WHAT A DIFFERENCE A YEAR MAKES! Remember the ‘summer coup’ of 2016 when MPs in meetings of the PLP stood up to attack their leader, in Diane Abbott’s words, “in the most contemptuous terms possible, pausing only to text their abuse to journalists waiting outside”? When Hilary Benn, while still a member of the Shadow Cabinet, rang other members to co-ordinate their resignations? When the party apparatus allegedly sabotaged press releases, leaked information and shut down the entire grassroots organisation during the leadership campaign? Yet despite all this, Jeremy Corbyn forced his opponent to adapt to his policies and in the result increased his mandate.
But no poll bounce. Nor was there any halt to the anonymous briefings or the bureaucratic defiance of Corbyn’s attempts to democratise the party. As Labour’s self-inflicted wounds grew, even his supporters, like Owen Jones, began to lose faith. When Theresa May called a snap election, one poll put the Tories at 50% compared to 25% for Labour. The media consensus was that Labour were going to lose big.
It was Labour’s manifesto that really transformed the situation, particularly on public ownership, higher taxes on the rich and ending tuition fees and the public sector pay cap. It galvanised supporters and many critics of the leadership alike and was a stark contrast with the Tories’ ‘manifesto of misery’ and the disarray caused by their U-turn on social care. Corbyn’s ideas dominated social media even as the mainstream dismissed them. Crucially, they reached beyond the usual political audience: a video by rapper Lowkey on why he was supporting Corbyn got four million views.
Union support too was generous, contributing over £8 million. Meanwhile the party apparatus continued to channel resources to safe seats held by centre-right MPs. It was left to Momentum to unlock the electoral potential of Labour’s newer members with their ‘My Nearest Marginal’ app, used by over 100,000 members.
The Manchester arena terror attack which killed 22 people was a critical moment. Corbyn made a careful speech connecting the atrocity to the wars Britain has been involved in and also criticising police cuts. The Tories’ wild over-reaction to this common sense approach backfired, as did their attempts to make political capital out of the London Bridge terror attack later in the campaign. To widespread astonishment, Corbyn was winning the debate on security.
On election day, local campaign centres were overwhelmed by volunteers. Labour confounded pundits and most Labour MPs, by winning its second highest number of votes in England ever. As Alex Nunns correctly observes in the updated second edition of his book, it had “pulled off the most stunning surge in political history.”
I caught up with Alex who is speaking at meetings about his book and recorded some of his responses to audience questions.
Q: How dysfunctional was the party apparatus and what will happen now changes are being made?
A: During the election, there were basically two separate campaigns. The Leader’s Office drew on the Corbyn leadership campaigns and felt they could communicate directly with alienated voters. The party machine was running a defensive strategy, hoping to go up a few points at best and avoid a wipe-out at worst.
Looking at a list of Labour’s seats, the safest Labour seats weren’t getting any help from the party centrally, until you get to Angela Eagle (majority 16,000), or Dan Jarvis (majority 12,000) or Yvette Cooper (majority 12,000). These ones were singled out for resources. When a representative of the Leader’s Office queried the funds being channelled to these hostile candidates in safe seats, which coincidentally belonged to potential future leadership candidates, a senior staffer said: “You write me a list of who you don’t want me spending money on.” The Leader’s Office representative replied, “What, so you can put it in the Times?”
Now, with the departure of the general secretary, many other senior officials are leaving. The kind of sabotage we saw before - the leaking of data showing Labour would lose the Copeland by-election, which made that more likely, the leaking of northern voters’ responses to Angela Rayner and Rebecca Long-Bailey to undermine them • that should now end.
Jeremy Corbyn said he wanted to transform Labour into a social movement with a director of community organising, and local staff focused on community campaigns. This too was blocked by the machine. The election tipped the balance of power and Jeremy can now get his own way. Still the leaks continue: the latest was that 17,000 members have left the party due to antisemitism, which is patently untrue, given the six month delay in collating the figures. So with the staff changes, hopefully these leaks will stop (once certain people have worked their notice).
Q: What’s the relationship between Momentum and the Labour Party? Will their identities merge?
A: Momentum just announced they have 40,000 members. That’s a big organisation for the left, but it’s about 7% of the Labour membership, so there’s no prospect of Labour’s identity being overwhelmed. Momentum keeps winning internal elections and conference votes simply because they have exciting ideas and good organisation, whereas Progress just have Richard Angell whining.
Q: How different will the next election be? Should we be worried about the power of social media manipulation underlined by the Cambridge Analytica revelations?
A: The manipulation of social media may not be as important as people think. The Tories spent £2m on Facebook advertising alone last time and got trounced among the demographic that uses social media most heavily. Corbyn’s social media operation, on the other hand, was organic, with a million volunteers keen to post material.
Social media was critical to Corbyn becoming and staying leader. It also provides a space where an alternative narrative can cohere. Social media helped change the agenda in the election, especially after the London Bridge terror attack. Theresa May made a speech about cracking down on militant Islam, but social media refocused the debate onto police cuts. A TV interview with former senior police officer Peter Kirkham, who claimed the Metropolitan Police faced a crisis of under-staffing, was re-posted on social media and viewed at least 7.5 million times.
Next time the Tories will be a lot better presentationally, although they still don’t have any worthwhile policies. But Labour won’t start the next election 25 points behind, which helps. Corbyn is very good at building momentum once the campaign gets going, as his leadership campaigns also show.
It’s impossible to predict whether the coalitions of voters assembled by the two main parties last year can be sustained. One big factor in 2017 was the complete collapse of UKIP. Labour picked up about 20% of the 2015 UKIP vote but the Tories got 50%, which is why they held on to power. So far, the static state of the opinion polls suggests the Tories are retaining those former UKIP voters.
Whether that will continue to be the case depends on what happens with Brexit.
We don't get to choose the circumstances of the next election. But when history throws up such a golden opportunity there's only one option available: to seize it.
For more information on The Candidate click here and use the discount CORBYNBRIEFING to buy the book.
Labour Briefing May 2018