The general election did not follow the script. It was meant to be a Conservative landslide. All the Conservatives had to do was to say variations of ‘Vote Conservative because Jeremy Corbyn’ to win. This might explain why their manifesto was so vague, alienated a core vote and the campaigning, such as it was, did not actually challenge any of Labour’s promises. It had been assumed that the entirety of the Ukip vote of 2015 would go to the Conservatives. The Conservatives were quite successful, racking up a record percentage and number of votes.
Corbyn, by contrast, campaigned up and down the country. True, he was preaching to the converted, but he mobilised them to go out and vote. Or did he?
This may actually be ‘Peak Corbyn’, receiving votes for reasons other than Labour’s or Corbyn’s appeal.
Hardly any Labour MPs made any mention of Corbyn on their literature. It was reported that he was poison on the doorstep. So where did all those votes come from?
The commentators say it is the ‘youth vote’, which seems to mean anyone under 40. All this means is that while these voters have experienced harsh economic times, they have not been through disruptive political times. Up to last summer, there had been a 13-year-long Blairite political consensus epitomised by youthful leaders proposing socially aware policies for an ‘open society’. There was agreement on the policies of austerity, the only deviation was the degree. The ‘youth vote’ rebelled against this. Students were offered an £11 billion electoral bribe by Jeremy Corbyn.
People over 40 would know better than their younger peers about socialism. They would have grown up in a time of polarised politics. They would also have seen the ugly side of socialism, in the form of mob violence and strikes. The Cold War and the USSR would have also resonated. After the defeat of Soviet communism and the restoration a relative peace to the world, it is ironic that the ‘youth vote’, cosseted by wealth, safety, and freedom, is not properly informed by the clear failures of collectivist economics, as epitomised by the Berlin Wall and state-mandated deprivation. Older voters also objected to the growing power of the EU. In 2015 and 2016, they voted for parties that shared this view. Labour was not one of them. It is now.
However, the consensus was that Corbyn was going to lose, and lose badly. Labour MPs, fearing for their seats, used an old tactic. They told the voters, ‘Corbyn is going to lose, but you’ll still need representation in Parliament. I will be your best representative.’ In essence this was ‘don’t vote for a Corbyn-led Labour government, vote for a Labour MP’. It is also possible that the Labour vote was shored up by people who did not want Labour under Corbyn to win, but also did not want a Conservative landslide.
A similar tactic was employed by Airey Neave, Margaret Thatcher’s campaign manager in the 1975 leadership ballot held after Edward Heath had lost three general elections out of the previous four. He went round the Commons telling MPs that Margaret Thatcher was not going to win, but that Edward Heath needed to be sent a message not to ignore the right wing of the party. Margaret Thatcher went on to beat Edward Heath in the first contest and to win the subsequent ballots after he quit the race.
Neave never saw Mrs Thatcher get to Downing Street. Murdered by Irish Republicans in 1979, his death was marked stoically by contrast to the gushing emotionality that now seems the norm.
So some people who voted for Corbyn’s Labour probably did so in the knowledge that he would lose, which is what he actually did. He was also assisted by a Conservative election campaign that will probably be regarded as the most inept in modern times. The Conservative vote was quite strong and stable, it did not budge significantly. In terms of numbers of votes and percentages, Mrs May improved on her predecessor’s performance. This did not translate into seats. Labour was the chief beneficiary of the collapse in votes for third parties, notably Ukip. Votes for the Greens halved, and these must have all migrated to Labour. Labour was able to portray itself as the party of ‘soft Brexit’, and Remainers may have decided to go there as well to punish the Conservatives for the audacity of holding the referendum in the first place, and then making the result government policy.
While Nuneation may been seen as a bellweather seat, the example of Wokingham in Berkshire may also be of interest. In the referendum, this district voted to Remain. However, the MP, John Redwood, is a well-known Eurosceptic. Redwood held his seat, and his vote remained solid. The Labour vote all but doubled, taking votes from Ukip, the Lib Dems and the Greens. This pilfering by Labour may not last.
‘Peak Corbyn’, could be the result of a confluence of events. An election called unnecessarily – although the pressures of EU intransigence, Cabinet deadlock, a bunker-like atmosphere in No 10, the threat of prosecutions against Conservative MPs, and excellent polling all seem to have precipitated it – an opposition party leader preaching a camera-friendly vague utopian idealism, a duff Conservative manifesto, and a poor Conservative campaign, all combining to cause Labour to lose the election yet again, just not as catastrophically as Ed Miliband did.
However, the narrative is that Labour lost well, while the Conservatives won badly. So Jeremy Corbyn is not as awful as Ed Miliband. He is still awful.
There are some in Labour who are seeing beyond the hyperbole and realise that they are still sitting on the opposition benches, with the prospect of guerilla warfare on Commons votes affecting their schedules and plans for years to come. The electoral arithmetic showing Corbyn being a Prime-Minister-in-waiting is nonsense.
Moderate Labour MPs are perhaps understanding how the left of their party is quite bad at attaining power, but almost impossible to remove once there. So Labour moderates seem to be on manoeuvres.
The breaking of a three-line whip last week is an example of this. Corbyn’s position as leader is not as secure as is being touted. There is new talk of the Labour party splitting, with benefactors being lined up. The conference is seen as the battleground, with seats on the NEC and the way leadership candidates are nominated, being the flashpoints.
Jeremy Corbyn took Labour back to where Gordon Brown left it. And that’s it. If this is ‘Peak Corbyn’, all can follow is the fall.