Confessions of a Corbynsceptic: what we got wrong (and right)
Like many who have been critical of Corbyn, the election result on Thursday has forced me to summon humility. Right up to the exit poll, I thought any election we fought under him would be a bloodbath. I described the likely outcome as “Dunkirk, not D-Day” when he was re-elected last September, when in fact we have now established a real bridgehead for a future Labour government. Just as moderates were planning to blame him for a bad night, it would be churlish to deny that his leadership and the brand of politics him and his supporters have espoused own these successes to a huge degree.
I am genuinely and hugely thankful for that, in that on the bread-and-butter economics issues that unite the Labour church like redistribution, investment and public services, I’ve always wanted to move the ‘Overton window’ much, much further to the left if possible. I’d happily give my right arm to get to live in Scandinavia-on-Thames. But I’ve always been sceptical about how fast that can be done in Britain or believed that it had to be done through stealth, as the 1980s and 1990s had taught Labour in a different economic era. On nationalisation, while I’m less certain than some on all of the benefits, equally I always felt Tories and a few Labour rightists painting it as ideological extremism was daft — much of Europe has nationalised utilities and their state companies often run parts of our own infrastructure, as a TSSA advert earlier this year sought to argue.
This is only one result and we have not yet won. The Tories beat us on both seats and votes, and the slight plurality of Britons who voted for even that Tory campaign might still have been buying into the old-school ‘Labour tax and spend’ attacks — that is still a problem we have to conquer. But this is the first time I have genuinely been able to believe there is something real in the left’s argument that the financial crisis might have changed British politics and allowed us to be much bolder. If that’s true, it also sets many of us on the Labour right free of some of our own self-imposed restraints, and we should make the most of that and learn to be happier in our own skins, just as the Labour left are in theirs. As Ed Miliband has now said, I wish we had fought 2015 on a clearer manifesto. Since 2015, a few moderates like Johnny Reynolds, Liam Byrne and Chuka Umunna had sought to reach out and embrace new economic ideas in response to Corbynism sweeping the party, but they have been exceptions to the rule. They should now be our model of how we engage with the rest of the party, in the spirit of unity. Figures from the Labour right and centre should return to the shadow cabinet — we can’t be firing on all cylinders with so much talent on the backbenches.
As I did say at the time, post-referendum Corbyn was also right about a second referendum and Article 50. It wasn’t only him — much of the PLP, especially those in Leave seats, had reached the same conclusion and the issue flummoxed the party enough that avowed Corbynsceptic John Woodcock MP had to come to Corbyn’s defence against the usually pro-Corbyn Canary. But there was a vocal complement on all sides of Labour who demonstrated little pragmatism and favoured aping the Lib Dem stance — this would have been a profound mistake, as it would have made it harder for Labour to close down Brexit as an issue and given weight to Theresa May’s central argument that only she could be trusted to see through Brexit. Even in summer 2016 I was campaigning for Owen Smith in spite of his ill-advised stance on Brexit and a second referendum, but nonetheless I must reflect on what the implications of him winning would’ve been if he had stuck with that stance. And while I had written about the need to build an alliance of acceptant Remainers and soft Leavers, equally I had thought that Corbyn going was a prerequisite for building that coalition, when in fact we saw it start to become a reality on Thursday. That is a feat, and I was wrong.
I had also not believed that young voters, non-voters or social media could be central to an effective campaign. Again, that is because history had taught me to be cynical: Cleggmania, 2015 and the EU referendum were all damp squibs. But some rules are made to be broken. A country in which young people assert their voice and vote will be a much more equal and more democratic one. And the most extraordinary part of this is that it was achieved even when much of Labour’s ground game was arrayed defensively — Labour won Canterbury for the first time ever on the back of student turnout when it was not even a target. I also did not think we could make a recovery in Scotland or beyond urban England, but we have started to see exactly that.
That said, the Labour right must also still be confident in ourselves and who we are, even as we seek to learn these lessons. As many have noted, this campaign was remarkable in that it genuinely changed the game — events, polls and local election results had all reliably pointed to the devastating result we had feared until very recently. We had lost Copeland, we had 400 fewer councillors in our communities than in 2015 and only a month ago we had lost the mayoralty in Tees Valley — we deal with the facts in front of us at any given time, as we try to advocate what we think is best for the party we love. Only an outstandingly well-organised and spirited campaign turned it around, and while it was very much a Jeremy Corbyn campaign, we are all one party and those of us on the right united behind it too. The final polls still suggested almost all Tory voters in this election believed Theresa May to be the best candidate for prime minister, while only around three-quarters of Labour voters said the same of Corbyn — Corbynsceptic Labour voters sticking with the party was essential to keeping our coalition together, and candidates and activists with similar concerns played our part in helping to keep them onside.
