Life is strange. One day it seems quite possible we are all about to be nuked, and the next, we go back to arguing about Jeremy Corbyn. Theresa May’s surprise announcement of a snap election – surprising only because she’d spent the last nine months telling us it wasn’t going to happen – immediately wiped North Korea from the headlines, and returned the spotlight to another, more drawn-out existential crisis: the one currently being endured by the Labour Party.
What makes Jeremy Corbyn a complex political figure, rather in spite of himself, is that he is both too weak and too strong. He is so weak that May couldn’t resist cashing in on her huge, and still mounting, advantage in the polls, overcoming a marked distaste for changing her mind. Even this may be to overstate the significance of the Labour Party in her considerations. Perhaps in her eyes the election has a merely functional importance, guaranteeing an increase in her slender majority and so neutralising the threat posed by the gaggle of extreme Brexiters in Parliament to her freedom to manoeuvre in the forthcoming EU negotiations.
Yet Corbyn is strong enough, on a good day, to deliver a speech like the one with which he launched Labour’s campaign:
Much of the media and establishment are saying that this election is a foregone conclusion. They think there are rules in politics, which if you don’t follow by doffing your cap to powerful people, accepting that things can’t really change, then you can’t win. But of course, they do not want us to win. Because when we win it is the people, not the powerful, who win. The nurse, the teacher, the small trader, the carer, the builder, the office worker, the student, the carer win … It is the establishment that complains I don’t play by the rules: by which they mean their rules. We can’t win, they say, because we don’t play their game. We don’t fit in their cosy club. We’re not obsessed with the tittle-tattle of Westminster or Brussels. We don’t accept that it is natural for Britain to be governed by a ruling elite, the City and the tax-dodgers, and we don’t accept that the British people just have to take what they’re given, that they don’t deserve better. And in a sense, the establishment and their followers in the media are quite right. I don’t play by their rules. And if a Labour government is elected on 8 June, then we won’t play by their rules either.
‘Is there anyone alive who has heard class war rhetoric like this from a Labour leader, when fighting to win a general election?’ ITV’s excitable political editor, Robert Peston, asked the same day. It was bracing stuff, and if you’re sympathetic (perhaps even if you aren’t; Brexit and Trump are at the back of everyone’s minds, after all), it makes you sit up and wonder, however fleetingly: could he do it?
In truth, though, this is only another aspect of Corbyn’s weakness. Expectations are so low that one good speech, or a successful policy blitz like the (long-awaited) one carried out over the Easter recess – it included proposals for free school meals for all primary school children and a £10 minimum wage – blows on the embers of our collective hopes. Another weakness in Corbyn’s position that paradoxically acts to strengthen it is the obstacle presented by the vast Tory superstructure that masquerades as the free press.If the majority of Britain’s media outlets weren’t unremittingly and unthinkingly hostile – or, in the case of the BBC, occasionally and seemingly unknowingly hostile – it would be far easier to judge Corbyn’s leadership on its own merits and against its own objectives, without having always to make allowances for the effect the onslaught may have had on his behaviour as well as on his and the party’s polling. As it is, Corbyn has been given the equivalent of a get-out-of-jail-free card by many of his supporters. This is reasonable enough, but media hostility has also meant that from the very beginning the Corbyn project has been heavily invested in the idea that the greatly increased Labour membership (528,000) should play the key role in disseminating the party’s message, with Momentum activists (in theory, at least) acting as the shock troops. This is the crux of Corbyn’s vision of the Labour Party as a ‘social movement’. As a political strategy it has so far gone largely unexamined. But there is no doubt that Corbyn’s supporters believe strongly in it, and a political dynamic has been created whereby Corbyn’s weakness calls for ever greater efforts on his behalf: the problem can only be that more people need to hear his message, direct from the source.
