Victory in defeat

Published : Jun 21, 2017 12:30 IST

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn arriving at the party’s headquarters in London on June 9 after the election results were announced.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn arriving at the party’s headquarters in London on June 9 after the election results were announced.

In early October 1994, a young, confident and energised Tony Blair, who had just been elected leader of the Labour Party, took to the stage at the party’s conference in the seaside city of Blackpool to convince the party to make a major break with the past by revising its constitution. The biggest change would involve eliminating Clause IV in which was enshrined the party’s commitment to the “common ownership of the means of production”, which the party had maintained since 1918. This was essential, he said, for a “modern party living in an age of change. It requires a modern constitution that says what we are in terms the public cannot misunderstand and the Tories cannot misrepresent…. The next election will offer us the chance to change our country, not just to promise change, but to achieve it—the historic goal of another Labour government. Our party, new Labour; our mission, new Britain. New Labour, new Britain.”

The move caught many off guard, but the party’s National Executive Committee accepted the changes the following year. While Blair’s rhetoric impressed and convinced many in the party, there were sceptics. Speaking to the BBC, while others enthused, Jeremy Corbyn, a young and bushy-bearded MP then, expressed his concerns about the lack of detail in Blair’s speech and the direction of his commitments. “I can understand the desire for good presentation, but we are slightly missing the point. People on low wages, the unemployed and the desperately poor, they need to know Labour is going to deliver those things and is prepared to take the economic and taxation decisions or we will lose them…. I want to see a much stronger commitment to the welfare state.”

Blair’s vision for the party triumphed, and his electoral success three years later, in May 1997, seemed to bolster his insistence that to succeed, Labour needed to “reinvent” socialism and move decidedly to the middle ground. It is a perspective that remained dominant within the parties for well over a decade afterwards, even after Blair’s personal standing took a drastic hit from his stubborn commitment to take the country to war against Iraq despite strong public opposition. Critics, of course, remained, such as the Socialist Campaign Group, and left-wing candidates such as John McDonnell and Diane Abbott regularly stood for elections in leadership contests, with little success.

In an interview with the BBC last year, McDonnell recalled the moment that Corbyn was persuaded to stand, albeit reluctantly. The resignation of Ed Milliband, following Labour’s poor showing in the 2015 general election, triggered a leadership contest, and various left-wing groups within the party held a meeting to mull their options. McDonnell admitted to being sceptical of whether it would be worth fielding a candidate, convinced they would face a “crushing defeat”, but the groups eventually decided to do so. When McDonnell, who had stood twice previously, declined, as did Diane Abbott, everyone looked to Corbyn, who had never done so and who then agreed to saying: “Oh, go on then.”

The impact of that decision is being felt across Britain as the Labour Party’s “shock success” in the snap general election on June 8 shook the consensus held within the party and across the country that left-wing politics remain fringe and would relegate the party to the political wasteland.

This was a view that persisted from the time Corbyn made it onto the ballot (partly thanks to some MPs who did not agree with his politics but thought it important to have a “token” left-wing candidate on the list). In July 2015, as polls showed Corbyn taking the lead in the leadership campaign, Blair appealed to Labour members to reject the “traditional leftist platform” of Corbyn. “Don’t for heaven’s sake move back,” he said, advising those who wanted to follow Corbyn to “get a heart transplant”. The cover of The Economist in September 2015 after Corbyn thrashed his opponents in the Labour leadership contest was “Backwards, comrades”, warning that he was leading Britain’s Left into a political time warp.

The Conservatives won the largest number of seats, but theirs was a hollow victory as they lost 13 seats, leaving them dependent on the Far-Right Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of Northern Ireland to form the government. The validation that Prime Minister Theresa May had sought for her party’s direction on Brexit and beyond is nowhere in sight. The Labour Party by contrast gained 30 seats, and Corbyn has increased its share of the vote more than any other of the party’s leaders in any election in post-War Britain. The Labour’s vote share rose 9.5 per cent, which is just shy of Clement Attlee’s 10.4 per cent swing in 1945.

It succeeded in taking constituencies that had been Conservative for decades, such as the south-eastern historic town of Canterbury, which had voted for Brexit. Perhaps most emblematic was the Labour victory in the London constituency of Kensington, one of the city’s most affluent areas, which had been Conservative through its entire history. “Clearly, this election was not all about Brexit, not around the country and not in this constituency. The people of Kensington have spoken and have voted for someone they can trust and who can give them a voice,” said Emma Dent Coad, the new Labour MP for Kensington.

Labour’s success also helped restore Britain’s two-party system as other parties got the smallest share of the vote since 1970.

The front pages that greeted the British public on June 9 made it clear that victory lay with Corbyn rather than Theresa May. “Queen of Denial” was the headline of Evening Standard (edited by former Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne). “Mayhem” declared the right-wing TheSun newspaper; the day before it had headlined a picture of Corbyn emerging out of a dustbin with the words “Don’t Chuck Britain in the Cor-Bin”.

