It was a couple of weeks ago, the first time I felt it. An odd twinge of… compassion? Sympathy? No, pity. And the object was Theresa May.
Less than two months ago, May was supposed to the Tories’ biggest asset. In all the campaign materials, her name and face dominated, with the words “Conservative Party” sneaking in at the bottom in tiny print. The Spectator drew her as an iron-clad icon, alongside A N Wilson breathlessly declaring a phenomenon called “Maymania”. “Mummy sweeps onwards, borne in heavenly chariots, floating above painted clouds,” he wrote – “mummy” being a nickname for May among activists. It’s a sentence that sounded fairly insane at the time and utterly deranged now.
May didn’t have to call an election, and she shouldn’t have. She bet national stability (and her party’s fortunes) on the public loving her personal brand, and has found out that twitchily reciting empty three-word slogans isn’t the magic charisma tree she thought. The “iron lady mark two” mythologising has been melted down in no time at all, with former staffers coming forward with damning stories about May’s susceptibility to the toxic influence of her key advisors, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill. Whatever in May looked decisive and commanding at the start of the election, now looks antsy and autocratic.
Since May declared the 2017 general election, I’ve been routinely waking up stricken with fear for the Labour Party. Every morning, a different MP with an endangered majority would cycle through my thoughts – Rupa Huq! Kerrie McCarthy! Wes Streeting! Jess Phillips??!!!?? – until I held the panic down. My general emotional life felt not unlike constantly trying to catch balloons under a blanket on a very windy day.
When the exit polls came in as I was headed to the Bath count (I was acting as a counting agent for Labour), my first reflex was relief. My second was embarrassment at being wrong, again; but to be honest, I’m inured to my badness at political predictions now. Political writing is not fortune telling and anyone who puts their money where my mouth is, is frankly a fool to themselves.
I’m interested in why I’m so bad at predictions, though. People who are really into politics are at a weird disadvantage when it comes to understanding what’s going on in the country as a whole, because our experience of politics is so unlike most people’s. We know more, but what we know colours our perception in unrepresentative ways. Stephen Bush’s point, that elections are won and lost in the news blips that punctuate music radio and the headlines of the Six O’Clock News, is a really important one. So, here are some thoughts on where I was wrong:
I was wrong to think the public wouldn’t take to Corbyn
The things that formed my opinion about Corbyn are things that simply don’t break through to the electorate as a whole. They haven’t watched the excruciating Vice documentary or read the miserable accounts of his botched leadership. They’ve seen his sparkling campaign performances, and heard clear consistent policies.
None of Labour’s manifesto commitments were as antagonistic as the Tories’ attempts to bring back fox hunting, or the “dementia tax” – May’s decision to pick those fights now lying among the most bathetic rubble of her hubris (although, it’s strange times when using surplus capital to pay for old-age care is the bad Tory policy, and free food for middle-class kids is the good Labour one).
Another thing: I’d got used to assuming that the public had accepted austerity, but it’s only relatively recently that cuts have started to really affect a big demographic of voters. (For example: my main local library was threatened with movement to cheaper, inferior accommodation this year. People were not happy.) That matters, I think.
Corbyn was key to this success, but the whole party earned it
Labour’s gains this election are phenomenal, especially bearing in mind the “floor” that the local election results suggested. What changed? More Theresa May in public, for one thing: she nosedived astonishingly from being the Tories’ perceived main asset to being barely visible, cancelling appearances and looking deeply uncomfortable when she did show up. But also: more Corbyn, and Corbyn at his best.
I don’t know how far voters were voting for him as a potential PM, and how far they bought the line (used by many Labour candidates on the doorstep to defray anti-Corbyn sentiment) that Corbyn was so far behind, backing a Labour candidate did not risk putting him in Number 10. Either way, Corbyn was not the drag I feared he would be; he was an asset. But – and I think this is important – the electorate did not vote as Corbynites. Majorities went up regardless of an MP’s Corbyn-orientation.