‘We know that Jeremy needs us,’ I was told when I met up with three members of Momentum Hackney – the branch I visited when I last wrote about Corbyn in the LRB of 11 August 2016 – six days after May announced the election. Riven, predictably, by disputes over its constitutional mechanisms, Momentum hasn’t had an especially good year, and when I looked at the latest issue of the Clarion, an unofficial magazine for its activists, I was surprised by the levels of sniping and pessimism. But my companions were in extremely high spirits; Labour members, they told me, were champing at the bit to get out and start campaigning. Six weeks were enough, I was told with absolute conviction, for these efforts – combined with the media exposure guaranteed during an election campaign – to change the polls. (They don’t believe the polls anyway: having previously overestimated Labour’s strength, the pollsters’ modification of their techniques may mean they are now underestimating it. And what about Brexit and Trump?) The Conservatives (membership: 149,000) have nothing to compare with this ground operation. Heather explained to me how she had entered into debate with a Tory-leaning voter online, and had succeeded in making her look again at Corbyn: ‘If this is happening 500,000 times,’ she said, spreading her hands to indicate the ramifications. None of them went so far as to say that Corbyn could win the election, but they thought it possible that Labour could emerge as the largest party in Parliament, which would require the Tories to suffer a net loss in seats. My pesky questions – Why would an advantage in grassroots activity make a difference now, given that it didn’t in 2015, when the Tory organisation was similarly written off as a shell? How would Labour’s muddled message on Brexit fare in Leave-voting areas? Did they really believe entrenched beliefs about Corbyn’s Labour could be overturned in six weeks? – were briskly dismissed. It was an invigorating experience, being battered by a wave of optimism. Once again, I found myself asking: could he do it?
He can’t, and he won’t. The Brexit and Trump comparisons don’t work. It always seemed plausible that Britain would vote to leave the EU, and Trump was never out of contention: neither thing can be said of Corbyn. The Tories’ lead on economic competence, though entirely undeserved, remains astonishingly large, at around thirty points. Probably as a direct consequence Labour is barely clinging on to its traditional advantage as the party trusted to preserve the NHS, even as the service slides into crisis. Corbyn usually comes after ‘Don’t Know’ when the public is asked who will make the best prime minister: at the end of April one poll had Theresa May on 61 per cent (higher than Thatcher in 1983 and Blair in 2001) and Corbyn on 26 per cent. It also had the Tories on 49 per cent for voting intention and Labour on 23 per cent. Figures of this sort are typical. It’s even possible that Wales will be lost to the Tories, though they haven’t won a majority there since the 1850s. Their national lead is likely to be squeezed slightly over the coming weeks – it has already fallen in some polls from around 25 to around 19, but leads tend to reassert themselves as election day approaches. Polls can be wrong, but they’ve never been this wrong (and when they have been wrong before, it has always been in overestimating the Labour vote). The national polls in any case obscure a more fundamental problem: Labour’s terminal collapse in Scotland, combined with the distortions of the first-past-the-post system, have created structural conditions that make it impossible for Labour to win a majority without a swing of dramatic proportions. In 2015 it needed a swing of 4.6 per cent to win a majority of one; now, in order to achieve the same feat, it needs a swing of 8.7 per cent, equivalent to a national poll lead of 11 per cent or three million votes. Having lost so much ground in 2015, it has many more seats to win, but is competitive in fewer of them, because the Tories entrenched themselves in English and Welsh marginals while the SNP piled up unassailable majorities in much of Scotland. According to the Fabian Society, what’s required is something like the vote share Labour achieved in 2001, when, starting from a much stronger position, it won 413 seats to the Conservatives’ 166. And all this, remember, to win a majority of one. If Labour loses badly in June, it will be even harder next time.
It is twenty years since 1997 and the Labour landslide. Nottingham University’s @newdawn1997 account on Twitter has been tracking that election in real time, posting contemporary newspaper cuttings and diary entries, as well as opinion polls: several times, I have had to rub my eyes when polls putting Labour on 47 per cent to the Tories’ 29 per cent have appeared on my feed, followed quickly by polls from 2017 almost exactly inverting those figures. New Labour’s legacy seems more relevant now than it did in 2010 or even in 2015: like one of its prized PFI contracts, Labour under Blair offered immediate (and real) compensations, and the true costs are only becoming apparent twenty years down the line.