Corbyn’s journey

Corbyn’s journey to this result has been complex and riddled with highs and lows and involving a process of personal learning and growth. To a man used to standing firmly by his principles on pretty much anything for decades (he had rebelled against the Labour government in power between 1997 and 2010 over 400 times), and who was used to being the voice of protest, leadership proved challenging at times, perhaps inevitably. After all, his epic rise was unplanned, and he did not have by his side the seasoned political advisers that have come to characterise leadership across the political spectrum in Britain. He was propelled to leadership not through the usual back-room negotiations to win support from parliamentarians and influential unions but through the grass-roots movement that rallied around him as he travelled across the country to engage and inspire.

The vicious assault, and at times barrage of downright lies, that followed was unwarranted and unprecedented. In a study published by the London School of Economics that examined coverage of Corbyn from September 1, 2015, to November 1, 2015, academics concluded that Britain’s press had moved from being a political “watchdog” to an “attack dog” and raised “serious ethical questions as to the role of the media in a democracy”. The report said that Corbyn was “represented unfairly by the British press through a process of vilification that went well beyond the normal limits of fair debate and disagreement in a democracy. Corbyn was often denied his own voice in the reporting on him and sources that were anti-Corbyn tended to outweigh those that support him and his positions. He was also systematically treated with scorn and ridicule in both the broadsheet and tabloid press in a way that no other political leader is or has been. Even more problematic, the British press has repeatedly associated Corbyn with terrorism and positioned him as a friend of the enemies of the U.K. The result has been a failure to give the newspaper reading public a fair opportunity to form their own judgements about the leader of the country’s main opposition.”

Over the course of the months that followed, Corbyn faced criticism even from former supporters, particularly over his failure to stand on a platform with Conservatives campaigning to remain in the European Union (E.U.) in last year’s referendum. Owen Jones, a left-wing activist, political commentator and early supporter of Corbyn, was one of those to voice his concerns. Writing for the website Medium last year, he warned that the Labour Party was missing opportunities to cut through to the electorate. “A clear coherent message that would resonate with people who aren’t signed up left wing activists that addressed people’s everyday problems and aspirations has yet to be created,” he wrote. Richard Murphy, a prominent tax justice campaigner and early supporter of Corbyn, wrote a scathing piece on the rise and fall of “Corbynomics”, warning that his team had left the impression that “they had created a movement that hates what’s happening in the world and can get really angry about it, but then has not a clue what to do about it”. Many who had been willing to work alongside him within the party deserted. Writing for the online publication “LabourList”, the MP Seema Malhotra explained that she was leaving the Labour shadow cabinet because she believed the country needed new and “strong leadership”.

Even after Corbyn survived a vote of no confidence, the scepticism remained, so convinced was the British political establishment that Labour under Corbyn was bound for failure. “The collapse of the Labour Party means that we face a prolonged period of uninterrupted and unchecked Conservative government at Westminster,” said Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the Scottish National Party, when she announced plans to push for a second referendum on Scottish independence in March. In April, the Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron declared his intent to make his party the main opposition party and described Corbyn as the “worst leader in British political history”.

When the election was declared on April 18, many decried the cynical move by the Conservatives, assuming it was not a case of whether they would have a landslide, but by how much. The campaign proved a decisive moment for Corbyn and his supporters, now seasoned political operators, who had learnt from the repeated attacks upon them. It offered Corbyn the opportunity to do what he was perhaps best at: talking directly to the public and setting an agenda free from the strictures of parliamentary politics. His down-to-earth, approachable and earnest manner, which had sometimes been ridiculed in Parliament (his decision to base Prime Minister’s Questions around questions sent in by the public was also ridiculed by some, particularly on the right), proved to be just the thing on the campaign trail and was in contrast to Theresa May, whose ham-handed attempts to engage and talk to people across constituencies failed to pay off. A striking example of this was an interview conducted with the chief reporter of The Plymouth Herald , a local newspaper of the port city on England’s south coast, which went viral. Writing about his three-minute interview with the Prime Minister, after she had “chatted with fishermen earnestly at the nets and buckets”, the reporter concluded she had given him “absolutely nothing”. His questions were highly specific (and non-confrontational) and addressed issues such as concerns about the impact of cuts to the military on the local economy, but her answers were infuriatingly generic and unconvincing.

Policy disasters

While a series of political U-turns and policy disasters (including over social care for the elderly, which hits a core Conservative constituency) made Theresa May’s attempts to look “strong and stable” increasingly come across as questionable, her positioning of herself as a “bloody difficult woman” with regards to Brexit negotiations rang alarm bells across the country, suggesting that the Conservatives had greatly misread the mood of the people, anxious over the terms under which the country would exit the E.U. Her open declaration that she would not participate in any head-to-head debates at the start of the campaign initially looked confident but rapidly backfired as it fed into the picture being built up by Labour and other opponents that she was not willing to debate because she was on shaky territory. Her explanation of why she did not participate in a BBC debate—which Corbyn joined at the last minute—was widely ridiculed as she suggested it was because she was getting on with the process of preparing for Brexit (many pointed out this was hypocritical given it was she who had forced Britain into the election, with the result due less than two weeks before Britain began negotiations).

