Yesterday, I voted Labour for the first time in my life. I live in a super safe Labour seat where Greens are second, so my head was telling me that I should logically just vote Green like I always do. But my heart was telling me that if ever there was a time to back Labour, this was it. I was still dithering as I went into the polling booth. As I picked up the pencil, I’d pretty much settled on voting Green. But my gut had other ideas: almost without consciously deciding to, I suddenly found I’d put a cross next to the Labour candidate’s name.
I’ll freely admit it: like a lot of people, I was bracing myself for a bad night. I was happy to be spending it with friends because I feared we’d be needing to console each other at the prospect of another five years of extreme right-wing government. And of course, we’re still facing an extreme right-wing government, albeit a much frailer one than most people anticipated. But last night felt like a watershed – probably one of the most significant moments in my political life. The moment the exit poll came in and our anxious faces transformed into an explosion of cheering is one I suspect I’ll never forget. Suddenly, I was glad to be with friends not for moral support but because it felt like we were at the start of something together. It was the only time in my life that I’ve felt a sense of hope and opportunity about an election result – unless you count 10 year old me parroting my parents’ excitement about Blair’s landslide without really understanding it.
So, for what it’s worth, here are my initial thoughts about what all this might mean – and what we do next:
- The political class completely failed to understand the movement around Corbyn.
One of the things that has riled me most about the response of the Labour right to the Corbyn leadership has been the persistent characterisation of Corbyn supporters as a small clique of Trotskyist entryists, with no other political desires in life than to seize control of the Labour machine. For at least some of the people concerned, I got the impression that this wasn’t just a cynical smear campaign but a genuine failure to comprehend what was actually going on: they were so steeped in Labour factionalism that they couldn’t see anything else. Of course, this has been pointed out and written about by plenty of people before. But the surge in turn-out of young people we witnessed yesterday should put the whole argument to bed once and for all.
For most of my life, people of my generation and younger have been informed that we’re apathetic about politics. For most of my life, we’ve tried fruitlessly to explain that not voting is not the same as not caring about politics: young people are as politically engaged as they ever were, they just haven’t seen party politics as the vehicle for making change. I came of age politically during the campaigns against the Iraq war, against a backdrop of neoliberal economic policies and oppressive anti-terror laws, all presided over by an ostensibly left-wing government. The generation that came after me came of age during the coalition government: their formative experiences were Nick Clegg’s betrayal on tuition fees and the anti-cuts movement. In between was a cataclysmic global financial crisis whose only major political fallout was a lurch to the right. Is it any wonder that we looked to social movements like Climate Camp, Occupy and UK Uncut to forge our political identities, to find communities of like-minded people and a belief that it was possible to change the world?
Corbyn’s election in 2015 was made possible by a tidal wave of mostly young activists who, for the first time in their lives, saw a large-scale party political project that actually represented their views – that wasn’t simply the least-worst option in a suffocatingly narrow window of political possibility. Bizarrely, the Labour right saw this influx of fired-up foot-soldiers not as an opportunity but as an existential threat. This campaign has proved just how bad a misjudgement that was. Yesterday, I was getting the vote out in Croydon Central and Hampstead & Kilburn, along with swarms of people many of whom had never canvassed for a political party before, and almost all of whom (including me) had never canvassed for Labour. Both seats were won with stonking majorities.
Significantly, many of those who showed up to help were members of other political parties. For the first time in my life, that wasn’t a dirty secret we were expected to be embarrassed or ashamed about. It was just the reality of the new movement we were part of. This could be the start of a new, less tribal, more fluid generation of party activists. The Tories’ and Labour’s high combined vote share shouldn’t deceive us into thinking this election simply represents the return of the same old two-party politics. Labour’s high vote share was in part made possible by the champions of progressive alliances, by supporters of other parties who were willing to put aside tribal allegiances to fight a common battle. And Labour may yet need those other parties if it wants to form a majority government at the next election. The rules of the game are shifting.
- The left is rediscovering its confidence – and remembering what hope feels like.
At the fag end of last year, I remember being bemused that, after Brexit and Trump, both the Labour right and the Tory party still seemed so confident in their conviction that Corbyn was completely unelectable. Surely, I thought, if there’s one thing we should have learned from the last year, it’s that nobody in the political establishment has any fucking clue what or who is electable and not. I should have held that thought.
Instead, like most people, I allowed myself to be convinced by the doubters. I still believed that a bold left-wing populist movement was our best chance of competing with a resurgent right-wing populism. But as time went on, it seemed that Labour’s relentless and highly public civil war – particularly the astonishing campaign of political self-harm waged after the Brexit vote – combined with Tory smears and flaws in Corbyn’s leadership style had torpedoed any chance he had of being seen as a credible alternative. I believed that people would vote for the policies, but not the person. I feel suitably chastened by my misplaced fatalism – and grateful to all the friends who’ve run such a great campaign and worked so hard to turn this around.