The world we live in now is recognisably the one 1997 (and 2001 and 2005) made. The current housing shortage is the result of astonishing neglect: in the interwar years Liverpool built more council houses (33,335) than New Labour managed nationally (7870) in 13 years of government. That immigration is currently voters’ number one concern is a consequence of New Labour’s contradictions: Blair’s decision not to impose transitional controls on population flows from Eastern European accession countries in 2004 immediately opened up the labour market to huge numbers of migrants; at the same time his government began to boast about cracking down on ‘illegal immigration’ and ‘bogus asylum seekers’, helping to create the categories of ‘bad immigrants’ that would later be used against legitimate arrivals. The noticeable divide between educated and non-educated voters is partly a consequence of the dramatic expansion in the number of university graduates, which has accentuated Labour’s difficulty in balancing the priorities of voters in its traditional heartlands against those of voters in its metropolitan strongholds. Scottish politicians dominated New Labour cabinets in Westminster but failed to cultivate voters or young politicians at home, and didn’t see the potential for the new devolved parliament to become the SNP’s power base.
It’s now almost impossible for Labour to win under the first-past-the-post system that Blair chose to preserve, ignoring the recommendations of the commission he’d set up to investigate electoral reform once it became clear that Labour could win majorities on its own after all. Inequality continued to climb on his and Brown’s watch. The banking crisis, which Labour failed to foresee and, arguably, helped facilitate, provided the excuse for Tory austerity, itself an excuse for dismantling the state. And, as Geoffrey Evans and James Tilley argue in their formidably well-evidenced The New Politics of Class, New Labour’s decision to stop talking about the ‘working-class’ marginalised millions of people.It isn’t that class ceased to exist, or that people ceased to feel they belonged to the working class – marked inequalities in health, education, security of employment and pay shape self-perception and the perception of others in much the same way today as they did fifty years ago – but that, as both Labour and the Conservatives converged on the profitable electoral ground represented by an expanding middle class, they effectively restricted political choice: working-class people could not vote along ‘class lines’ because no one seemed to represent them. One result has been that in the last ten years, Ukip in England and the SNP in Scotland have hoovered up working-class votes, using differently defined nationalisms to attract them. But the more significant consequence has been that many working-class people, whose rates of electoral participation once barely differed from those of the middle classes, have stopped voting altogether: among them are some of the now famous five million working-class voters who abandoned Labour between 1997 and 2010. Evans and Tilley show that the EU referendum brought out working-class voters because it finally allowed their political preferences – for immigration control and the return of sovereignty – to be ‘expressed unambiguously at the ballot box’.
Either Palmerston or Disraeli – it isn’t clear which – once said that ‘there is no gambling like politics.’ There are two gambles being made in this election, based on different but overlapping analyses of the same situation. Theresa May must know that a snap election is never risk-free: those called in 1923 and 1974 rebounded on Stanley Baldwin and Edward Heath (though the first snap election of the 20th century, in 1900, delivered a huge majority for the Conservatives). This one too may not deliver all she hopes: it’s possible that the Liberal Democrats will do well, and that some of the more vulnerable Brexiters will fall victim to the tactical voting urged by Tony Blair and Gina Miller (who brought the Article 50 case against the government), and that more Labour MPs will hang on than currently seems likely. Even then, the best one can hope for is that May’s majority is kept under fifty. Her real gamble is that she will be able to consolidate a new political coalition out of the remnants of New Labour’s, offering solutions to some of the problems it left behind, and obscuring others. The idea is that a hard Brexit and immigration control will deliver her a large proportion of the working-class vote at the expense of Ukip and that this, in combination with her vague statism and rhetorical commitment to social justice, will lure Labour Leave-voters while the Tories in Scotland, led by the extremely capable Ruth Davidson, will rally unionist sentiment and gain seats, checking the SNP’s progress and weakening the case for independence. At the same time traditional Tory supporters in the City and the countryside will be kept on side (it is hard to see where else they would go). This all looks like a pretty safe bet. And it is already clear that the campaign will be ultra-cautious, combining a rhetoric of safety – ‘strong and stable leadership’ pitted against a ‘coalition of chaos’ – with May’s favoured style of submarine warfare, which will see her dodge televised debates in favour of surfacing for closed rallies in out-of-the-way places.