Corbyn by contrast was in his element, drawing large crowds as he toured the country pledging to create a government that would serve “the many not the few”. A clever online strategy spread Corbyn’s message via social media while parodying the Conservatives and their attempts to attack him. “Weak and Wobbly” was the response to Theresa May’s “strong and stable” play, and in the days running up to the election, the hashtag #lastminuteCorbynsmears poked fun at the attempts by the Conservatives and the media that supported them to frighten voters away from Corbyn. But perhaps what was most decisive of all was Corbyn’s engagement with the wider party and in drafting the party’s manifesto. The manifesto was a radical one, committing Labour to reintroducing public ownership of key infrastructure (essentially going back on the rejection of Clause IV) and raising taxes for corporations and those with salaries of over £80,000. Corbyn and his team relentlessly targeted the years of austerity that had pounded the public and hit education, health care and even the police (an issue that proved particularly in tune with public sentiment following the three terrorist attacks that had taken place in the country). He did not shy away from difficult political discussions, such as raising questions about Britain’s interventionist foreign policy just days after the attack on the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, which killed 22 people. The election was called purportedly over Brexit but became about something much bigger, thanks to the Corbyn campaign.

At the same time, he gave way on issues that many in the “mainstream” of the party felt strongly about, such as committing the party to renewing Britain’s nuclear deterrent Trident. Corbyn deftly rejected criticism that he had given up on his principles, pointing out that it showed that he listened, learnt and engaged with his party. As the party rapidly closed the gap in the polls, many previous critics began to speak out, some cautiously in favour, others wildly ecstatic. Writing in The Guardian , Calum Campbell—the son of Alastair Campbell, Blair’s former adviser and campaign strategist—enthused about a leader he had once thought would lead the party to electoral disaster. “What this campaign has shown is just how out of touch I was. Britain is a country that is desperate for change.” “Like father like son though fair to say his enthusiasm >mine!” tweeted Alastair Campbell, who earlier this year had described Corbyn’s leadership as a “car crash”.

“He’s had a very positive campaign and he has grown in his leadership and as an electoral campaigner,” said Seema Malhotra, on the campaign trail. “People have seen the policies of the Labour Party and that is having quite an impact in terms of changing the conversation. We are at a changing point now where we’ve seen Labour acting with tremendous unity in this campaign.”

Ahead of the election, many had argued that the results would depend heavily on turnout, given the high levels of support for Corbyn among the young. The turnout of 68.7 per cent (2 percentage points higher than in 2015) suggests that this did indeed contribute to Corbyn’s victory, but it alone cannot explain the failure of the Conservatives to take on Labour in its heartlands in the north (a part of the country that Theresa May visited on a number of occasions) or Labour’s success in some traditional Conservative territory. The Conservatives lost six seats in London alone and failed to fully exploit the collapse of the UK Independence Party elsewhere in the country as some of its supporters shifted to Labour (though analysis has suggested the vote did by and large move to the Conservatives).

The coming weeks will be a crucial time for Corbyn and his team. With the assumption that a left-wing party would not be able to engage with the wider electorate well and truly debunked, Corbyn will take over as Leader of the Opposition in a far stronger place than ever before. While the media attacks, particularly from the tabloids, are likely to continue unabated, he will probably be less hindered than in the past by opposition from within his own party, which unified behind him, to a certain extent at least, in the weeks leading up to the election. Theo Bertram, a former adviser to Blair and Gordon Brown, wrote in “inews”: “A decade working for Blair and Brown taught me that Corbyn would lose. I’m so happy I was wrong ...for Labour, it is time to reconcile the inspirational and pragmatic: not make them enemies of each other.”

There will be challenges, of course. Immediately after the election, the divisions over Brexit resurfaced as McDonnell’s insistence that Britain would in all likelihood be unable to remain in the single market was publicly challenged by others in the party.

With the Conservative leadership now on the back foot, particularly over its decision to ally with the DUP, whose stance on issues ranging from climate change to abortion deeply troubles many even within the Conservative Party, and Theresa May facing great personal pressure, Corbyn and his team are more confident than ever before. They have rejected the suggestion of coalitions and plan to present a vision for Britain’s future in an “alternative” Queen’s speech when Parliament reopens later this month. Corbyn may not have been the one to have driven to Buckingham Palace to seek the official invite to form the government, but it is the political gauntlet that he and his team have thrown down that the rest of the political establishment, the Conservatives and beyond, will have to respond to.

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