So rumours of Labour’s imminent demise really were exaggerated. Despite the standard caveat that ‘you can’t trust the polls’ (it really isn’t as simple as that, though you can understand why people feel this way), the Tory lead in the general election campaign has been slashed. By how much depends on which poll you choose to believe, but if the one you fancy is the YouGov seat-by-seat poll of this morning, then May will lose her majority on the 8th June.
That’s optimistic at this stage to say the least, but let’s focus on the positives for now. First off, Jeremy Corbyn has been vindicated. I’ve always been a supporter, though not an uncritical one. Yet in this campaign, Corbyn has caught fire. Anyone who knows anything about Corbyn knows he’s a good campaigner – what’s been surprising in this campaign has been the extent to which he has come off (by and large) as a smooth media performer, most notably in the ‘debate’ (which was no debate, thanks to May’s objection to such a format) the night before last.
The press was divided, but even Sky News allowed for a ‘slight win for Corbyn’ (albeit that viewers seemed to think it a comprehensive one). And yesterday the afterglow really did wane as the morning after the night before became centred on Corbyn’s apparent inability to remember his figures in relation to a childcare policy on Women’s Hour. Yet, though the BBC in particular made great play of Corbyn’s apparent faux pas, the reality is that it’s small beer in the grand scheme of things. Corbyn’s defence – he wanted to check his figures to make sure he got them right – would surely pass muster in most workplaces up and down the country. Bullshitting when things matter is never a good policy, however much journalists might think it makes for good broadcast. And the key point, of course, is the Labour manifesto is costed – rigorously – unlike the Tories’ cost-free zone.
So fumbling the numbers may have cost him a little, but in reality the campaign has been on balance a Corbyn triumph. The public like Labour’s policies, and it’s important to remember that for all the backwards and forwards on Corbyn’s personal polling, policies such as rail renationalisation, an end to university tuition fees, a £10 minimum wage simply wouldn’t be in the manifesto were it not for the fact that Corbyn is the party leader. When the manifesto was drawn up, there was a sentiment expressed by some in the PLP that they would let Corbyn have ‘his’ manifesto – then they could hang him with it. The final defeat of Corbynism at the general election would be akin to Gerald Kaufman’s old jibe at the 1983 manifesto – that it was the ‘longest suicide note in history’.
And yet the manifesto is popular. Despite the easy (and lazy) comparisons to Foot and 1983, which has been a narrative which press, Labour MPs and academic commentators have been wont to promote since before Corbyn was even elected as leader, the public don’t see the manifesto the way they do. Now Corbyn’s Labour Party are polling above their return under Ed Miliband just two years ago. Corbyn has only been leader for 20 months, and in that time he has had to fight a constant civil war with a Parliamentary Labour Party which has never accepted the democratic decision of the party membership.
It’s signal to note that the collapse in Labour’s poll ratings only began after that Parliamentary party’s attempted (and incompetently-executed) coup last summer. The old Blairite nostrum – that the British public don’t like splits, and you shouldn’t air your dirty laundry in public – seemed to have been forgotten by many of Blair’s disciples in the Parliamentary Labour Party.
The return of Labour’s poll numbers, and the fact that Corbyn is now outpolling Miliband, has forced a shift in the narrative. Rather than concede ground to a leader making real progress for an agenda which is identifiably Labour, murmurings have begun in the Twittersphere amongst PLP members and those sympathetic to them that the British public are crying out for a Labour government, would that only they had a leader they could vote for.
Eh? Aside from the fact that when polled Corbyn is preferred by the public to the alternatives who stood against him in 2015, such a narrative stretches the bounds of credulity. As my former tutor at university once put it, be careful to differentiate between a valid argument and the rationalisation of a position. Most pundits in 2015 (including this one) felt that, whoever they elected, Labour probably couldn’t win in 2020. Whoever inherited the mantle would have a rebuilding job on their hands.
That mantle fell to Corbyn. Rebuild he has. Party membership has soared. Imagine what he could do given the support of his MPs.
Not so long ago, sections of the PLP were arguing that the election would be a disaster and that Corbyn would have to go thereafter – Labour would go down to 150-200 seats and that would vindicate them. They seemed, at points, to be enthusiastic about the possibility; finally they could get rid of the hated Corbyn and his socialists.
The problem for them now is that an apocalypse on that scale looks unlikely. Today’s poll has Labour gaining over 20 seats on their 2015 result. Personally, I don’t buy that; YouGov polls have been unreliable on a number of occasions, but even so Labour is trending upwards on most polls conducted in the past few weeks.
So the goalposts have had to shift. Now it’s not that Corbyn should go in the event of a Labour collapse, it’s that ‘we could have won it’ if it weren’t for Corbyn. Yet it’s Corbyn’s manifesto policies (at least as much as May’s desperate attempt at self-sabotage) which have narrowed the gap and hinted at a Labour revival.
In short, the PLP knows best (as it always has done). It didn’t get us into this mess in the first place through its constant tantrums in public, it didn’t get us into this mess because it previously thought ‘austerity lite’ was a winning ticket, it didn’t get us into this mess because its complacency lost Scotland. It was All Corbyn’s Fault.
Politics is like football in a number of ways; one is tribalism, another is the short memories of some of its participants and fans. Just as the modern fan thinks the world began in 1992 and the formation of the Premier League, so too does the average Blairite think the world began in 1997. This is in part due to the success of the Blair project’s attempt to renarrativise Labour history prior to Blair’s election as Leader in 1994 as ‘old Labour’, pretty much universally bad. This renarrativisation of the history of British social democracy had the effect of moving the whole centre ground to the right; by accepting much of the Thatcherite diagnosis of British political history, Labour couldn’t lay claim to its success stories quite so easily.
Part of Corbyn’s appeal is that yes, he does hark back to the past – but only insofar as he rehabilitates it in order to provide a plausible future. His policies are modern and respond to present circumstances; his values are old and speak to a concept of solidaristic citizenship which Labour has for too long eschewed in favour of an unapologetic enthusiasm for market individualism. But Labour MPs, many of whom do not have political memories which stretch back before 1997, simply struggle to conceive of the world in the ways in which Corbyn speaks of it – of a world where the economy works for people, rather than an inexorable, ever-changing, machine which ‘adaptable’ human capital has to constantly dance on a hamster wheel to sustain.
In the short-term, Labour MPs seemed to forget that the annihilation of the party’s parliamentary representation north of the border took place on Ed Miliband’s watch, and was the result of long-term factors. As stated previously, Corbyn’s only crime here is failing to turn that around in under two years. Bit of an ask given it took a lot longer than that to bring the house down.
The war isn’t over, either within the party or without. The intensity will not let up. But, given how grim the situation looked a month ago, a brief pause to recognise just how well Jeremy Corbyn has done doesn’t go amiss. Funny, human, engaged and engaging, the Labour leader has used this campaign effectively to show the public that he really isn’t part of the political establishment, that he really does represent ‘people like you and me’. He’s promoted the policies that give such an appeal substance. And he has put Labour in a position where even if it doesn’t win the general election it may well have a big say in the formation of the next government.
For me personally, he’s made me proud to be a member of the Labour Party.
Bravo, Jeremy Corbyn.