At the end of 2016, when I reviewed Labour’s annual performance, I said that Jeremy Corbyn had defied expectations.
In a crowded field, Corbyn was, in my view, the most incompetent politician of the year – defeating, amongst others, Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump and David Cameron.
Corbyn’s authority had been repeatedly challenged by his parliamentary party. He had been scolded for his lacklustre attitude to the EU referendum. And Labour was languishing in the opinion polls. The party had not taken such a battering since the barren 1980s.
This year, however, Labour’s position is different. Even if a general election victory evaded the party, Corbyn has overseen a marked improvement in its prospects.
In the twilight of 2017, Corbyn can be certain that few political leaders have been more successful over the past 12 months. Here's how he did it:
Before the 2017 general election campaign, Corbyn’s dislike of the media was palpable. He pilloried the press in speeches – describing the ‘mainstream media’ as a Murdoch-controlled limb of the Conservative Party. He often turned down interview opportunities and, during sporadic television appearances, was impatient and prickly – oozing with chronic paranoia.
During the 2017 general election campaign, this frosty façade melted.
Corbyn made a temporary peace with the media and cultivated a warm grandfather-esque persona. He was not dazzlingly funny, nor charismatic. If anything, he was a bit awkward. But, in the face of tough questioning, Corbyn often chuckled and delivered a good-humoured response, rather than sending a volley of short-tempered remarks back at the interviewer.
This supernatural transformation allowed him to comfortably repel Conservative attacks. How could this man – a slightly shabby, self-effacing allotment lover – be a neo-Stalinist IRA sympathiser? The Conservatives tried to construct a gnarled effigy of Corbyn – depicting him as dangerous; sinister. The Labour leader made this image seem ridiculous.
Yet, Corbyn not only improved his approach to the mainstream media. He also dominated the digital realm – dwarfing the efforts of every other political leader. Labour’s digital strategy was lightyears ahead of its rivals. While the Conservatives posted stale campaign slogans and videos of staged-managed campaign events, Corbyn’s team deployed witty, improvised films – capturing the grassroots enthusiasm surrounding Labour’s campaign.
Full disclosure: I’m still sceptical about the impact of digital campaigning on the election result, if only because the press likes to exaggerate the influence of novel and outwardly exciting phenomena, for the sake of good headlines. However, Corbyn deserves credit for getting behind Labour’s social media effort. Embracing new ideas takes bravery, especially during an all-important general election campaign.
The price of principles
Corbyn’s groupies and detractors tend to agree on one thing: that the Labour leader is principled - someone who will hold steadfast to his beliefs and fight for the little guy, even if it’s politically unpopular.
It’s remarkable that Corbyn continues to emit this altruistic glow, despite all evidence to the contrary.
During the snap election campaign, the Labour leader was a cold-headed pragmatist. For vast majority of his political career, Corbyn has supported immigration, including EU free movement. However, when the political costs were weighed in the run-up to June, this open-border stance was shelved. Corbyn flipped his party’s immigration policy, and announced that free movement would end under a Labour government.
This strategy was designed to win over a coalition of anti-establishment, pro-Brexit voters, and it was largely successful. Four months before the snap election, the Conservatives had won Copeland – a working-class, pro-Brexit (formerly Labour) constituency. If the Copeland result would have been echoed nationwide in June, Labour would have been savaged. Corbyn’s change of direction on immigration (combined with his public sector campaigning) allowed Labour to poach some former UKIP voters and resist otherwise inevitable Conservative incursions in the Midlands and the North.
The notion that Corbyn has sacrificed his principles for electoral gain is widely rejected, possibly because it seems so implausible. But, at present, many aspects of politics are counter-intuitive, bordering on fanciful. For example, it is similarly mindboggling that Jeremy Corbyn has superseded Tony Blair as the king of triangulation (the act of positioning your party between two opposing ideas, in theory satisfying proponents of both). Corbyn managed to convince a decent amount of former UKIP voters in the North that he backed Brexit. Meanwhile, a large proportion of his millennial cheerleaders, who hate Brexit, (still) believe that he wants to stop it from happening. An astonishing 55% of students think that Labour’s policy is to reverse the EU referendum result.
And Corbyn has not just triangulated on immigration and the European Union. During the election campaign, Corbyn failed to promise that the benefits freeze would be reversed. Thus, he effectively supported aggressive fiscal responsibility – a notion that could have been lifted directly from George Osborne’s political playbook. A tightened benefits purse would, at one time, have been brutalised by Corbyn and his allies – most probably resulting in a viral, vitriolic Commons rant from Dennis Skinner.
