About ten years ago, my great-uncle spent a month in a coma. Afterwards, the only thing he could remember was a dream – it wasn’t clear whether it had lasted the whole month or five minutes. In the dream he was travelling on a cruise ship crewed entirely by chimpanzees. Each morning the human passengers were gathered on the foredeck of the ship and one was selected by the chimp captain to be killed and eaten in front of the rest. The days slid by, soaked in anxiety; the passengers dwindled. Chimps scrubbed the blood from the deck, whistling. Finally, the morning came when my great-uncle was picked for breakfast. He was brought shaking to the front, pleading for mercy; a hairy hand encircled his neck. And then he woke up.
This is roughly analogous to many Labour supporters’ experience of the last two years: despairing endurance of plummeting popularity, the gruesome spectacle of heavy defeat in Scottish and local elections, the ever-present threat of annihilation at a general election; and then, suddenly, miraculously, reprieve. Except that it shouldn’t really have felt so sudden or unexpected: Labour and Jeremy Corbyn had run an excellent campaign and on the eve of the election at least two polling companies indicated that we could expect a hung parliament. What kept so many people doubtful – even scornful – of this possibility wasn’t just that most of the polls were still predicting a large Tory majority, but that there existed a stifling body of statistical evidence gathered over the two years since Corbyn’s election as Labour leader pointing to a heavy Labour defeat whenever an election occurred. This mass of evidence was interpreted by people like me as indicating that left-wing Labour needed to find a better way of communicating its policies and its vision for the country; by others, as proving that the entire proposition of a left-wing Labour Party was ridiculous and futile. Some chose simply to ignore it: when I met Momentum activists and other supporters I was frustrated by what seemed to me an almost glib refusal to engage with the various proofs that Corbyn’s Labour wasn’t working.[*]
As it happens, the polls weren’t wrong, exactly. Labour didn’t win – the Conservatives took 317 seats to their 262. And, according to YouGov, the company which ultimately came closest to predicting the actual result, the Tories were indeed heading for an increased majority of around 70 right up to the day the Labour manifesto was leaked to the media. But this last fact makes it obvious that on a deeper level the polls were unreliable. What I had missed in my determination to get Corbyn supporters to face up to the ‘facts’, was that their insistence on the viability of his leadership was the fact worth paying attention to. It was their insistence – their staying power – that made possible a moment of political alchemy. The unveiling of the Labour manifesto altered the course of the campaign in a way no opinion poll could have predicted – its bold and comprehensive policy offer contrasting sharply with Theresa May’s grim prospectus for a grimmer Britain. No pollster could have foreseen that the contest would not after all be between statesmanlike authority and a cultish ideologue but between a hologram prime minister and a genial figure with a full and varied vocabulary who you might even bump into on the street. Or that two terrorist attacks would allow Labour to make cogent arguments for a new foreign policy, and for the proper resourcing of the police.
The salient fact that students turned out in unprecedented numbers for Corbyn should not obscure an even more significant one: that Labour’s greatest body of support came from the 25-44 age group. YouGov’s post-election analysis found that it was only after the age of 47 that people were more likely to have voted Conservative – the comparable figure at the start of the campaign was 34. What this tells us is that in six weeks Labour was able to expand its tent dramatically, persuading many more people, in spite of almost universal hostility from the press and the BBC’s cack-handed attempts at impartiality, that it was best placed to defend and advance their interests. And this in turn suggests that the Victorian idea of ‘public opinion’ – something not directly quantifiable, but capable of being shaped, directed and improved – might be more useful for thinking about the way we effect political change than ‘opinion’ as recorded by the polls, itemised, bite-sized and bisected for the benefit of election consultants and political journalists. (I have often wondered which of his great campaigns, if any, Gladstone would have undertaken if he’d been able to see the polling beforehand.) I underestimated the ability of committed people to bend reality to their imagination, to create the world they seek: in holding fast to a belief that things could change, Corbyn’s supporters in Labour and Momentum were also, consciously or not, keeping faith with the old idea that public opinion can always swing back to the side of progress, as long as it is given the chance and a reason to do so. They were right. Hats off to them.
