Jack May learns the lessons of the 2017 general election as he reads Tim Shipman’s Fall Out
Tim Shipman’s access to sources on the inside of both main parties’ operations is astounding, and his ability to turn snippets of frictions, factions, stand-offs and compromises into a riveting narrative that never becomes a turgid exercise in ‘one damn thing after another’ is impressive. The bulk of Fall Out, his account of the 2017 general election, is concerned with the internal strife of the Conservative party.
But for anyone with an eye on Labour’s fate in the next general election, this book should serve as an excellent manual of what to do and what not to do next time around.
The many within the party who were deeply sceptical of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership have much to mull over. The strategy of rallies in towns and seats that often seemed totally unwinnable may not have been as daft as it appeared.
Corbyn’s team understood the power of energising and empowering that base of activists and party members. Policies like free tuition fees, though expensive and regressive, excited members in a way that Ed Miliband’s more timid approach never could. With all notions of political respectability out of the window, Corbyn was more able to put ideas straight to the voters without caring about the sneers of the commentariat.
On the flip side, Corbyn’s camp must accept the principle failing of the campaign, which is that it failed to secure a majority. Though they may talk about ‘moving the Overton window’, nothing matters if you cannot get it done. Labour is still more than 60 seats off majority government.
Seumas Milne’s apparent lackadaisical approach to his job – allegedly turning up at midday on many days – is no real way for the chief strategist to a future prime minister to comport themselves. Nor is the attitude Shipman reports from Karie Murphy, one of Corbyn’s key aides, whose reported work manner would make even Fiona Hill blush.
Shipman describes the cold war between the leader of the opposition’s office and the Labour headquarters Southside (described by Corbyn’s camp as ‘the dark side’). Covering glass office dividers with sheets of paper to stop Labour staff seeing in and running a parallel election operation from the other side of the same floor is not a recipe for success. The suspicion and mistrust that became apparent when the manifesto leaked is much too toxic to be sustainable. As Shipman writes: ‘Matt Zarb-Cousin, who had left Corbyn’s office in March, took to Twitter to condemn “another leak from Southside”, an outburst that prompted a letter from Iain McNicol threatening him with legal action “if you say anything about my staff again”.’
Shipman recounts one election night moment: ‘Corbynistas booed the re-election of John Woodcock … They also refused to applaud the return of Jess Phillips’. The notion of party leadership booing the safe return of one of its own members of parliament is astonishing. Shipman’s book offers insight into how we can take the positive elements of that experience and turn them into a majority victory in the next election, but only if all sides can learn lessons.
Jack May is a Progress columnist, writer and editor. He tweets at @JackO_May
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