Throughout my political lifetime, it feels like the left has got used to seeing political facts as immutable realities to be despaired at and railed against rather than as shifting circumstances that it’s our job to change. In short, we’ve got used to losing. Laurie Penny may have been joking yesterday when she tweeted, “Hope is horrible. I hate it. I wasn’t in love with wall-gnawing despair but at least I knew it would be there when I got home.” But she was expressing something true and problematic about the British left’s identity. It’s more comfortable and safer to rail against the world than to risk believing we can change it.
In fact, come to think of it, the Corbyn campaign is pretty much the only major radical left movement I can remember that wasn’t primarily defined by the prefix ‘anti’. The most striking feature of the manifesto was its confidence. Conversely, when I was working in policy for an NGO during the Miliband leadership, the thing I was most struck by was its timidity. I still remember a conversation I had with a Labour policy advisor who was extolling the role of charities like mine in creating political space for parties to move into. “It’s like industrial strategy”, he said, warming to his theme. “Six months ago, we couldn’t use the phrase industrial strategy, because people would have said we wanted to go back to the 1970s. But now, everyone’s talking about industrial strategy!”
This conversation really perturbed me. Yes, of course the mood music created by opinion formers is important in shifting debate. But surely, I thought, the job of the opposition is to try and make the political weather. If you don’t have the courage to do that, you’re doomed to always be dancing to the opposition’s tune – to always follow and never lead public opinion. But the Corbyn manifesto has proved that we don’t simply have to operate within the constraints of the ‘Overton Window’, of what the political establishment deems to be acceptable: we can also seek to shift it. You can go to the British people advocating for things like public ownership of energy, the railways, and the Royal Mail – things which are perfectly mainstream in most European countries, but which make the British media scream ‘communism!’ – and the British people might just respond.
In hindsight, this is one of the ironies of the campaign: the Corbyn loyalists were simultaneously derided as being content to lose, and dismissed as delusional for believing they could win. I’m not going to lie: when I saw the polls at the start of the campaign, I thought it was delusional too. So did most people I knew. But who can honestly say that now? We are living through a moment where all the old certainties of politics are crumbling, where a failed political and economic consensus is collapsing. It’s a moment of immense danger, but also of immense possibility. Instead of wringing our hands about the rise of the populist far-right, it’s time to own that moment ourselves. After yesterday, I’m finally starting to allow myself to genuinely believe that’s possible. Hell: after 20 years of cultivating the habit of losing, I’m about bloody ready to try believing we can win.
- To capitalise on this, we all need to get serious – fast.
I don’t want to come across as starry-eyed about Corbyn. I’m fully aware that, as pundits seem to be falling over themselves to point out, Labour did not win this election (although given that the same pundits were predicting a wipe-out just weeks ago, casting this result as a defeat feels like a slightly risible moving of the goalposts). And there are lots of things I’d like to see improve off the back of this result. If victory now looks within reach, we need the Corbyn project to be the best it can be – to build a Labour movement capable of running an administration as well as a campaign.
Not least, I think it’s vital that the team around Corbyn reaches out rather than bunkering down, outside the party as much if not more so than within it. The continued support of those who backed a progressive alliance at this election can’t be taken for granted if Labour fails to acknowledge it or respond in kind. And the ecosystem of NGOs and thought leaders that can help to deepen and strengthen Labour’s policy platform has to be plugged in to policy development much more systematically: lessons should be learnt from the implosion of the impressively high-calibre Council of Economic Advisors.
That ecosystem itself also needs to be substantially strengthened. We need to build new institutions – think tanks, organising hubs, grassroots initiatives and NGOs – that can grow both the intellectual firepower and the organising ability of the new British left. And in particular, we need to build a stronger consensus around a progressive response to the crisis of globalisation. As Chaminda Jayanetti points out, in this election it looks like Labour has managed to walk a remarkable tightrope, picking up the votes of both disgruntled lefty Remainers and ex-UKIP Leavers. But it won’t be able to fudge this question forever. As I’ve argued before, forging a truly progressive path through this swamp means building a politics that’s open to people but closed to big money. It means being both creative in finding ways to tame globalised capital, and unwavering in pushing back the tide of racism and xenophobic nationalism. This is a delicate balance to strike, and it needs to be thought about carefully if that tightrope isn’t to turn into a trip wire.
Most urgently, though, the left needs to act fast to toxify the extremist DUP and delegitimise the new government. We need to build on the nascent infrastructure around framing, messaging and social media content that has been building in civil society to start consistently winning the battle for narrative. Because when it comes to party politics, shit just got real. For what feels like the first time in my life, it’s all to play for.