Anoosh Chakelian hit the general election campaign trail to find out what was behind the late Labour surge
A few weeks before the general election, I was out reporting on the campaign trail with a Labour candidate whose marginal seat – going by the polling – looked pretty doomed. But they were surprisingly upbeat. ‘There’s something in it for everyone!’ they beamed, when describing the manifesto. Although a lot of voters we encountered were undecided, or not particularly enthused about voting for Jeremy Corbyn, the manifesto was a dream to sell on the doorstep. That Labour candidate won comfortably.
Before the policies were announced, many Labour candidates in such precarious seats were apprehensive about canvassing for Corbyn’s party. Some were openly selling themselves as the best local representative for the job, rather than an advocate of Corbyn’s politics and leadership.
But when the manifesto came out – or rather, when parts of it were leaked – this all changed, even among some of the more ardent sceptics. ‘It was a manifesto I was proud to stand on,’ says one Labour member of parliament who voted for Owen Smith in the second Labour leadership contest. ‘It really differentiated us from the Tories and it’s the first time I’ve felt that.’
Looking back, most of them put the election result down to the manifesto, and the Tories’ programme unravelling simultaneously. Even fully-fledged loyal Corbynites underestimated its appeal at the time, and were not expecting a surge in support for their leader.
‘We were sort of preparing ourselves for a big defeat,’ Jeremy Parkin, a Bernie Sanders campaign staffer who trained Momentum activists admits to me. ‘Everyone was like, OK, we’re probably not going to win – so when the exit poll came out and showed a hung parliament, we were like oh my god, wow, this really worked! I don’t think we were particularly prepared for the level of success we saw either.’
Parkin, who led doorknocking operations in tough seats that unexpectedly went to Labour – Battersea, Derby North and Croydon Central – says this success stemmed from the party’s programme. ‘Most of it I would put on the manifesto – the policies that Corbyn put forward.’
There was indeed something to appeal to every voter base in the document – from protecting the pension triple lock to universal free school meals to scrapping tuition fees to raising the minimum wage to £10 an hour. Pensioners, the middle classes, families, young people and those on low pay could all find something in there worth voting for.
I have also heard reports coming in from individual wards that United Kingdom Independence party voters – who were all expected to go Tory on the night – were enthused by nationalisation of the railways and utilities that would have meant Britain ‘taking back control’ of some of its industries from globalisation.
This approach is key to understanding why Corbyn outperformed Ed Miliband’s Labour party so comprehensively. It is not that it is a particularly radical programme in the ideological sense – it is that it is a very politically savvy one. The pro-Corbyn MP for Derby North Chris Williamson describes it as ‘common sense’, rather than radical. ‘It’s not a question of left and right,’ he says.
While Corbyn’s predecessor compromised on pretty much every offer – not-quite-abolishing zero hours contracts, stopping short of taxing every mansion – his manifesto just went all the way, in every direction.
This meant that candidates could easily tailor their message, both online and on the doorstep – to the type of voter they were speaking to. Ukip voters, or floating voters in ‘Leave’ areas, would be told about protecting British industry and ending free movement – an anathema to the young people who turned out so spectacularly for Labour on the night. (Ipsos Mori has youth turnout at a 25-year high, with 64 per cent of registered 18-to-24 year olds voting for Corbyn’s party.)
Young voters were told instead about scrapping tuition fees, their university debt being written off, housebuilding, funding for first-time buyers, and taxing the rich.
Labour canvassers were trained especially to tailor the message in this way, with over 3,000 learning directly how to carry out ‘response cycle’ conversations on the doorstep. This includes isolating a specific concern of the person who answers the door, rather than overloading them with non-specific Labour pledges and stats. This ‘persuasion canvassing’ took place in a number of seats Labour won that at first seemed unwinnable.
Many voters I encountered around the country were nevertheless cynical about the viability of Labour’s policies – something politicians were hearing repeatedly on the doorstep. ‘It made me cringe to hear Corbyn speak,’ one voter told me in Sheffield Hallam. ‘Because he’s got the giant-sized ripe-flavoured carrots out, and people don’t realise they’ve got to pay for them.’
