What was the real lesson of this month’s general election? Was it that Labour is far from done? Was it that the Tories are still too toxic to win well? Was it that the young have decided never again to leave their destiny in the hands of the old? Perhaps it was all of lessons or none. More poignantly, I believe the lesson was that, in politics, complacency kills.
Theresa May, urged on by her entire inner circle, the pollsters and the irresistible pull of political gravity, simply could not lose a general election to Labour. More than this, she couldn’t fail to win handsomely. Except that she did lose, just as all the parties lost. And now Britain is led by losers. Thank you, Mother Theresa, for everything.
In Theresa May’s case, in fact, it was something far darker than complacency which led to her humiliation at the hands of the electorate. It was hubris. The British people have a great nose for BS, and when the Prime Minister called a snap election with the casus belli that she needed her own mandate for the Brexit negotiations, the voters smelled a rat.
And when Her Royal Stableness doubled down on this false narrative with her baseless claim that only she – the untested, silent prime minister – could provide “strong and stable leadership”, she was roundly rebuffed by her more grownup electors. Hubris, remember, has done for British leaders in the past.
Thatcher, Blair and Cameron all suffered from delusions of grandeur, overestimated their powers and were punished. Even Churchill was booted unceremoniously out of office in 1945 when he tried to convince the electorate that Labour wanted to introduce a British Gestapo. Theresa May, like doomed prime ministers past, flew too close to the sun, and now she will never fly again.
Which brings us to Labour who, by all accounts, had a much better election than expected. I was certainly flabbergasted and thrilled when it became apparent that Labour’s predicted wipe-out had not only been averted, but Labour was in fact making significant vote share and seat gains. In the emotion of the moment, I penned a letter of apology to Jeremy Corbyn, which I stand by, despite continuing to have some very grave doubts – not least about how we as a party are dealing with anti-Semitism.
But here’s the thing. We still lost. No – I’m not putting a downer on it. That’s how it is. We lost against one of the most useless prime ministers of the last one hundred years, who leads a party that most people only ever support out of a sense of grim necessity, not enthusiasm. And the danger now is that a “one more heave” mentality sets in – just as it did in 1987 – and we delude ourselves that all we need are a few million more conversations, and a few dozen more retail policies.
We need much more than this. We need somehow to unite our new coalition of young, enthusiastic supporters in urban centres with our traditional working-class support base – the latter of which continued to turn away from us and towards the Tories in the election just gone. What we don’t need – what we must guard against more than all other threats – is complacency.
I’ve no doubt that the Labour Party will remain on a sound election footing and that, when the time comes, we will once again campaign across the country with enthusiasm and hope and vigour. But we need to do so humbly – not as evangelists, but as messengers on behalf of the people.
Otherwise we will claim the dubious mantle of complacency that we should really leave Theresa May to have all to herself. Let’s enjoy the sunshine while it lasts, but for Heaven’s sake, let’s not fly towards it.