Some early reflections on Corbyn & Labour’s General Election surprise
As a Corbyn-sceptic, last night’s election came as a surprise. Sure, it took everyone by surprise, but while for Corbyn’s supporters last night was pure joy, and for the Tories (bar a giddy Osborne) last night was unconsolably awful, for those of us who are Labour centrists last night was slightly hard to frame.
Stuff is happening
Its important to start by making the point that something remarkable happened last night. There was a sense of change in air. To suggest otherwise is not just curmudgeonly, it risks missing an important lesson. What the lesson is exactly, well, we need to let the dust settle on the whole thing. However I think there are a couple of things we can rule out early on.
This wasn’t just starry eyed students turning out for free tuition fees. Yes, many young people voted, and previous non-voters too. But the former UKIP vote broke for Corbyn in surprisingly large numbers, and it appears at first glance that a lot of London based Tory remainers went to Labour last night as well. Added to the fact that Corbyn managed to win over a lot of the traditional Labour vote, he formed a slightly odd but effective coalition of voters. We have to acknowledge this.
Except when it’s not
We also need to acknowledge what didn’t happen.
Divorced from the narrative of the evening, the bald numbers are unimpressive. Poor, even. In terms of the number of MPs, the result is almost identical to 2010 under Gordon Brown. We won 3 more MPs last night than in 2010, but the Tories won 11 more. Arguably, its slightly worse.
In England we gained 20 MPs under Corbyn, but under Ed Miliband we gained 17. Again, not too different. The difference between 2015 and 2017 in terms of net gains was Scotland. In 2015 the SNP managed a near-clean sweep, riding on the back of the Independence referendum, while this time the Labour Party won some seats back. Even then, the Tories did better in Scotland.
Corbyn’s supporters will point to Labour’s remarkable vote share, around 40% and 12 million votes at the time of writing. This represents the biggest gain by a Labour leader since Atlee. Except… you know who else broke records last night? Theresa May. She added nearly 6 percentage points and 2.3 million votes to their total in 2015. That is without precedent in the post-war era. Despite that, no-one can argue that last night was anything but a disaster for May.
I hesitate to say this too soon, but the increase in vote share for both parties may simply be a collapse back to traditional two party politics, with both parties gaining equally. Theresa May simply did not earn those extra 2 million votes, which undermines that argument that Corbyn did.
So we have two very different ways of looking at the result. If we consider the intangibles, the sense of occasion, the sense of change and optimism, last night was special. If we consider the numbers & the results, last night was, at best noteworthy, and at worst poor.
Over the next few weeks the whole Labour family will have to analyse the results. For those of us serious about winning the next General Election, understanding what made the result special, and why it didnt translate into meaningful electoral advances, will be essential.