Labour Has Done Something Amazing, This Could Be The Start of a Paradigm Shift
After thirty years of a political consensus which broadly accepted Thatcherism as the reality the first big sign of a change has come. We ran on the most left-wing platform that Labour has offered for thirty years and ran perhaps the best General Election campaign ran by Labour in the last 40+ years, the result has been the largest surge in Labour’s share of the vote since Clement Attlee became Prime Minister. It feels as though the opening of Chris Mullin’s novel A Very British Coup nearly became reality — though it is worth reiterating that we aren’t there yet.
The result was sensational and it is worth pointing out that Labour’s manifesto was most likely more popular than either Corbyn or the Labour Party itself. That is, a manifesto described as the most left-wing since the 1980s has proved to be wildly popular and has given the British left a new lease of life. Those in the Parliamentary Labour Party who decried Corbyn’s programme back in 2015, and some far more recently, have effectively been proved wrong. Rent controls, mass building of social housing, public ownership of water and rail, taxing the wealthy and abolition of tuition fees have now been proved to be credible policy.
To the surprise of most people, including to some extent myself, Corbynmania has caught on. In the past such large surges in Labour’s support have taken years to erode and it’s therefore fair to assume that unelectability has just become a thing of the past for Labour. Jeremy Corbyn’s unlikely cheerleaders now include John McTernan, Polly Toynbee, Dan Hodges, Alistair Campbell, Chuka Umunna and Harriet Harman. Blairites, Brownites, Fabians and Milibandites are now flocking to the leadership and emerging as Born-Again Corbynistas. Neil Kinnock, who has probably been the most strident critic of Corbyn amongst the living former leaders of the party, has been oddly quiet since the result — though Corbyn has passed the criteria Kinnock recently set for the election to be a success (‘Labour gains, Tory losses’).
Corbyn now has a real mandate. Both to shift Labour toward a vision of a members-led party and to entrench the left’s political vision. Labour’s next manifesto is likely to look very similar to the 2017 offering. Reforming Labour’s structures, with the aspiration of injecting more democracy into an overly bureaucratic party, can begin, but changing the party will be a big task. Nonetheless Corbyn now has near-unnassailable authority to change things in the party and opposition to the so-called McDonnell amendment will inevitably soften.
Exactly what Labour should do next is unclear. A future election within the next 12 months is likely, and Labour now has a very strong change of winning any such election. May has left herself without a majority, at the helm of the least stable Tory government since Heath was Prime Minister. At the time of writing Labour is on 45% and there is much to be optimistic about, though there is also room for improvement in order to ensure Labour remains on an upward trajectory. The issues with Labour’s stances on defence and national security need to be ironed out, but Labour should not tack to the centre on those issues as Paul Mason recently implied in the Guardian. Instead Corbyn needs to rehearse Labour’s defence strategies and pursue a line independent of his old Bennite instincts and independent of the staunch centrism of New Labour.
There were a few avoidable mistakes during the campaign, even besides defence, but this simply shows that the Labour left’s potential is huge and that this election can be a springboard for a government predicated on radical reform of British politics and the UK economy.
There are still important questions to be asked. Firstly, how much was Labour’s GE campaign a defensive campaign and could a future GE campaign targeting Tory held-marginals yield a Labour majority? Next, how much has Corbyn shifted the Overton Window, and can it be shifted more? 3 years ago it would be unthinkable to think somebody like John McTernan was endorsing public ownership (in fact he was decrying it, and endorsing privatisation of healthcare). Now UK politics appears to be rapidly opening up to the ideas of the left, though there are areas where we still need to make progress.
In 1987 and in ’92 Labour was pledging to abolish the 11+, yet no iteration of this made it into the manifesto, though I would presume Corbyn and Angela Rayner would like to see a country free from the archaic system of selective education. Likewise, we ought to look at the potential benefits and the viability of a written constitution, public control of banking, reform of media ownership and changes to Thatcher’s trade union laws. Labour is on the verge of changing Britain and we now need constant debate on how much positive change can be enacted.
Finally, Labour’s unsung heroes of the general election deserve a lot of credit. From Andrew Gwynne and Ian Lavery who ran perhaps the best General Election campaign for a generation, to the canvassers from both wings of the party who descended on key marginals and turned seats like Battersea and Sheffield Hallam into Labour seats. On election day as I knocked doors in Kilburn there was a tangible sense and a fear that Hampstead and Kilburn could turn blue, Tulip Siddiq now has a thundering majority — thanks in large part to Jeremy Corbyn.