It is weird to think that that exit poll filled our collective vision but less than two weeks ago. Like many who had wrongly predicted a far more damaging result for Labour, the shock and relief took several days to leave me. The entire political hackery was left questioning its own judgement and wondering whether, in the end, the biggest echo chamber of all was not the Labour Party, but the commentariat itself.
Against all the odds, Theresa May remains ensconced in 10 Downing Street. There will be no minority Labour government in the immediate future. There may be one later this year if the Prime Minister is dislodged and replaced either by a cravenly opportunistic mop with principles for hire, or someone more serious. Nevertheless, Labour is seemingly closer to power than at any point since 2010.
On what basis that power might be acquired, however, is a riddle wrapped inside an enigma. There is a growing belief in some quarters that a new and concrete coalition of Labour support will provide the foundations for a Labour victory at the next election. This coalition has all the hallmarks of a liberal-left fantasy, the like of which Ed Miliband and his friends at the ‘progressive alliance’ think tank, Compass, long dreamed of.
In sum, the coalition that drove Labour’s vote share up to new and far healthier levels in the General Election is formed of three parts – traditional working-class Labour supporters, affluent middle class professionals in urban centres and the young (particularly students). The problem – existential in nature – is that this first group (Labour’s traditional support) is seemingly the one which voted most reluctantly for Labour and which, in alarming numbers, shifted to the Conservatives at the election.
Whether this coalition holds together begs a deeper question altogether – what and for whom does this new Labour party stand? If two of its three pillars of support are mainly middle class, affluent and urban, then is it not possible that that third but isolated pillar – Labour’s core support – will continue to erode until it no longer stands as a key supporting element, holding the Labour Party up at the centre? Labour’s focus on scrapping tuition fees, for example, rather than actively spending more on working-class students unable to get to university does not suggest the Party is sufficiently aware of how much our core vote is at risk.
The continued erosion of Labour’s working-class support is perhaps likely, but not inevitable. The Tories remain toxic in large parts of the country, as their inability to win more than one majority this century (Labour has won two) goes to show. There is no guarantee that Labour’s core vote will continue to corrode, although it seems likely it will if the Party becomes even more preoccupied with the interests of the middle classes to the exclusion of the people for whom it was founded to serve. See John Gray’s article from yesterday and Daniel Allington’s today for more background on this.
There is no guarantee, either, that the young will continue to come out in unprecedented numbers for Labour. Nor that the Tories will go into the next election with a leader as ridiculously robotic and out-of-touch as the current prime minister. Nor that Labour will once again produce a manifesto of such clarity and verve that it knocks the Tories back on their heels. In politics, there are no certainties, as the General Election showed.
Of one thing, however, Labour has always been pretty certain – the working classes will come out to vote for the Party. But with the Tories on the march in deindustrialised Britain, reaching out unapologetically to the Britain that has been left behind, this old truism seems less certain by the day. We should be delighted that there’s still fight in the Labour Party, that it has inspired millions of young people to vote for it for the first time.
But in the end, you know, the people we are bound to fight for are not the politicised and idealised, but the forgotten masses from whom we have never seemed more remote.