The gamble Corbyn and his supporters have made is nowhere near as foolish as political commentators have made it out to be, or as the result of the general election may make it appear to have been. The Corbynite analysis of the malign effects of New Labour’s ‘post-class’ politics, and the political vacuum it opened up, is entirely borne out by the statistical evidence presented by Evans and Tilley. They are also right about where New Labour went wrong. And it is not the case, as Blair and his allies sometimes seem to suggest, that the old coalition is waiting patiently to be stitched back together again. There is no reason why a plea to ‘do things differently’ couldn’t work: the gamble has been that the public are sufficiently disillusioned and dissatisfied with politics-as-usual (which they are) that they will vote for radical change (which they’ve already done once, in choosing to leave the EU). The problem is that while May and the Conservatives have looked at the post-New Labour landscape with clear eyes, the Corbynites, like the Blairites, have looked at it predominantly through the lens of Labour history.
Asked to explain Corbyn’s election in the wake of the 2015 election defeat, Ed Balls suggested that ‘people said: “Oh God, can’t we just get back to dreaming? Can’t we be outsiders?” So, in some ways, the success of Blair and Brown, being in power that long, caused a pent-up resentment about all the discipline and compromise.’ This is fantasy, but it is indicative of a tendency on both the left and right of the party to define ‘discipline and compromise’ as ideas that somehow belong to the right. The left is reinforced in this perception by its reading of Labour history, most recently displayed in Richard Seymour’s Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics, which holds that the will to win elections has often been a form of collusion in the perpetuation of the traditionalist British state.This history has its own familiar antiheroes: MacDonald, Gaitskell, Wilson, Callaghan, Kinnock, Blair, Brown, Miliband. That this is to list nearly all of Labour’s leaders is part of the point. (What is not so frequently mentioned is that much of the conservatism of the Labour Party when it came to the empire, monarchy, the armed services and so on was dictated by the views of its working-class base.)
This version of the past, whatever its merits or demerits, should be surplus to requirements. The Tories don’t spend time agonising over whether they made the right call on the economy in 1931. But the Corbynites have seen in the post-New Labour flux not the chance to think carefully about how to build a new support base in the country, but rather about how to make the Labour Party acceptable to the left, assuming this amounts to the same thing. (It is striking how many times I have been told that Corbyn will mobilise non-voters, who will awake from their slumber and vote for him. The polling shows that non-voters think about him and other issues in almost exactly the same way as people who do vote.) But the fact that the majority of Corbyn’s policy commitments – nationalising the railways, increasing the top rate of tax, raising the minimum wage to £10 an hour, reducing spending cuts, halting privatisation in the NHS, providing free school meals for all primary school children – are very popular with the public, despite his and the party’s dire polling, should tell them and (even more) their Blairite opponents that this isn’t an ideological battle. Labour’s problem is not that it has become too left-wing, but that Corbyn can’t express these policies in a way that appeals to a sufficiently large part of the electorate and allays their anxieties. It isn’t only a case of needing nicer suits and slicker presentation skills: it’s about recognising that Labour’s existing political vocabulary, in which ‘austerity’ is the word shouted loudest and most frequently, is totally inadequate to the moment.
But Corbyn’s ‘social movement’ model is founded on the conviction that political change has to come from below, as members and activists bed into local communities and ‘build alliances’ that bring citizens to the light. My feeling is that this in fact represents a dilution of radical ambition, that it allows others to define the terms of the national conversation, and the feeling was acute a few weeks ago when I attended a ‘Take Back Control’ event organised by The World Transformed, an offshoot of Momentum. Held in Shoreditch, it was the second of a series of events ‘about the future of our country’ scheduled also to run in Sunderland, Bradford, Plymouth, Hastings, York, Barnsley and Norwich, intended to ‘bring together Leave and Remain voters, make sense of Brexit and discuss the change we want to see in our communities’. Momentum York hailed the initiative on Twitter as ‘perhaps the most important thing to happen on the British left’. I sat in sessions about how to be a better feminist; how to ‘reclaim the city’ from privatisation; and how we might live our lives in a post-work world when machines have taken our jobs and we’re subsisting happily on a Universal Basic Income, outsourcing reproduction to maximise our spare time. They were all interesting, and important in their way, but as a response to the current political situation, they were an abject failure. The election, announced four days previously, was mentioned a handful of times. The ‘reclaim the city’ session involved a lecture on how to sabotage advertising hoardings, but didn’t address housebuilding, or homelessness, or even rent. The post-work discussion was, quite literally, taking place in another world.