Security was also a key theme of this campaign, not least because of the three horrific terrorist attacks Britain has suffered this year, two of them during the campaign itself. Labour went into this campaign committed to retaining Trident and NATO membership, to strengthening the police, and to increasing spending on the armed forces and security services — Corbyn had been vocally on the other side of all these issues for his entire career. While he deserves credit for compromising, Labour moderates had also consistently raised the alarm and fought to get him and the party to re-examine these stances. And while Labour still lagged on these issues in this campaign and must take them even more seriously if we are to reassure the Tory voters we need to secure a majority Labour government, it seems likely that this blunted the Tory attacks and helped the party to put forward a coherent response to the outrages in Manchester and London.
On immigration and welfare — two bugbears that contributed to the 2010 and 2015 defeats and which the party has been bitterly divided on — this result also feels far from unambiguous. These issues motivated many Tory voters before, and probably still contributed to our defeat. And while in 2015 the welfare vote in parliament and the ‘immigration mug’ were symbolic to many members of the capitulations that led them to vote for Corbyn and his bolder brand of politics, it is worth noting that Labour did not really fight this election on a programme that vocally challenged hostile public sentiment on these issues. Our manifesto only promised to review those same welfare cuts that Corbyn was elected to oppose, and on immigration, ironically we are now further to the right of the substantive position that the mug represented, with Corbyn committing Labour to the end freedom of movement and a likely reduction in overall numbers. While I understand the case for ending FOM, I remain wary that it prevents us from making a case for a clear soft Brexit model with the Norway option. Resolution Foundation director and former Ed Miliband advisor Torsten Bell criticised the manifesto from the left on benefit cuts. The party’s current position on these issues is arguably a testament to the power of trust and perception in politics — the mood music of a Corbyn Labour party simply reassures those who felt Miliband Labour to be too compromising. But I’m not sure where that leaves us on what we do next on these issues. It is still not clear whether there is public appetite for us to be more vocal and the lesson may be to de-emphasise them and focus on the more populist bread-and-butter issues Corbyn clearly capitalised on, but that is still deeply challenging for Labour.
Lastly, while the Labour party exists to win elections and change this country for the better, and any leader who brings us success is owed respect on those grounds, at the same time there has never been any obligation for party members of any faction to silence ourselves on points of genuine principle, solely in deference to party unity. Tony Blair winning three elections outright and anchoring us in government for 13 transformative years did not make Iraq, PFI or light-touch financial regulation okay, or stop critics expressing understandable distaste for his partnerships with the likes of Rupert Murdoch or tin-pot dictators. Corbyn himself served as an MP under five leaders and never shrunk from challenging any of them. Those of us who harbour objections to Corbyn’s various past associations, opposition to liberal interventionism, performance at the time of the EU referendum and inadequacy on anti-Semitism should neither be asked nor feel the need to drop our values completely at the door.
On anti-Semitism in particular, Thursday’s results did include a reminder of the damage our party’s failings has done. While Sadiq Khan was right when he said securing Jewish votes is the “sixth, seventh, eighth issue” behind the need for Labour to simply ensure Jewish Britons feel safe with us at all as a mainstream party, on a brilliant night in London when we even picked off Kensington, this issue arguably left Labour just short of taking seats like Hendon, Finchley & Golders Green and notably Chipping Barnet. All Labourites are always entitled to want to keep our party’s conscience clear and to speak out whenever necessary.
Corbyn will now lead Labour for as long as he wishes. But while we should not agitate against that, I would also suggest that after a time, a discussion about the handover to a fresher figure that even some Corbynites had advocated might be neccesary for us to advance further, before the next election comes. Corbyn hugely improved his leadership ratings and Labour’s floor in this campaign, but not all of the past can ever be erased and we can’t rule out the possibility that breaking through the ceiling that remains might require a younger figure from the party’s left to pick up the torch and appeal to voters who still could not back Corbyn as prime minister. And ideally, the next leader should also break the party’s other ceiling - the glass one holding back our many talented women.
This turned out to be a great election for Labour. But what we all do next together will be crucial.