Labour’s unexpected ‘success’ in last week’s general election has been greeted with relief and joy across the left. But we need words of caution as well as cheers, says WILL BROWN, for there is still much to do to turn this opportunity into a real transformative victory.
Given what seemed possible a few weeks ago, and even as voting closed on Thursday, this was a good result for Labour: a large increase in its share of the vote, an energetic and mostly effective campaign, and no huge loss of parliamentary seats that some, including myself, had feared. All this is very welcome, and the party now has a chance to renew itself, to carry the hopes of many and provide opposition to the Tory hard Brexiteers.
Certainly, we can take many positives from the past few weeks. First, Corbyn has been much more effective than many (including myself and his more strident critics) thought possible. His ‘monsieur zen’ approach to live TV came across as more calm, considered and ‘human’ than his opponent. His campaign developed from a focus on safe Labour areas, which generated positive TV images of him addressing large, enthusiastic crowds, as he acknowledged the need to visit some Tory marginals.
Labour’s campaign more widely was effective and focussed – features painfully absent from the preceding 18 months of Corbyn’s leadership – and, as with his leadership campaigns, had an effective online strategy.
Although we don’t know yet any accurate figures on youth turnout (despite some erroneous reporting to the contrary), it’s clear Labour generated enthusiasm and support among the young, and young people and students have been an energetic and vital component of many local campaigns.
Moreover, despite some noises off at the start of the campaign, for the most part, in response to effective leadership, there hasn’t been the divisive bickering that we have become accustomed to recently in Labour ranks. Although some MPs have fought their campaigns as if Corbyn didn’t exist, most at least refrained from openly hostile criticism.
Perhaps most remarkable, Labour managed to change the political conversation and did so on terms that were most unpromising. Not only did it face massive media opposition, but it confounded conventional wisdom about what kind of political programme could attract mass support. Corbyn’s Labour seems to have begun to change people’s minds, to challenge the electorate’s existing views, rather than simply pander to them.
All of this made Labour seem relatively united and purposeful in contrast to a Tory campaign that must go down as one of the most inept in recent history. In place of May’s robotic mantras and distance from the public, Corbyn was engaged and enthusiastic. In place of Tory policy incoherence, Labour set out a very wide-ranging set of commitments. The hubris of the Tory leadership forgetting that ‘elections come with opponents’ has left them looking weak and May’s personal authority is in shreds.
Add to all that the elation that local election victories bring to those members who have been tramping the streets for their candidate for six weeks (my own included, with Sheffield Hallam going Labour for the first time ever) and it’s perhaps understandable that many are celebrating a successful result.
No success like failure
So why do we need to introduce words of caution?
First, the result. After all, Labour did not win. May is still in government. Labour is still 50 seats adrift of the Tories. Despite their chaotic and inept leadership up to and after the referendum, the Tories are still in power. Brexit will still go ahead as May panders ever more to the ‘ultras’ on the Tory backbenches and in the DUP.
Some on the left are perhaps guilty of getting carried away, equating the avoidance of catastrophe with victory. The left has a bad habit of mistaking glorious defeat for victory – think, for example, of Tony Benn talking about ‘millions of votes for socialism’ in 1983, or the ‘heroic’ miners’ strike. But, as Dylan once said: “There’s no success like failure / And failure ain’t no success at all.”
Granted, failure is perhaps the wrong word here, given the circumstances. Winning was almost certainly never on the cards and Labour has made some big strides forward. But that means there is still a lot of work to do before we can realise the changes that Corbyn has given voice to.
We can’t pretend we are there yet; we can’t pretend, as Corbyn did in one interview, that Labour has ‘won’ the election. We have repulsed an attack designed to consign us to history and should be relieved and delighted at that. But we haven’t won anything yet.
So, what are the dangers and opportunities we need to address now?
First, although we don’t have detailed data yet, it seems that Labour’s gains were mostly not at Tory expense. This isn’t the whole picture as Labour did won some Tory marginals – Kensington, Canterbury, Bedford, and so on.
But the one thing all the polls mostly agreed on, and which turned out to be near the mark, was the Tory share of the vote: it never went below 40% and was always ahead of Labour’s. Labour’s advances are also fragile – many of the seats saved and won were on wafer thin margins. The newly won-over can quickly be lost.
However effective Labour was, it still wasn’t convincing great numbers of Tory voters to switch to Labour. However bad Theresa May’s campaign was – and it was awful – she increased the Tory share of the vote from David Cameron’s efforts two years before. The collapse of UKIP and the Liberals meant Labour scored highly, in a renewed two-party competition, and yet was still a long way from power.