The ambition of these events is to stimulate fresh thinking on the left and encourage new forms of community activism, but they are no substitute for strategic thinking. How the left can return to government appears to be something the Corbynite left isn’t very interested in talking about. Should it, for example, commit itself to a ‘progressive alliance’ involving the Greens, the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats? This would involve Labour, for example, standing down in seats where it has very little chance of winning, but where its share of the vote is larger than the majority achieved by the Tory candidate, and the Lib Dems, say, returning the favour elsewhere. It’s estimated that 49 Tory seats could fall to ‘progressives’ this way, and that another 48 Labour MPs could have their small majorities shored up. It’s already happening on a small scale: the Greens didn’t put up a candidate in the Richmond Park by-election that saw the defeat of the Tory Zac Goldsmith, and have announced their support for Labour’s Rupa Huq in Ealing Central and Acton; the Lib Dems won’t contest Caroline Lucas’s Brighton Pavilion seat. (Ukip is also standing down candidates in several seats to clear the ground for Tories.) If the idea caught on the result would not be a Labour majority, the argument goes, but Labour would be the largest party in a coalition, which could seek either to govern or to pass legislation reforming the electoral system, thus ensuring that votes are of equal worth and that the experiment need not be repeated.
The objections to this are multiple and formidable. Labour would have to significantly broaden its appeal, for a start, but also concede that it can no longer compete as one of the great parties of state (something entirely alien to its culture), handing over much of Scotland to the SNP and giving a dubious legitimacy to the progressive credentials of the Lib Dems. It isn’t surprising that Corbyn, as well as senior figures on the Labour right like Chuka Umunna and Kezia Dugdale, the leader of Scottish Labour, have been quick to pour cold water on the idea. How it could be sold to voters, without merely confirming the Tories’ ‘coalition of chaos’ line, is another question. Not to mention the fact that electoral reform was put to the electorate in a referendum in 2011 and decisively rejected. The concept also presents peculiar difficulties for the Corbynites, who hanker for an old-fashioned 1997-style majority, and indeed a 2001-style majority after that. How else will they be able to bring about the transformation they promise? Having made a fetish of socialist purity, they won’t find it easy to contemplate the compromises a progressive alliance would require. And the implementation of a proportional electoral system may mean that compromise is all there ever could be. These are all genuine concerns, and I’m not sure how easily they can be resolved. But I do know that what the current situation – which may by comparison come to seem like bliss on 9 June – demands is politics, in Bismarck’s definition of it as the art of the possible. And there is no gambling like politics.
The alternative is that the Corbynites go on much as they have been. Paul Mason has chided that our radical forefathers ‘understood the concept of a reactionary period, and that you have to grit your teeth and ride it out. We could do with a few people on the left who understand that now.’ There is no guarantee that Corbyn will stand down if Labour suffers a historic defeat; in fact, it seems likely that he won’t, not until he can be sure an amenable successor will be elected in his place. John McDonnell is due to present an amendment at the Labour Party Conference in September that would reduce the proportion of MPs needed to nominate a leader from 15 per cent of the parliamentary party to 5 per cent. This rule change may come to seem less pressing: the worse Labour’s performance at this election, the fewer backers a left nominee will need. (Anti-Corbyn MPs are also more likely to lose their seats, possessing on average smaller majorities than his supporters in the PLP.) And it’s just possible that if the left of the party stays at the table long enough, its luck will change. The effects of Brexit are already becoming clear: rising inflation, falling consumer spending, slowing growth and an increased cost of living. All this is likely to get worse, and the EU negotiations look set to be bloody. Public services are suffering after years of austerity; local government is in crisis. Intergenerational inequality is a new, unprecedented fact: income growth has stalled since 2008, and people born in the 1980s possess half the wealth at the age of 31 that people born a decade earlier held at the same age; they are far less likely to own a home, and will receive smaller pensions. These circumstances could combine in a perfect storm that sweeps May or her successor out of office. We may yet see another 1997. It may be worth the wait. But what sort of country will be left to govern?