Harriet Harman, hate figure of the hard left for reasons that are nonsense if you understand parliamentary procedure (see point above about knowing politics skewing your view): up. The Traitor Phillips of “stab him in the front” fame: up. Thangam Debbonaire, whose account of trying to serve in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet while being treated for cancer was one of the most damning of the leadership contest: up. Failed challenger Owen Smith: up. Liz flipping Kendall: up. The party has a mandate to pull behind Corbyn. Equally, all MPs are owed the leaderships’ (and memberships’) support.
Corbyn got non-voters voting
I thought turnout would be down in this election; instead it was up. That’s something I’m very happy to have been wrong about. He also pulled in a young vote – although I’d like to see the “triumph of the youth” analysis cool its boots until the actual figures are in, because it’ll be interesting to see how much swing there was among older voters shaken up by the “dementia tax” stuff. Also, Labour seems to have been the main beneficiary of Ukip’s collapse, which again is not quite the demographic Corbynite dreams are made of.
Corbyn is a proper politician now
The election campaign wound out with Corbyn going to town on Theresa May over police cuts. That’s Corbyn, who has never previously given the impression of being a law-and-order candidate. More than that: his supporters, including those from the all-cops-are-bastards tendency, went with it. In other words, Corbyn – and Corbynites – have got the hang of opportunism. That’s good, because no one ever got anywhere in politics without playing the main chance. But it’s also another step away from the “different kind of politics” narrative.
The tabs don’t rule anymore (the replacement might be worse though)
The Sun, the Mail and the Express threw everything at Corbyn. It didn’t work. The question of how much front pages shift, rather than shadow, public opinion is an old one, but what’s important here is that Corbyn could rise above because the internet gives other ways to reach voters. Great! Except, those ways are substantially comprised of a Wild West of viral Facebook content that has all the partisanship of the right-wing tabloids (in the opposite direction) combined with non-existent reporting standards. That doesn’t feel like a massive win for democracy to me.
Some facts haven’t changed
Up until the YouGov polls, all the evidence said Corbyn was leading the party to general election disaster. But – for several reasons, some of which I’ve suggested above – the disaster didn’t come. Arguments about Corbyn’s electoral toxicity are over. Other issues, though, remain.
Being a tremendous campaigner is an undeniable positive during a campaign, but he also needs to lead in parliament. His track record there is unpromising. This time, MPs will be far more ready to fall in behind him: success relies on him being able to change his style too. (And, to be fair, there have been some good signs. Remember when Labour had that decent Easter recess recently?)
Corbyn’s approach on Brexit is not as much of a tautological shambles as May’s, but we still don’t actually know what Labour’s plan is. His shrugging ambivalence has served him fairly well so far: as angry as his indolence over the EU referendum makes me, I don’t think a pro-Remain Labour leader could have made these gains. But there is a limit to shrugging, especially now Corbyn is installed at the front of a resurgent opposition.
And then, for me, the big ones. Corbyn is still the guy who has batted away concerns about misogynistic and anti-Semitic abuse. He’s still problematic on Northern Ireland. As tempting as it is to hit back with “BUT THE TORIES AND THE DUP!”, the two things don’t cancel each other out: they make each other worse.
The easiest thing in the world at this point would be to to set aside those concerns and treat Corbyn as a normal, mainstream politician. What actually needs to happen is for Corbyn to show clearly that he gets why these are structural problems and cut off the associations that give succour to them. Not only to expel Livingstone from the party, but to create the conditions where a Livingstone incident can never happen again.
Already I’ve had conversations with Labour members who are slipping into the “well he’s not responsible for every nutter” and “Livingstone is stupid but not anti-Semitic, and anyway what about Islamophobia?” lines. Not good enough. Corbyn is specifically implicated in anti-Semitism. His support for Hamas and Hezbollah led the Daily fucking Stormer to endorse him (no I’m not going to link), and if you think that Murdoch backing Blair was damning, please have a bloody think on.
Most of my prediction errors come down to me rounding up the probabilities to fit my moral tolerances. I couldn’t bear the thought of Brexit, so I reasoned that Remain would benefit from an “incumbency effect”, even though that’s not a thing in referendums. The idea of President Trump made me wake up screaming, so I told myself the close polls would resolve into Clinton victory.
