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.