The July issue of Prospect has an article by Steve Richards commenting on the outcome of the 2017 general election (All shook up: this election result upended stale assumptions about “centrist” politics). There is a clear message about the judgement of most Labour MPs being seriously clouded by some false assumptions about what works in politics. After ranging over the turmoil arising from 2015 election, Brexit, Scottish independence, Bernie Sanders in the US presidential race, Emmanuel Macron’s election in France, Syriza, and the fall of the French Socialist Party he turns to our recent general election.
But despite this history of unexpected disruption, cries of disbelief greeted the 2017 general election exit poll forecast of a hung parliament and significant Labour gains. The astonishment only deepened when, as the results were counted, it became clear that Jeremy Corbyn had added a full 10 percentage points to Labour’s 2015 vote share, the biggest jump in the course of a single election by any leader of a major party since Clement Attlee in 1945.
While of course Corbyn did not win the election, he did take Labour over the 40 per cent threshold, for only the third time in the last 12 general elections. It was, by any standards, a remarkable performance. And yet almost until it happened, most Labour MPs were as despairing about their prospects as they had been last year, when 80 per cent declined to back Corbyn in a confidence vote. They were convinced he was leading them to destruction—but why?
Because lazy assumptions about some fixed “centre ground”—defined by timeless ideological co-ordinates—warped all of their assessments. Brought up on the nervy expediency of the New Labour era, most Labour MPs—like virtually the entire media commentariat—assumed that any pitch to the voters a few millimetres to the left of Tony Blair would lead to electoral slaughter. This view extended to senior BBC broadcasters who reflected on air (wrongly) that Ed Miliband had lost in 2015 because he was too left-wing. They implied, insofar as they could within the rules of impartiality, that by moving further left, Corbyn’s Labour Party was doomed.
The centre ground this year was, many pundits said, both entirely empty and aching to be filled. Tim Farron, the now former leader of the Liberal Democrats, was initially hopeful he could do just that. In the end, however, he achieved 7 per cent of the ballot, actually a touch down on the 8 per cent the Lib Dems received in their Waterloo year of 2015. The centre could not hold. Why? Because an entirely different narrative was taking shape in what has proved to be a change election. For in the UK—as across the western world—it has now transpired that much deeper forces than those studied by the pseudo-science of ideational topography are at work.
To see how the discourse has been reframed, just consider this general election campaign, and compare it with the previous two. Right across the political spectrum this time, no real attention was paid to the timetable for eliminating the deficit. No senior political figure went out of their way to stress the need for deep spending cuts, and no interviewer pressed the leaders on their plans to cut the size of the state. In the 2010 and 2015 campaigns, the deficit had been more or less the only issue. George Osborne framed the Conservatives’ 2010 campaign around his pledge to wipe out the deficit in a single parliament. Five years later, despite having failed to do this, he had the chutzpah to make the same pledge again. A gullible or partisan media danced to his tune.
We hope that all MPs who were misguided enough to join in the no confidence vote against Corbyn will reflect on Steve Richards very clear point. They thought they new what politics was about, what wins and what doesn’t. They were evidently wrong and therefore should be questioning their political judgement. Just how many have the honesty, or even the ability to do that, remains to be seen. If they return to the disruptive activities aimed at the party leader of anything like the last two years then they will demonstrate a lack of political grasp so great that it will become clear that they see the Labour Party as serving them rather than the other way round.
We hope that Hounslow’s two Labour MPs read Steve Richards article and reflect on his critique of the politics of an imaginary centre. We look forward learning of their contributions to Labour Policy development so that Labour will be in a full state of readiness to life its support among the electorate still further leading to a Labour government.