This time, it’s harder to get a handle on where my biases were: horrified at the prospect of Labour being decimated, for sure, but also terrified that a Corbyn success would normalise all his abhorrent associations. The party dodged the first magnificently. Now it has to take on the second.
The journey from the village of Cottesmore in the East Midlands county of Rutland to the town of Oakham is four miles. It takes about 40 minutes by bus, which runs only every two hours. I lived in Rutland until I was 18 and this bus was one of several things about the area that made leaving an absolute imperative. This time, though, I’m just visiting. To an outsider’s eye, the gently rolling farmland and wooded avenues we meander through are beautiful.
Signs for the Plough, the Wheatsheaf and the Fox and Hounds slide past: pub names that suggest an ideal of rustic England. As the bus collects its passengers, it fills up with chat: who didn’t make this journey last week because they were working late shifts, what’s been happening at the depot. Everyone really does seem to know everyone else but then there aren’t that many people to know in Rutland. As well as being England’s smallest county, this is also one of the most sparsely populated, with just 38,000 residents.
This extraordinary election has seen one horrible irony for women traded for another. At the start of the campaign, when Theresa May looked to turn her high personal ratings (lol) into an even higher Conservative majority (lololol), it seemed that the UK’s second female prime minister was going to bring about a depressing decline in female MPs: because only Labour has a substantial record of getting women into parliament (thank you, all-women shortlists), anything that hurts Labour hurts sexual equality on the benches.
Back when a 1930s style collapse seemed plausible (lololololol), names on the line included Jess Phillips and Thangam Debbonaire, among other redoubtable feminists who have brought their feminist politics into parliament. Well that didn’t happen. Instead, Labour’s surge saw Phillips add 10,000 votes to her majority; Debbonaire’s vote share went from 33.7 per cent to a dizzying 65.9 per cent.
Instead of losing women, Westminster gained a record intake of them. And the Tories lost, lost, lost (one final lol here). But this is where the next irony comes in, because the only way for the now-diminished Tories to form a government is for them to join a coalition with the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland. And a ruling coalition that includes the DUP is profoundly bad news for women.
The idea that all of us have a self – essential, irreducible and inherently valuable – is something that’s accepted across social divisions, party-political lines and ideological differences. The mere suggestion that the existence of the self is a belief rather than a natural law can induce the scratchy, uncomfortable feeling of cognitive dissonance. Yet, Will Storr argues in Selfie, it is only a belief: in reality, human beings are inchoate creatures, acting under influences we barely comprehend and creating post-hoc rationalisations for our behaviour to sustain the fiction of coherent identity. And this is all just in the first chapter.
Beyond the patricide and even the incest, the horror of the Oedipus myth lies in its insistence that our fates are not ours to change. And yet the story itself is far from unalterable, having been handed down in multiple variants — something that Natalie Haynes knows very well as a classics scholar. Now Haynes has written her own version of the tragedy, finding new space in the narrative by looking at it through the eyes of two characters neglected by antiquity: Oedipus’s mother/bride Jocasta and their youngest daughter Ismene.
Tomorrow I will go and vote, and when I vote – for Labour – I will feel a heavy despair, and I will recite again all the arguments that got me as far as the booth in the first place. That the candidate is a solid local councillor, who I want to see do well. That I am a party member, and signed up to clause one. That Labour is a party that has brought growth and redistribution in government, the party of the Equality Act, the only party with a feminist record. That I am voting for, effectively, the party of Harriet Harman; only I’m not, because given first-past-the-post and the constituency I live in, my vote is not going to help to elect any Labour MPs.
My vote will, in the end, only be useful to one member of the parliamentary Labour party, and that’s Jeremy Corbyn. If this general election ends on a Tory victory, and if (more on these ifs in a second) that precipitates another contest for the Labour leadership, the size of the Labour vote this time will be an important part of Corbyn’s case for staying on.
