Perhaps the most poignant message that came out out of the 2015 election was that Labour had none. Nobody was quite sure where Miliband or the party stood. Decreed a son-of-a-Marxist by the right, and a soft-austerity candidate by the left, it came as no surprise that, when polled, Labour supporters were split on whether the party was too left-wing or not left-wing enough.
Fast forward two Labour leadership elections, two post-truth electoral victories, one attempt to legitimately make Michael Gove Prime Minister of the country he’s studied since parting ways with Professor Quirrell, and we now have a new political landscape.
Labour have long struggled to form a coherent opposition or certainly an identifiable one. From ‘the longest suicide note in history ’, to Kinnock, to Blair, to Miliband, the trouble has been uniting a fundamentally divided faction of politics on a number of issues. Chuck in a smattering of Scottish nationalism, surging Greens, views on the EU, and a waning Liberal party to fundamentally keep the left further from a progressive alliance than Boris Johnson from being described as ‘measured’.
The task in 2017 was simple, then. Provide an opposition that can unite nationalists (Scottish and English), the young, socialists, the ‘remoaners’ and the apathetic all under the one banner we call Labour. Now I’m not saying Labour won, but gaining seats when less than a year ago it looked more likely we would be reduced to the political equivalent of Zoolander 2 is quite a turn-up.
The turning point, and I’m still not sure if this is the greatest piece of media-trickery ever or dumbfounded luck, was the ‘leak’ of the Labour party manifesto 5 days before its intended release. What this did was create a debate around the actual merit of the policies within it without actually having them formally declared. All of which hinged on the simple means of actually costing the ruddy thing, it’s the sad political equivalent of earning extra marks by showing your working on a GCSE Maths question.
This was supposedly the manifesto that Miliband wanted to release but didn’t have the conviction to do so under fear of ‘suicide note’ comparisons. An example would be Miliband’s pledge to drop university fees to £6,000, which satisfied absolutely nobody from any part of the political spectrum and one he couldn’t even sell to himself. But what was different about the 2017 descendant, was that it unapologetically contained popular and costed democratic socialist policies which the Leader had always supported (well, most of them).
I mention popular, because as Paxman pointed out in the leaders interview, Corbyn is a long-standing supporter of a British republic and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and yet these policies didn’t make their way in. This, though, is the seeming choice for a man to compromise on core beliefs after intense electoral appraisal, or what would be like trying to sell common decency to Kelvin Mackenzie. It showed that the largely public-backed policies like re-nationalisation of the railways, four new bank holidays and a pay rise for public service workers created a positive message that things might not be so bleak and so compulsory.
I mention costed, because, as everybody knows ,if Labour make a pledge, it must be costed. Whereas if the Tories offer the same policy, then it is good, sensible economics. This was no more glaringly obvious than May’s ‘cap’ on energy prices which came straight out of the book of Miliband. “Flawed in practically every detail” said the Times in 2015, “crackdown on energy rip-offs” said the Mail in 2017. Yes, the Labour manifesto sums were large this time round, and a lot rested on a genuine belief that corporate and individual tax avoidance schemes could be recuperated, but John McDonnell had come up with sums that supposedly didn’t tax the bottom 95% of people, and on paper, they added up.
Conservative commentators of course dismissed them out of hand, themselves planting the ‘magic money tree ’ line which is perhaps my favourite phrase in politics as it could’ve been / definitely was written by a child. But the shameless arrogance of not costing their own manifesto was to be the Icarus to their hopes of a completely un-checked blank cheque from the electorate. Theresa May herself was heckled on her leader’s appearance after dismissing Labour sums, and for me this was the first time I thought that maybe Labour might’ve been changing their image of economic competence. People have short memories in politics, but the post-recession tarnishing of Labour’s grip on the economy lasted longer than usual and consumed Miliband. In the same 2015 TV interviews, Miliband was groaned at for dismissing the idea Labour had previously borrowed too much in government and didn’t explain his position well enough. Corbyn by all accounts would borrow more in power, but its the conviction and unapologetic nature of the 2017 efforts that legitimised this economic narrative. Despite all logic dictating that more borrowing would be more unpopular, Labour actually presented a credible economic alternative to the Tories that could unite those who opposed austerity.
The manifesto was a result of member consultation and shadow cabinet democratisation, that led to popular and costed polices with a focus on ‘hope’ that frankly came within a staffers playlist of appropriating Blair’s ‘Thing’s can only get better ’. The policies in the manifesto naturally won back Green & socialist votes, presented an alternative to Indyref2 obsessed Scottish Nationalism, and pledged the public service funding that is genuinely wanted by many Brexit voters and the Labour heartlanders who voted for UKIP. But what was perhaps most striking for Labour support, was that by positioning themselves as accepting Brexit through a three line whip and honouring to protect the basic social rights enjoyed under the EU which were under threat from a Tory ‘hard-Brexit’, the remoaners were faced with a simple choice between Corbyn’s Labour or a Lib-Dem protest vote that never polled above 11% . This was the cleavage that led heavily remain backing constituencies to support Labour; Leamington Spa and Warwick (59% remain ) gained from the Conservatives, while Labour won the richest seat in Britain with Kensington (68% remain). Think about that, Kensington, and all it took was Comrade Jez?
Striking, yes, but the last piece of the puzzle came from an assumed, but unexpected youth and first-time voter turn out. Milifandom was entertaining but never substantial, whilst the Brexit vote deprived scores of young people the chance to have their say in what must have felt like watching Andrew Lloyd Weber take your lunch whilst calling you ugly. The proof was in the pudding as 72% of 18-24-year-olds turned out, led by well crafted social media campaigns and rallied canvassing which captured young people’s imaginations.
So, what do we have at the end of this? A formerly loathed leader clapped in to the commons by the same colleagues who now owe him their larger majorities, whilst his supporters are resisting the urge to write ‘I told you so’ on the moon. A leader who is now confident enough to use the same lines that the incumbent Prime Minister was so ready to decry Labour for. And that’s not even that difficult – it’s literally a basic comment on the political spectrum we are now in. This happened because Labour have a document to represent their views and a genuinely popular plan to implement in government which has been missing since 1997.
Even though there are still questions to be asked of the ‘government in waiting’, which are only going to get tougher as Labour present themselves as a seemingly more viable alternative, and though I detest to write the word ‘hope’ as it’s just the same as the inconsequential verbiage you find in horoscopes, that is exactly what the manifesto claimed to provide. Be warned of being too triumphant, but with serious execution of putting this manifesto toward the electorate, Labour finally have something to bind them together.