As I write this, it was two years ago today, on June 15th 2015, that Jeremy Corbyn got on to the Labour leadership ballot at the very last moment, thanks to a few Labour MPs who wanted to “broaden the debate”.
The news was greeted with little fanfare and the conventional wisdom was that Corbyn would finish a distant 4th and the real race was between favourites Burnham and Kendall. To put it mildly; if anyone had claimed then that Corbyn would cause a political earthquake in the Labour Party, and subsequently the UK, they would have been met with amused scepticism.
Conventional wisdom was still having a good time in 2015. The general election results came as a crushing disappointment to a Labour Party, led by the soft-left Ed Miliband, after polling errors had incorrectly forecasted a hung parliament, not the Conservative majority government that was formed.
The story was the usual one: Labour can’t win when it tacks left, elections are won in the centre, polls always overestimate Labour’s support, young people won’t vote. The result was especially problematic for those of us on the left of the party who sought to make a clean break from the New Labour years and found the passive acceptance of austerity economics especially galling.
But it was soon to become apparent that Jeremy Corbyn was to be our champion and would take our politics back from the distant sidelines and right into the thick of national debate.
Two years later, at this political inflection point — after weathering unending criticism, fighting back internal revolt, and a general election campaign that has taken Labour to within striking distance of power — it seems like a good time to decompress and reflect on both how we got here as a group and our own personal political journeys.
I was already member of the Labour Party when I moved to Edinburgh at the age of 19, in 2004. I wasn’t a fan of Tony Blair and marching against the Iraq war had been the defining moment of political activism for many young people, but on the whole (at least as far as I could see or understand) the country seemed to be doing OK. And we always had the naive belief that Gordon Brown was waiting in the wings to undo all of the mistakes that Blair had made.
It was in this context, compounded by Labour’s dominance of Scottish politics, that I never fully engaged or became active and eventually let my membership lapse. In retrospect I believe it was complacency that meant that younger, more ideologically ambitious members like myself, rarely engaged in Scottish Labour and seldom challenged the views of the old guard, who subsequently made mistake after mistake leading to the complete collapse of support and the rise of the SNP.
It was because Scotland was so “safe” that voters were taken for granted, members ignored, and unthinking yes-people for the leadership inserted into parliament — a sin Gordon Brown is probably more guilty of than Tony Blair.
The 2015 General Election
Fast forward to 2015. I had accepted a job in Ipswich which was a Labour/Conservative marginal that Ben Gummer had taken for the Tories in the 2010 general election.
I had been energised by my dislike for the coalition government and living in a marginal seat for the first time in my life was the final push I needed to rejoin and actively participate in Labour.
Despite the disappointing result that year, I was resolute not to withdraw from political activism, in particular to help ensure that Labour did not retreat back into New Labour style politics as a knee-jerk reaction to losing the election under Ed Miliband.
More importantly for my developing understanding of national politics was the huge difference in political climate between Edinburgh and Ipswich. In the 2015 GE post-mortem CLP I witnessed some appallingly bad analysis on the “Scottish result”, but my own prejudices were being challenged too. I’ll be honest — the Ipswich Labour members were a lot less “Blairite” than I was expecting — though I detected a strong vein of defeatist pragmatism. The view that Labour couldn’t have a more ambitious vision because the electorate wouldn’t be interested went largely unchallenged. I’ve never felt comfortable with such a conclusion because I think it implies that politics is something that happens to us, not something that we shape and influence ourselves.
EU Referendum & The Chicken coup
It is without a doubt that my lowest point was the EU referendum. Being in such strongly Leave leaning area I felt like I was fighting against an unstoppable force. My partner being French and having to drive past huge “LEAVE” signs on the way to work every day just gave it a level of personal upset on top of the political concerns. And, as if the campaign and result weren’t bad enough, the aftermath would prove to provide layer after layer of frustration, anger, and disappointment.
The attempted PLP coup against Corbyn seemed to me ill-timed and counterproductive. Labour didn’t just look like a shambles. It was a shambles.
The Tories engaged in the bizarre farce that was their own leadership election. Theresa May emerged victorious after every other contender appeared to stab someone else in the back and then fall on their own sword. Whilst some of us were still trying to understand what the hell was going on, she was anointed the ‘Queen of Brexit’. Apparently “Brexit meant Brexit”, but eggs are extra or something.
Between the surge in popularity for May and Labour’s apparent desire to eat itself, I felt that our project was being buried before it had even had a chance to get started.
Somehow we emerged from 2016 bruised but intact. The anti-Corbyn faction of the PLP were licking their wounds and had engaged a new strategy of “let him fail on his own terms”, which (forgive the vulgarity) I likened to taking a shit on the dinner table on arrival and then blaming the host for a bad night.