Yet Corbyn’s allies were silent, either because they had been strong-armed, or because they agreed with the Labour leader – believing that they had to dilute their doctrines to stand a chance in the election. You might not agree ideologically with Corbyn’s policies during the snap election, but in many ways his decisions were politically astute, and they helped Labour to avoid electoral humiliation.
That said, the purpose of politics is not simply to avoid humiliation (even if it’s the sole ambition of the Liberal Democrats at the minute). The purpose of politics is to win power, to govern effectively, and to enact policies. Labour is not running the country, even if the party is operating more successfully than at any point since 2010. So, amidst the Corbyn hysteria, what ultimately went wrong for Labour in 2017?
A successful failure
After swaggering out of Downing Street to announce the snap election, Theresa May returned just a few months later with near-fatal political wounds. Yet, the Prime Minister still limps on. The Labour Party failed to displace the Tory government – losing to the most calamitous campaign in modern political history.
The question is: why?
There is a commonplace argument in pro-Corbyn circles at the moment, which goes something like this:
Labour came from so far back during the election campaign. Jeremy did an amazing job to even get us close.
This argument treats the snap election as a stand-alone political event, with neither context nor foregrounding. In reality, Labour’s ineptitude prior to the campaign had a significant impact on the result, and it was largely Corbyn’s fault that the party began with a 20-point handicap.
History is written by the victors (as are good quotes. Google the phrase and you’ll see it attributed to Churchill, Napoleon and pretty much every major historical figure). In this case, Corbyn and his lackeys were able to write Labour’s account of the snap election, because they proved their internal doubters wrong. In a logical inconsistency worthy of Boris Johnson, their story gives full agency to Corbyn for Labour’s performance during the election campaign, yet strips Corbyn of agency for anything that happened prior to April 2017.
For the first quarter of this year, Labour was – rightly – viewed as impotent. Serious commentators suggested that the SNP was the effective opposition in the House of Commons. This incompetence could have been intentional; a cunning plan to lull the Tories into a false sense of security – enticing them to call a general election. But I doubt British politics has reached this level of absurdity just yet. Labour’s ineptitude stemmed from a poor director who struggled to land a punch on a clearly deficient Prime Minister.
Oh Jeremy Corbyn
Corbyn’s lack of self-accountability can be explained, at least in part, by his aura of invincibility. He has developed a messianic status within the party. Messiahs, of course, don’t have flaws, so all of Corbyn’s personal failings are attributed to malevolent Blairites and scheming dissident.
This Corbyn-reverence is frankly creepy, but it’s also dishonest and thus self-destructive. Voluntary blindness is breeding intellectual and political laziness in the Labour ranks. There is a central misplaced idea that Labour will win a future election because it pulled back so much ground during the 2017 election campaign.
However, modern-day elections are unpredictable. It is a risk (and an act of stupefying self-belief) to believe that your party will be successful in an upcoming ballot (held at an unknown point in the near or distant future) because you were (moderately) successful in a recent ballot. This self-confidence is particularly jarring because the snap election was called in haste and fought under exceptional circumstances. The state of Brexit as seen in June 2017, for example, will not be repeated.
In fact, there are a number of factors – beyond Brexit – that will prevent the next general election from being a repeat of 2017. For one, Corbyn will be a known quantity. If a general election is held in 2022, as is currently scheduled, Corbyn will have been Labour leader for seven years and will, of course, have fought one general election already. This will reduce the surprise and excitement surrounding Labour’s campaign. We will have seen all of Corbyn’s baubles before. There’s also a good chance that the Conservatives will have appointed a new leader – someone who has not been bruised by Brexit negotiations. Labour cannot guarantee that their greatest electoral asset – Theresa May – will bless them again.
Labour’s strategy is to push for a new general election in 2018, to capitalise on its position of strength. Yet the Conservative ranks tighten whenever Corbyn issues a call to arms. With every passing month, the Tories become more certain that the PM should sit tight for as long as possible. They believe that, as the exceptional conditions of 2017 fade, a Labour victory will no longer be a safe bet.
Theresa May is teetering on the edge of disaster, according to Corbyn's team, and the snap election is said to be the cause. In time, though, 2017 might not be celebrated quite so gleefully in Labour circles. If the Conservatives regroup and rebuild, it could well be seen as a decisive missed opportunity.
Sam Bright is the Director of Backbench