labour at this election squeezed the Green and Liberal Democrat vote to within an inch if their lives. Equally, it was being anti-SNP and independence that led to Labour revival in Scotland, therefore any electoral pact would not just set Labour back in England and Wales, but Scotland too. Labour is the progressive coalition, nothing else.
Fifth, that Labour must be a coalition of voters from all classes, genders, age and social groups whose interests are shown to be aligned. The middle class and vested interest ‘bungs’ in the 2017 manifesto highlight some of Labour’s problems. The fact the Tories won C2 voters and had remarkable success with DE social classes should be taken serious. Labour cannot become a liberal party in all but name. Not winning back Copeland shows there are communities that will punish Labour if it is against working class interests. Winning the student-heavy Plymouth Devonport and not traditional margin Plymouth Moorview, with all its defence personnel, reinforces the point. How the Tories held on to older voters when promising the triple whammy of abolishing the pension guarantee, cutting the winter fuel allowance and creating a ‘dementia tax’ should be sobering, and addressed pretty quickly.
Corbynistas have much to celebrate. But as they warn supporters of the previous Labour leader of ‘underlying problems’ that appeared on their watch, they should not ignore the challenges of their own creation. Had 2017 seen a 2015 turnout Labour would have lost by 100 seats, ending with the Conservatives on 46 per cent of the vote and Labour just 36. If young people do not rally to Labour again, there is a chance the party might be in for the hiding many predicted was due ahead of June this year.
Corbyn is Labour’s new establishment. He can use this power to double down on internal divisions, or he can recognise these truisms and focus on beating the Tories. The decision, and the responsibility, is his.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
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