The polls for Labour and Corbyn were terrible. But there was little evidence for an actual shift of support from Labour to Conservatives. Their vote had hardened and taken a large chunk from UKIP, but ours had softened. Significantly, the public showed little appetite for the Liberal Democrats despite the media hype around the “Lib Dem Fightback”. My analysis wasn’t that we had lost our voters, but that they were just ignoring our calls right now.
In the toxic and divided atmosphere of Brexit Britain, it seemed difficult to imagine what scenario would allow us to cut through and get our message out to the public. Yet, giving up was utterly inconceivable. It was the first time in my lifetime that someone on the left had been in a leadership position — and making the same arguments I believed in — and I wasn’t about to give up on that because of events I perceived to be beyond our control.
The firmness of my support for Corbyn was underpinned by the strong belief that if we caved and gave up now I would likely be drawing my pension before the left had another chance, if ever. It was to be a fight to the end.
The 2017 General Election
When Theresa May called the general election it took me by surprise. Like many people I had basically believed her when she said she wasn’t going to call a snap election. Many people in both mainstream and social media started falling over themselves predicting how big a majority the Conservatives would win.
The most disappointing aspect was how gleeful those in the centre seemed to be at the prospect of Labour getting an absolute thrashing, with Corbyn at the helm. This just reinforced my belief that many of these people clearly don’t share my goals or aims if they would rather have a right wing government and a Hard Brexit simply to see the left get a drubbing and put back in their box.
But as others were forecasting 100+ seat majorities, I was predicting a much closer result. A Tory majority of at most 60–70 seats, but realistically something in the 30–40 seat range. If the Tories acquired 100% of the UKIP vote then around 70 Labour seats were at risk. But even during Labour’s lowest point, the net gain of the UKIP vote for Conservatives vs. Labour was “only” as high as 60%.
It seemed to me that the commentariat were cheerleading so hard for a huge Corbyn defeat that they were double counting Labour’s woes. Now it seems like the age old advice “never underestimate your opponent” has been vindicated once again.
As the Conservatives unveiled their “Strong and Stable” campaign I had a horrible feeling of deja-vu with regards to the Brexit campaign. I feared that meaningless slogans would obscure the nonsense arguments and claims our opponents would make.
Combined with the shameless lifting of the “Ruth Davidson Party” strategy, to make the election into a straight fight, May vs. Corbyn, it seemed like the Tories were going to walk it. The local election results that followed were bad for Labour. The narrative was that the local results, as carefully extrapolated to a national vote share, confirmed the dire poll figures Labour were facing.
This was bad news just one month from the general election, but I had a mental buffer from despair with the belief that our campaign was targeting exactly those people who don’t usually bother with local elections. I discovered two of my closest friends hadn’t even voted in them because “It’s just councils, bins and shit. But I’ll vote in the general election.” which I found both disappointing and comforting at the same time.
As the rest of the campaign unfolded I found myself both impressed and pleased by the Labour efforts and completely dumbfounded as to how incompetent the Conservative campaign was turning out to be. The fact that Theresa May was awful and awkward came as no surprise, given her reputation amongst those who follow politics closely, but nobody had foreseen that level of campaign omnishambles coming.
The absolute low points of the campaign — regardless of your affiliation — have to be the terrorist attacks that occurred involving the murder of so many innocent people. It’s difficult to process these events during such a high stakes election campaign. Suspensions seem both appropriate and inappropriate at the same time. The uncertainty as to how the electorate will subsequently react is nerve wracking. It seems to me that the vast majority of the British people handled the situation admirably and did not give in to fear.
The pollsters got it wrong again
In the final week of the campaign I was canvassing every night. Anecdotally, for myself and some others, it felt like a better result was coming than in 2015, but it’s always hard to tell with such subjective and unscientific samples. The polls were showing an impressive spread from 1% Tory lead (Survation) to as much as 13% (BMG). This wasn’t statistical noise though — after the 2015 herding to a tie fiasco each pollster had had to make their own adjustments to their modelling. The question then was who do you believe? I believed the pollsters who used self reporting for turnout likelihood over those who assumed past election turnout.
On the ground and on social media there seemed to be more energy around and I believed more young people would vote — they were very angry about Brexit, amongst other things. Despite my gut telling me that the worst thing keeps happening, I went with my head and gave my brother my final seat predictions for our bet: 311 Con, 260 Lab. I’m happy to say he owes me a dinner.
This is a turning point — the start of something new. The majority of the critics within our own party are now getting on board with our project. We had to fight hard, but it’s time to get out of the bunker mentality we’ve been stuck in for much of the last two years, to get out there and lead the way to a better, more fair society. For the many, not the few.