But enough decided they liked the policies sufficiently to risk it at the ballot box. Although there was scepticism about whether Corbyn’s policies – and indeed prime ministership – were possible, this was mistaken by forecasters as a rejection of Corbynism. It was not – it was just regular, old-fashioned suspicion of politicians.
‘I should’ve realised that all Labour voters are going to criticise the leader,’ one Corbynsceptic Labour MP, who originally backed Andy Burnham, tells me. ‘With Tony Blair, it was that he’s a warmonger, Gordon Brown sold our gold reserves and caused an economic crisis, Ed Miliband’s just not up to the job. This is all normal. They didn’t like Jeremy, but I just forgot that they still all might vote for him anyway.’
Indeed, the question of Corbyn’s character is another area where political pragmatism overshadowed radicalism. While doing what he does best – speaking at rallies and rousing Labour members, railing against inequality – he was also giving genial interviews on television and well-chosen media appearances on his own terms. His team decided that broadcast was the best way of getting his message across unfiltered, and so he kept print interviews – and print journalists – at arm’s length.
He spoke merrily about manhole covers on the One Show; he reminisced about his childhood on the ITV Leaders profile; he kept a cool head and a warm demeanor when interviewed by Jeremy Paxman.
These decisions reflected the pick ‘n’ mix approach of his manifesto: something for everyone. While young leftwingers could watch aggressively political content online – videos such as Momentum’s ‘Daddy, Why Do You Hate Me?’ were viewed more than 7.6 million times, and reached 30 per cent of British Facebook users – floating voters in marginal seats could see Corbyn doing a better job on television than the awkward Theresa May.
Conservatives and many of Corbyn’s remaining detractors have been calling this a dishonest strategy: targeting as many different people as possible with shiny, improbable policies to simply bribe them into voting for him. This is a little disingenuous. When it seemed that Corbyn was appealing to too narrow an audience – remember when he would rather address Labour members than the electorate at large? – he was pilloried, and rightly so, by his own party.
So undermining him for changing this approach does not wash. His decision to vote with the government on triggering article 50 was a signal that he was not tied to pleasing Labour members alone – indeed, he defied the majority opinion in his party, and lost members, by doing so. He carried this through to campaign mode when the snap election was called, by visiting and rallying in constituencies that appeared to be a waste of time – drawing huge crowds in places like Harlow and Crewe and Nantwich. Again, he was criticised for it – but was far braver than the Conservatives, who were stage-managing party faithful-only events even in safe Tory constituencies.
The disastrous local election results just a month before the general election show the importance of the intervening period. This was when Corbyn’s appeal – authenticity of character and no-compromise policies – spread from a very small section of the population to the general public. The disaster of the Conservative campaign also came into play here. Its failings – the ‘dementia tax’, no offer for young people, and a distant, robotic leader – mirrored Labour’s strengths.
Such conditions will not be repeated next time, and nor will expectations for Labour be so low. Corbyn and his supporters will have to work out a way to reach new voters to make up for these missing factors, and take the marginal seats within reach.
‘[He has] to broaden the appeal rather than reinforce the appeal,’ Bobby Duffy, managing director of Ipsos Mori’s Social Research Institute tells me. ‘You go further into the groups that [you need to] move towards you rather than the ones who already did.’ This means not falling into the trap of having a ‘laser view’ on young people only, in spite of the excitement at such high, and partisan, turnout among that group. ‘Have you mobilised as much as you’re going to get?’ asks Duffy, of the groups Corbyn played well with. ‘Or is it not utterly maximised?’
To avoid hitting a ceiling of support, Corbyn will have to look at winning over older people, ensuring working-class voters swing back towards Labour (they swung towards May in June), and increase his growing popularity among the middle classes. Again, this will require something for everyone. Or, should I say, for the many not the few?
Anoosh Chakelian is a senior writer at the New Statesman. She tweets at @Anoosh_C
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