Labour did not win Britain’s General Election. Indeed Jeremy Corbyn’s party did no better than Gordon Brown’s in 2010. And yet Mr Corbyn has every right to be pleased with himself. His party burst through all expectations and is now within shouting distance of power. They did this with an innovative campaign that has changed the face of British politics. And yet their hold remains fragile.
I still have to pinch myself that Labour have done as well as they have. I really did not believe that they could take back the seat of Battersea, where I live, from the Tories. Their campaign was weak, and their candidate locally unknown; they put in a fraction of the effort they did in 2015. As a resident the only party I heard from was, in fact, the Liberal Democrats (whose vote increased quite respectably) – as well as the independent candidate.
In my last post I attributed Labour success to three things: pushing back the Lib Dems and Greens; taking votes from Ukip; and drawing in new voters, especially younger ones. Subsequent evidence suggest I may have overdone the Ukip component – but that quite a few older, Tory voters stayed at home. The point is that Labour did everything except tackling the middle-England voters who voted Tory in 2015, and whom people like me said were the party’s only route back to success. And that, ultimately, was why Labour still lost.
The most positive thing about Labour’s campaign was the successful way they drew in younger voters who had previously not voted, right up to people in their 40s. This clearly had a powerful political effect, to the detriment of both the Conservatives (including in Battersea) and the Lib Dems (in seats like Nick Clegg’s Sheffield seat). Politicians have too easily neglected this segment of the population, while lavishing benefits on older voters, who turn out in greater numbers. The hope is that once people have been drawn it to vote once, they will repeat the experience – especially since their intervention made a difference this time. This needs to be qualified in two ways. First: older voters are as powerful as ever. It was the Conservatives that tried to challenge this group, and that proved costly, even decisive. Labour pandered to both ends of the spectrum. The second is that Labour’s most eye-catching policy to appeal to younger voters was the abolition of university tuition fees. It will be very hard for them to wriggle out of that policy in future. But it will have all sorts of adverse consequences, from diverting resources from poorer people (both services and benefits) to restricting the funding and independence of universities.
A second positive thing was that finally the stranglehold of the tabloid press seems to have been broken. In 1992 The Sun newspaper took credit for an unexpected Conservative victory, following a campaign of vilification of Labour’s then leader, Neil Kinnock – and few disagreed. Although newspaper readership is falling, it is striking how mainstream television news often takes a lead from the press. This is very evident from the often bizarre prioritisation of news stories on BBC Radio 4, for example. But many people now get their news from elsewhere, and are used to challenging the line put out by the “mainstream media”. The press is responsible for a whole series of myths and lies about politics (the scale of foreign aid, the impact of immigrants, and so on), so this is positive. Unfortunately its diminishment is not in itself a blow for truth. For example I heard people suggesting the Mr Corbyn was much readier to mix with the public than Mrs May, and yet Mr Corbyn’s audiences were almost as controlled. The left sustains its own fictional world.
Perhaps what surprised me most of all was the success of Labour’s manifesto. I dismissed it as an incoherent set of policies designed to please a series of vocal interest groups. It was not a serious programme for government, and was not economically credible (even if you accept that the government can run a much bigger budget deficit that most people currently think). And yet many voters were happy to find something they liked in it, and put an optimistic gloss on the rest. To me the most remarkable endorsement came from the economist Joseph Stiglitz. Mr Stiglitz is a Nobel laureate and wrote the textbook I used when studying public economics. Having read the manifesto itself, I can see that I was being less than fair. I wasn’t actually wrong in my comments, but I underrated its positive narrative. People were able to project their hopes onto it. They were able to seize on a few things they liked, and take the rest on trust. One striking feature was that it left very little money to reverse Tory benefits cuts, or even for them to keep pace with inflation. But nobody really believed that Mr Corbyn would let claimants down so thoroughly.
But it does seem that British voters don’t like tough choices. The best way to win votes is to make undeliverable promises, such as the one made by Brexit campaigners that leaving the EU would be costless. By contrast Mrs May’s more challenging manifesto was a failure; there were a lot of nasty things in it, but that isn’t what really cost her the votes – it was her attempt to limit the state’s largess to older voters, something that will have to be tackled eventually. This is a less positive development for British politics.
More positive, is that it looks as if televised leaders’ debates are here to stay. By steering clear of such debates, Mrs May was only following standard professional advice that such debates are simply a risk to front-runners. But Mr Corbyn’s last minute move to join the debate with all party leaders was a masterstroke, and one that I suspect lost the election for Mrs May – it badly damaged her already fading brand, which was the central focus of the Conservative campaign. Failure to attend such a debate suggests that a party leader is not up to the job. Now that two-party politics has returned (in the conventional wisdom, if not in fact), we might even get a two leader face-off in future as a permanent fixture. These debates may be theatrical nonsense, but they are a good way of securing public engagement in the electoral process and so a positive thing.
Now that Mrs May seems to be coming unstuck, after placing such a massive bet on her own personal brand, Labour are within striking distance of power. They have already taken a poll lead. But they should beware for three reasons.
First is that, as my last post pointed out, the world of two-party politics is no easier than the multi-party one. Labour now needs to get into the upper 40s of vote-share to win (the electoral system is tilted against them). That means appealing to voters who voted Conservative last time, something they have studiously avoided trying to do until now.
Second is that their manifesto will prove a problem as a template for government. It does too much for some interest groups (e.g. students) and not enough for others (benefit claimants). Labour successfully appealed to both sides of the Brexit argument at once. . it is based on an economic idea that growth is based purely on the quantity of investment, and independent of the ease of doing business. Resources are always limited, and choices always have to be made; Labour shows no preparedness for that eventuality.
And third, doubts about Mr Corbyn’s leadership remain. He had a good campaign, doing things we already knew he does well – it is how he got to be Labour leader, after all. And yet his grasp of man-management and administration has been shown to be weak. These weaknesses are bound to re-emerge, as will power struggles within the Labour Party, which he has been unable to handle.
None of this will necessarily stop Mr Corbyn from winning another election, given the disarray of the Tories, and the lack of challenge from elsewhere. After all Francois Hollande won the French presidency in 2012 on a similar basis. But that led to the collapse of his party. Labour supporters should remember that not long ago Theresa May looked unassailable, but that hubris undid her. Now I see some of that some hubris coming from Mr Corbyn’s side. They should beware.