Skip navigation.

GE 2017 - the world turned upside down?

To support Renewal's work promoting productive debate across the British left and get the whole journal every quarter, please subscribe.Paul Thompson

26 June 2017

This was the election in which almost every established nostrum was overturned.

Some are what psephologists call ‘the ‘fundamentals’, in this case the young will not turn out to vote; divided parties don’t do well; campaigns/manifestos only make a marginal difference to vote share; parties with the lead on security, economic credibility and leadership will do best; that tabloid hostility would be decisive.

Others are more like received wisdoms, especially amongst the commentariat, notably that Corbyn is unelectable, that Labour is in terminal decline, that the two-party system is dead; that the British people will not vote for a radical manifesto. And before anyone points out the obvious, yes Labour didn’t win. The Tories got more votes and more seats. They still form the Government. Yet, in a substantive sense Labour and Corbyn did win – by reducing the Tories to a minority administration, by increasing the Party’s vote share by the largest amount since 1945, and most importantly by breaking the ideological stranglehold of austerity.

Unexpected outcomes are a challenge to the natural desire for events to confirm what we thought would happen.

Whilst most Corbyn sceptics (including myself) have rightly eaten some humble pie, there are some prominent dissenters on the Right of the Party including Chris Leslie and Peter Hyman. The main refrain is that May was so rubbish and the Tory manifesto was so awful that Labour should have swept to power and would have done with the ‘right’ leader. The problem with that argument is that the two things which made the difference this time – a radical manifesto and the ability to enthuse younger voters would not happened under any other likely leader.

Whilst there are legitimate concerns about leadership competence, much of the Right of the Party are in denial about the manifesto. Under Ed Miliband, we had an opportunity to take the fight to the Tories and didn’t. Our ‘narrow retail offer’ in 2015 was pitiful and, if not Tory-lite, shone little light on the Tories and their austerity policies.

It is true that polling and canvass returns allowed readings from the likes of Jason Cowley, Atul Hatwal and others to reinforce their views of impending, catastrophic defeat. But commentators need to understand that ‘existing data points’ are no longer an adequate guide to potential events and behaviour. The core propositions of Progress and Blue Labour have become stale – Labour can ‘only win from the centre’ or ‘Britain is a (socially) conservative nation’ both reveal a profound pessimism about the possibility of transformative change and the willingness of enough of the electorate to vote for it.

There is also some retrospective myth-making on the opposite wing. A common one is the claim that only doubts by ‘Labour moderates’ prevented a Labour victory and such caution led to a failure to target winnable seats. What this conveniently ignores is that such doubts were widely shared in their own camp. Early in the campaign, Len McCluskey made a pre-emptive strike to lower expectations by arguing that progress in the election would be retention of around 200 seats and there was other talk that a satisfactory outcome and enough to keep Corbyn in office would be to improve on Miliband’s 2015 vote share. Thankfully, Corbyn considerably exceeded those expectations, but if insider accounts are accurate his core team were as shocked and surprised by the exit poll as the rest of us.

There is a strain of thought within Corbynism that might be called the irresistible momentum thesis. In other words, that through adding members, activists and effort in the next batch of marginals, history is assured next time. All those things are good, but we need to remember that not only did the Tories win, they added 5.5% to their own vote share, which sits at a comparably historic high of 42.4%.  They also took five seats from Labour in traditional areas such as Mansfield, Stoke and Derby, and still lead Labour amongst broadly speaking ‘working class voters’ (C2, DE) by 44-42%.

Labour under Corbyn did a fantastic job in expanding the core vote amongst the 18-24 and 25-34 groups and by mopping up the votes of smaller parties, but there is no path to victory that does not include getting Tory voters to switch to Labour. Many of these will be working class voters who deserted the Party in 2010 and 2015. This task is not only hard; it is made harder still by the dominant view amongst Corbyn supporters that voting Tory is unimaginable or a sign of moral or intellectual defect. It is wise to retain a distinction between Tories and people who at any point in time may vote Tory.

In Scotland, the task will be different, with the route to progress continuing to be winning back previous Labour voters from the SNP through a politics that convinces them that there is a viable radically social-democratic alternative to independence.