Secondly, part of the reason for that relates to doubts about Corbyn himself. Although he did himself no end of good in this campaign, it was never likely to be enough to overturn the lorry-loads of criticism that had been dumped on him. Much of that was pure right-wing bilge pouring out of the Daily Mail and Michael Farron. But some of it was effective because it got at something more substantive.
Doubts around foreign and defence policy, terrorism and security had traction because they are – in my view – Corbyn’s weakest areas. This came through clearly in the TV Q and A sessions and in his foreign policy set-piece at Chatham House when his studied calm morphed into something much less convincing, a less straight-talking, less honest politics.
Some of this relates to Corbyn’s past positions on Ireland and the Middle East, some of it to the party’s tortuous relationship with nuclear weapons. As Paul Mason is arguing, there is a need to neutralise these issues. Mason suggests putting ‘safe’, competent people in charge of these policy areas, but it may take a bolder and more convincing move from Corbyn to alter many people’s perception of him.
Thirdly, although the manifesto clearly ‘worked’ in the sense that it enthused Corbyn’s supporters and galvanised young voters, the party needs to do a lot more policy work on a host of issues. While the pledge on tuition fees attracted students, the cost of this commitment is huge when set against what is needed in early years’ provision and primary and secondary education, or on benefits.
There was almost no sense of priorities in the manifesto, no sense of trade offs that are necessary in government and considerable doubt as to whether it would all be achievable. While this kind of thing doesn’t matter to the true believers, it does matter if you want to fashion the even broader coalition of voters you need actually to win power.
Granted, this was a rushed manifesto. The commitments on nationalisation, social care, education, investment and many, many more areas have been made on the hoof by small numbers of people when the national policy forum process had barely begun its work.
The manifesto itself bears the heavy imprint of the trade unions and the members need to have more of a say in how these manifesto commitments are developed into a programme that can not only hold together the fragile coalition which has now been attracted to Labour – some former UKIP, the young and the public sector middle class – but to reach out further.
Policy also needs to become more imaginative, less tied to the comfortable solutions that the old left hankers for, less 20th and more 21st century. A policy programme which is narrower but more solid, with more depth and a greater sense of direction, has more chance of doing this than the 120 pages of pledges we fought on this time.
Opportunities and openness
Finally, and crucially, the way the party now conducts itself is vital in realising the opportunities the election result has presented us with. It will determine both how effective it can be as an opposition to hard Brexit and how far it can start to look like a plausible alternative party of government. It will determine whether the grounds for common collective effort that have opened up are seized or squandered. This will require commitment on both sides.
On the one hand, if Corbyn’s critics do not acknowledge the advances he has made in this election, and react constructively, it will be highly damaging. They have to buy-in to the policy programme, the one that just helped them to win their seats. After all, as acknowledged by Jeremy Paxman’s bizarre line of TV questioning, the manifesto was clearly a compromise between Corbyn and other elements in the party.
But there is also a huge onus now on Corbyn to prove he can also do the ‘parliamentary politics’ bit, not just the campaigning. He has begun – but only just begun – to address some of the criticisms of his previously ineffective leadership. More needs to be done and more effort put into building a more effective parliamentary team.
There is a real opportunity now, if he and his team are smart enough. With a bit of clever Commons coalition building, they could not only put a spoke in the wheel of hard Brexit, but end any prospect of grammar schools and further cuts to the NHS and schools. To do that, he must be magnanimous to those in Labour who opposed him and reach beyond Labour’s ranks to those in other parties who can help to hedge-in May’s faltering government.
Internally, Corbyn’s supporters also need to avoid acting as if this election result justifies everything that has gone before, and that further policy change and critical discussion is not warranted. As with the aftermath of the recent leadership elections, the party needs both sides to show some magnanimity, tolerance and comradeship so that the gains of 8 June are not squandered.
It is doubtful there are many voters to the left of Labour still to be attracted to the party; it is a certainty there are many millions to the right who still need winning over. With the prospect of yet another election this year or next, time may be short.
There are colossal choices facing us about the nation’s future, the kind of society we want to become and our place in the world. This is a time for big visions and bold moves.
Quite against expectations, Labour has won some credibility to offer a choice on that future and hope for real change. But we need to recognise there is still a lot of work to do to turn that opportunity into a real transformative victory.