A few disjointed thoughts on General Election
When David Dimbleby described the result indicated by the 1997 exit poll as a Labour landslide, Professor Anthony King rejected landslide as too weak a word. Instead, he said, it was more akin to “an asteroid hitting the planet and destroying practically all life on Earth”. Last night, the exit poll wasn’t just a shock. It was an asteroid hitting the planet and destroying practically everybody’s assumptions.
In the 2015 leadership contest, I voted for every candidate apart from Jeremy Corbyn. In the 2016 contest, I voted for Owen Smith. Throughout both of those contests, there were two driving forces behind my choices. The first was based on what I felt was the moral case against Corbyn and the second was the electoral case. The second was clearly mistaken, the map for Labour going into the next election will be considerably more favourable to a positive result than it was following the 2015 election and it would be foolish to pretend that a significant proportion of the credit for this isn’t attributable to Corbyn.
However, I think the moral case holds up. I still have serious problems with Jeremy Corbyn’s appearances on propaganda channels such as Press TV which pump out lies for a regime that hangs gay people from cranes. This doesn’t fit with my idea of international solidarity. I think people such as Andrew Murray and Seumas Milne should be nowhere near a social democratic party, never mind the top of it. Both have expressed far too much sympathy for regimes that I find antithetical to socialism as a force for good. Last night’s results do not change my attitude to those aspects of the Corbyn project but they do change my attitudes to the Corbynism which was presented to the electorate. The Corbynism presented to the electorate was an unapologetic mainstream social democratic vision for the UK.
My assumptions have been shattered. I essentially believed Corbynism would fail for three reasons: he was a crap leader, the country is small ‘c’ conservative so you can only make progress through the centre and young people don’t vote. I believed that all of these were constants that no amount of campaigning could change because, and this was another assumption that has not held up, campaigning barely mattered. I had good reason for believing these assumptions. Past elections seemed to provide precedent, we lost Copeland and the local election results were dire. Yet all of them were proved wrong. The campaign was positive and professional. The message was coherent. He made a series of smart political decisions including voting to trigger article 50 and shutting down any prospect of a coalition with the SNP. The old, stubborn back bench rebel compromised on police cuts and on trident. His manifesto was mainstream social democracy and it was totally unembarrassed about it. Something that we never saw under Miliband. Most excitingly for the future, too, he inspired young people. He politicised a whole generation.
But what now for people like me who don’t like Corbyn for reasons beyond electability? For now, a period of silence on his position as leader. He has earned the right to continue. It would not be credible to suggest otherwise. This obviously does not mean shutting up about aspects of the party over the past two years which are still worthy of criticism such as the failures of the milquetoast Chakrabarti report to properly grapple with the left’s anti-semitism problem, the failure to permanently expel Ken Livingstone and the often indefensible treatment by a minority of (mostly) Corbyn supporters of female MPs such as Angela Eagle during the leadership contests. It would be an abdication of responsibility to pretend these issues were non-existent simply because we now have a Labour MP in Canterbury.
Beyond these things though, those of us on the Labour Right need to come to terms with what exactly we have got wrong. We have to decide what we stand for in a world where our previous assumptions regarding the electability of left wing platforms no longer hold. We need to grapple with bigger issues such as automation, climate change and a new foreign policy in a world where the world’s most powerful nation is led by Donald Trump. We need to dare to be more radical. We can’t offer reheated Milibandism, Blairism or Brownism anymore.
I’m not going to try and come up with the vision in this post because, frankly, I am on very little sleep and also there are smarter people than me who are much better placed to do so. My instincts, however, are that we need to talk about a massive redistribution of power as well as wealth and we need to be bold about it. To borrow the most successful campaigning slogan in recent political history, we need to give people the chance to Take Back Control of their lives. This, for me, should start with an increased focus on mutualisation. I also think that the Labour Right need to recognise some of Momentum’s successes and strive to emulate and exceed its bolder visions. Ideas like carpools for activists and providing childcare are excellent. Labour should engage with civil society projects such as breakfast clubs, food banks and libraries and embed itself in communities suffering from repeated Conservative government failure.
We have time now to do the hard thinking we’ve been neglecting for too long. Labour, however, should not be too complacent in defeat. It was a good result and we are in a good place for imminent success but we didn’t win. The next government will have the Tories reliant on the DUP. This is not a good position for the country. We’ve got to get over the line next time. My feeling is that Corbyn is probably too old to want to stick out a parliament that lasts until 2022 (if it, indeed, does) provided he feels is legacy his secure. There will, then, come a time when a bright young Corbynite without his baggage stands for the leadership. Unless we have an obvious and preferable alternative Labour Right vision for the future, they deserve our backing. I never thought I’d be arguing that. Last night, an asteroid hit the planet and destroyed practically all life on Earth. It is all quite exciting.