That’s enough looking backwards. What does Labour need to do to take the next steps?

First it needs a period of cooperation and consensus building to bring together the different currents in the Party that want to move on from the previous low intensity war.  As John Harris has argued, the Labour surge was a collective and collegiate process authored by those with diverse political identities inside and sometimes outside the Party. Moving on will include recognition that Corbyn is leader for the foreseeable future and that a radical, anti-austerity manifesto is an essential foundation for our campaigning.  It also means bringing in some repentant refuseniks into shadow cabinet or other prominent positions. This is vital, not just for internal Party cohesion, but as a signal to the public that we are now more united, and reassurance to middle ground voters that we need to be on board. It is also essential that we have a full shadow front bench in place, including a return to positions such as a shadow minister for mental health.  A larger, more diverse and distinguished leadership team will also allow Jeremy to do what he is best at – campaigning.

Second, we need to make a new, radical offer to the electorate, building from the existing manifesto, as we prepare for a probable election within 18 months. If that sounds contradictory to the point about the manifesto, it need not be. As Paul Mason and others have noted, the political ground is likely to shift rapidly as a result both of the new political and economic circumstances and the lessons that the smarter Tories have drawn from their own debacle. One is that they must signal that the era of austerity is over or at least that there is an end in sight. In substance, they will struggle to find the extra resources to fund public services without changing their fiscal framework, but the mood music is very likely to change. They may look for a more consensual, softer route for Brexit. There are those like Larry Elliot whose advice to Labour is let the Tories stew in that juice of their own making, but at the very least Labour will need to sharpen its current vague and sometimes ambiguous position on Brexit.

What might that new, radical offer consist of including, but beyond anti-austerity? Labour needs to be as radical about the redistribution of power as it is about wealth and other resources. That means more devolution to regions and localities and more post-Brexit powers repatriated to Scottish and Welsh Parliaments in the context of a transition to a more federal system. To build greater credibility for alternatives to austerity, Labour needs more emphasis on wealth creation through incentives for innovation, green growth and long-term investment, with penalties for speculative, short-term corporate practices. Post-financial crash, the UK economy has been kept afloat largely through the magic money tree, otherwise known as quantitative easing. Most of the money has benefited the financial sector and corporations, who are now sitting in piles of cash whilst national leadership on where this should be invested remains completely absent. Labour needs a clearer and more growth-oriented industrial strategy that can challenge the hollow shell of the Tory version.

What about alliances? In our existing electoral system, some citizens will always choose to vote tactically and Labour should be relaxed about that. Advocates of a more formal ‘progressive alliance’ have oversold its benefits and underestimated both the practical obstacles to anything more than local, informal arrangements, as well as the dangers of public perception of backstage deals and restriction of choice. It is more important to focus on the reasons why people have to vote tactically – our broken electoral system. Labour should be prepared to talk with other progressive parties with a view to identifying common ground on electoral and constitutional reform.

Labour is rightfully itching for another chance to take on the Tories electorally. However, the next steps will be difficult and uncertain. The emergence of a massive gap between the economics of financialised capitalism and a political class unwilling or unable to deal with the negative consequences means that we all have had to get used to living with much greater volatility, manifested in complex and cross-cutting divisions of age, class, gender and regional divisions. That volatility has produced outcomes ranging from the rise of right-wing populism in the USA and elsewhere to a renewal of radical centrism under Macron in France.

In the UK, Corbyn-led Labour has awakened the slumbering giant of social democracy, enfeebled by a mixture of its own caution and partial adaptation to neo-liberalism. In the electoral tests to come, Corbyn and Labour cannot just repeat playing the insurgency card – we must consolidate the progress we have made whilst further widening our coalition of supporters. As Jackie Ashley observed, we must also build enough leadership potential to sound and behave like a government in waiting and a party that has the legitimacy and capacity to govern. We may not have long to wait to test with the new model Labour Party is up to that test.

Paul Thompson is Professor of Employment Studies at the University of Stirling and an editoral board member and former editor of Renewal. 

This article was first published on the Open Labour blog and we're very grateful to be able to re-publish it here. 

To support Renewal's work promoting productive debate across the British left and get the whole journal every quarter, please subscribe.

Renewal