Whatever the nature of the deal the Tories do with the DUP, we now have a minority government in everything but name: such is the nature of the internal divisions within May’s party that it can’t be expected to keep doing her bidding indefinitely, especially given the extraordinary loss of personal authority entailed in the election disaster. The historical precedents are not promising. The most recent example of minority government at Westminster is John Major’s in 1996-97; before that there was the Wilson-Callaghan Labour administration of 1974-79 and Ramsay MacDonald’s of 1929-31. In each case, the government reeled from crisis to crisis, eventually limping into a terrible election defeat that relegated their party from power for more than a decade. But the great era of minority government in Britain was the second half of the 19th century, when parliamentary government was taken more seriously as an idea and elections were a last resort. There were minority Conservative governments in 1852, 1858-59, 1866-68, 1885-86 and 1886-92; Liberal ones in 1886 and 1892-95. (Again, each of these minority administrations was kicked out in the election that followed.) The Tory government of 1866-68 is perhaps the most relevant today: it was formed after Lord John Russell’s government’s attempt to extend the franchise with a Reform Bill was defeated in the Commons by an alliance of Conservatives and reactionary Liberal MPs. Disraeli, installed as Leader of the House of Commons, brought forward a new and more conservative Reform Bill, but without a majority, and, determined to settle the question, proceeded to allow it to be modified beyond recognition, so that by the time it passed it was far more radical and far-reaching than the 1866 version whose defeat he had urged and which had brought him to power in the first place. It is possible to imagine something similar happening with Brexit, though the battle will be fought mostly behind the scenes, and it is a measure of our fallen state that the person now occupying Disraeli’s old position is Andrea Leadsom. The absence of a majority for May’s original hardline policy means that the EU deal will be subject to all sorts of raids and depredations from different quarters, changing shape and possibly emerging, like the 1867 Reform Act, as something more flexible and inclusive as a result. (It is plausible too that the Tories will carry through Brexit, as Disraeli did Reform, only to discover that they have lost their mandate to decide what happens next.)
The main reason all those Victorian minority governments went on to election defeats was that the party thrown into opposition was given the opportunity to regroup and consolidate, while the party ostensibly in power, forced to inch along with a bland and uncontroversial programme, was incapable of demonstrating its usefulness to the public. At some point, May’s government could well collapse and Corbyn will be faced with a choice between taking up the reins of government and refusing them. He is on record as saying that Labour would do the former, putting its programme to a vote in the Commons. But it might be wiser to follow Disraeli in 1873 and refuse, forcing May, as Disraeli forced Gladstone, to find a way of carrying on, however pathetically, her position visibly untenable. Or he could do as Henry Campbell-Bannerman did in 1905 and form a minority government simply in order to call an election. In both cases, the Fixed Term Parliaments Act – scheduled for repeal in the Tory manifesto, but still very much alive and kicking on the statute book – would work in Labour’s favour. By demanding a two-thirds parliamentary majority in favour of holding an election before the next scheduled date (5 May 2022), it would force May, in the first scenario, either to attempt to reassemble her ragged coalition, or to ask for an election herself. In the second scenario, if Prime Minister Corbyn were to hold a vote, the Act would exert overwhelming political pressure on Conservative as it did on Labour MPs two months ago, when, for all their reluctance, the vast majority found it impossible to come out and oppose an election publicly.
What all this means is that Labour holds the best cards. The remarkable achievement of this election is that we have now within touching distance of government a party committed to overturning the failed economic and policy consensus of the last forty years. By changing the answers – replacing centrism with socialism – Labour has prompted voters to ask different sorts of questions, and ended the right’s monopoly on political common sense. The election proved that the Tories are finally beginning to lose the argument – but they won’t easily be able to get out of it. Austerity isn’t over, however many times they may choose to say it is. Too many cuts have been made and too many bad decisions taken – like a parasite it goes on, blindly hollowing Britain out. Grenfell Tower may come in time to stand for a culture of cheapness and cut corners, a monument to an inequality that was allowed to fester, and to the folly of the attempt to bleed local government dry. It needs to. The other day I did something I’d been putting off doing for years, and joined the Labour Party.