How did we get here?
WHEN THERESA MAY ANNOUNCED IN APRIL a General Election on June 8th, she clearly expected a massive increase in her majority. With the Tories enjoying a lead over Labour in the polls of 25%, she explicitly called on voters to give her an overwhelming personal mandate on entering into the Brexit negotiations.
Who then would have bet that the Tories would ultimately lose ground, be stripped of their overall majority, and be forced to cobble together a deal with ten MPs from the reactionary Democratic Unionist Party, a party with links to Loyalist terrorists, in a hung parliament? The result is a disaster without recent precedent for the Tories.
May’s personal authority has been hugely damaged, just as she’s entering the most important set of negotiations over Britain’s future for generations. Her constant refrain about the need for “strong and stable leadership” and warnings of a “coalition of chaos” now represent a huge albatross around her neck. The odds on a Tory leadership challenge, and a further General Election within twelve months, have been slashed. How did we get here?
The results of May’s local election seemed to justify her early confidence, with Labour’s national share of the vote slipping back to 27%, and suffering a net loss of 382 council seats. Media pundits salivated over the prospects of a shattering Labour defeat under Corbyn. Before resigning his seat in early 2017, Tristram Hunt had already warned that Corbyn was set to lead his party to a disaster on a scale not seen since 1931. What happened in the course of less than six weeks was a turnaround of historic proportions and an indisputable vindication of Labour’s left leadership.
The hubris of the Tory leader led to a significant degree of self-inflicted damage. The Tory manifesto contained almost no positive attractions to the electorate, while disastrous proposals on social care - swiftly dubbed the “dementia tax” - required an embarrassing U-turn.
Not that young generations had anything more to look forward to under the Tory manifesto proposals. Young people would still have little prospect of owning their own home, or avoiding unaffordable rent increases. Students would face colossal debts to go to university. Meanwhile real terms pay cuts would continue to be imposed on workers across the public sector, with millions of nurses, teachers, dinner-ladies and firefighters unable to meet the rising cost of living.
This would have been a difficult sell for even the most charismatic and engaging leader. Yet the paucity of the Tory offer was compounded by May’s transparent discomfort at campaigning. The contrast with the spontaneous outpouring of support for Corbyn could hardly have been more stark. Jeremy was in his element because he was promoting a manifesto which would genuinely deliver the beginnings of a transformation of Britain, creating a less unequal society.
The momentum of the campaign was punctuated by the two horrific terrorist attacks in Manchester and London, which the Tories hoped would work in their favour, as defence and security issues were thought to be a weakness for Corbyn. They were wrong. In a bold intervention in the wake of the Manchester killings, Corbyn made the connections between the rise of Islamist radicalisations and the disastrous western military interventions in the Middle East and North Africa. He was also able to point to the impact of Tory austerity on cuts in policing, and highlight the lack of resources as an indication of Theresa May’s failure as Home Secretary.
Corbyn not only motivated Labour’s core supporters, which May had imagined she might win over on a pro-Brexit ticket, but also inspired a generation of younger voters, tactical voters desperate to see the back of the Tories and a section of those previously disinclined to vote for politicians who seemed to offer “business as usual”. Even some Tories switched, as the confidence of Labour’s alternative began to cut through the media bias. The result was a huge leap in vote share from 30% under Ed Miliband in 2015 to 40%, a level not seen since Blair’s thumping majority in 2001. The fact that Labour had polled just 27% in the May local elections, demonstrates that this surge resulted from the message of the national party leadership rather than the strength of the local party brand. Rather than lose seats, the party made a net gain of 30 MPs.
Labour made progress right across the UK, with gains made in both Scotland andalso Wales, where we won 48.9% of the vote, up by 12% since 2015. Contrary to the predictions of Labour ‘moderates’, who argued that we could only win seats in the South of England by appealing to the selfish ambitions of the “aspirational” middle classes, Corbyn’s message resonated with young and working class voters in cities such as Ipswich, Portsmouth, Plymouth and even Canterbury, a seat which has been Tory since 1918! Meanwhile, top Tory targets in the north such as Halifax, where May launched her campaign, were all held.
In retrospect, the defensive strategy which concentrated resources in trying to keep our most marginal seats meant we were slow to go onto the attack and win over Tory seats. For example, London activists were directed predominantly towards seats like Hampstead and Kilburn, Ealing Central and Acton, and Tooting, each of which were held narrowly last time but which now enjoy majorities of over 10,000. Thankfully some activists chose to go to Battersea or Enfield Southgate in defiance of London region, helping both to go Labour on massive swings. The win in affluent Tory Kensington shows just how conservative the strategy was. Seats like Hastings and Rye, where LRC member and council leader Peter Chowney narrowly issed unseating Tory home secretary Amber Rudd by less than 400 votes, might surely have been won had Labour officials been more responsive to the scale of Labour’s surging support.
The loss of Labour MPs David Winnick in Walsall North and Alan Meale in Mansfield, both areas which voted heavily for Brexit, was disappointing. Elsewhere in the Midlands however, Eleanor Smith, a black woman, was elected as MP in Wolverhampton South West, symbolically significant as this seat was once represented by racist demagogue Enoch Powell. The nationwide collapse of the UKIP vote did not simply transfer to the Tories as had been feared: many were attracted by Corbyn’s message which spoke to the needs of working class communities which had voted Brexit.
The Corbyn/McDonnell leadership must take credit for listening to voters on Brexit, rather than run a knee-jerk campaign to remain in the EU as backed by some in the PLP. The Lib Dems believed their call for a second referendum would sweep up large sections of the 48% who voted Remain, but they polled an even lower national vote share than after the disastrous coalition in 2015.
The SNP’s call for a second independence referendum also led to poor results. While Labour willneed informal alliances with Lib Dem and SNP MPs against the Tory/ DUP pact, these results suggest that a narrow focus on pushing for a ‘soft Brexit’ should not distract from the wider vision of transforming Britain which proved so popular with the voters.