At the start of this election, I was sure of two things: that Labour would lose, and that Corbyn was unconscionable as a party leader and prime minister. Now I’m somewhat less confident about the first, and still absolutely certain about the second. Since April, Labour have advanced impressively in the polls. Well, some polls. I didn’t foresee that. But then, I didn’t foresee Theresa May being as cataclysmically awful on the campaign trail as she has been. Charmless, robotic and authoritarian, yes. Frightened, flaky and often absent, no. Whereas Corbyn, of course, has been in his element: relaxed, confident, even (and this is painful to say) likeable. He can’t lead a party, but can he ever do a campaign.
I also didn’t foresee a situation where, somehow, Corbyn was outflanking May on security. Perhaps I should: her greatest weaknesses as a PM have always had a tight crossover with the qualities that helped her stay in the Home Office so long (controlling, combative, reluctant to delegate), so it figures that her record in Home should also be a millstone. Any security failings and police funding cuts that might have contributed to the recent attacks are on her, and there is no way to strong-and-stable her way out of it.
Yet this leaves us in the extraordinary position where Corbyn – friend of Hamas, ally to the IRA – is posturing as a bulwark against terror. Those alliances speak, too, of the ways in which he is simply unsupportable as a leader (or should be simply unsupportable, anyway: this would not be the first election where I found myself standing well wide of the electorate, clutching my ragged principles).
Hamas is an explicitly anti-Semitic organisation (or was so, anyway, until it reformed its constitution last month). He took money from the theocratic, anti-Semitic, LGBT-persecuting Iranian regime to appear on the Iranian state broadcast network, Press TV. Corbyn has failed abjectly to acknowledge the moral seriousness of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, or to assert his leadership against it. On Ireland, Corbyn’s decision to sit out the EU referendum was simply reprehensible, given the dependence of the Good Friday Agreement on open borders. There is no sign that he even now appreciates what is at risk. Why would he, when peace in Ireland is one of those New Labour achievements that we are now apparently supposed to repudiate along with everything else “Blairite”?
Corbyn has shown deep carelessness when it comes to women’s representation in Labour; and of course, when misogynistic abuse was committed by his supporters and in his name, his reaction was merely to “condemn all abuse”, as though he were simply a hapless bystander rather than the inspiration for it. I don’t give a hoot whether he has support from women, by the way. I care that his policies and actions have been objectively bad for women.
For his supporters, none of these things matter. They’re smears, or fake news, or tabloid distractions intended to prevent a Truly Left-Wing Leader from reaching Number 10. His high-ranking supporters have gradually peeled off, but his rallies are still vast. The devotion he inspires is still passionate in a way usually reserved for popes, or pop stars. And yet – if Corbyn’s supporters are standing in parks to catch his megaphoned words, or lining up to get a touch of his hand, who’s knocking on doors? Who’s manning the phone banks?
Away from the ultras of politics, all I have heard this election is that people would rather not be having it. The electorate is done with voting. The one pledge that seems to be a guaranteed loser this year, for both the Lib Dems and the SNP, has been the promise of another referendum. No one wants it. Meanwhile, Labour candidates report a frosty reception on the doorstep. Historically, that’s a sure sign of a bad result to come. The local election results point to the same. If so, that means a terrible blood-letting of Labour MPs – a huge injury to the party’s ability to rebuild, a huge injury to women’s representation, a huge injury to politics.
If Corbyn loses but exceeds the worst expectations (say, it’s an ’80s level defeat rather than a ’30s level one), he still wins, because he’ll stay on. If he loses as badly as the early forecasts had it, he wins – because who will be left to replace him? If he actually wins, or if he (less implausibly) wrangles a hung parliament into premiership for himself, then of course he wins, though the likelihood is he would then revert to his off-campaign peevishness, and the UK will have a leader with all the moral integrity implied by his record on Ireland, anti-Semitism and misogyny. A better leader than Theresa May, possibly. But still.
I’m not particularly good at political predictions. The only reliable intuition I ever have really is pity: once I start to feel sorry for a politician, it’s all over. Poor wounded-bear Brown staggering into 2010. Osborne, with his endearingly odd fringe and extraordinary hi-vis clad performances of what a normal person might do in 2016. Theresa May’s twitching discomfort this year. I do not feel sorry for Corbyn. In this election, Corbyn is the house, and the house always wins. For the rest of us, there’s nothing good.