So much about the recent election confounds analysis, but the most confounding thing of all was the difference between what most people thought this election was going to be about, and what it actually ended up being about. This was meant to be the Brexit election, a referendum on who the country wanted to lead Britain into the upcoming negotiations, one which Theresa May was expecting to win handily.
It ended up being an election about the kind of society that Britain wants to be: a referendum on austerity politics, intergenerational politics, the way we fund our public services, and the way Britain deals with the challenge of an ageing population. Former UKIP voters who, before the election, were widely expected to ‘go home’ to the Conservatives ended up being divided between the two main parties, confirming what many of us suspected: that the UKIP vote was, at least in part, a protest vote.
It’s also striking how little inroads the Conservatives managed to make into Leave voting Labour heartlands. Labour won large amounts of seats in their traditional strongholds of the north of England and south Wales, taking more than 50% of the vote in many of these areas despite heavy majorities for Leave. The Conservatives took a few seats in the East Midlands (Mansfield and North East Derbyshire) that could be attributed to Brexit, but that was really about it.
For someone often characterised as a left-wing ideologue, there’s something cunningly “Third Way” about the broad coalition that Corbyn managed to build between Leave voters and young, idealistic voters who believe in building a more fair and equitable society. Staking the election on the issue of public services was a deliberate and shrewd move not just because it is a strong Labour issue, but because public services unites hard-up Leave voters and liberal elites like no other. The Tories had no real answer to this line of attack, and when Amber Rudd told someone who had been denied their disability living allowance on Question Time that there was “no magic money tree”, it simply came over as callous.
At the same time, Labour benefitted from Corbyn’s refusal to compromise on Brexit. The decision to put a three line whip on the Article 50 vote now looks incredibly shrewd: Labour couldn’t be accused of trying to frustrate Brexit, but they came into the election that they were looking to protect workers rights. Labour also understood better than Conservatives what motivated Brexit – again and again the Conservatives talked about “getting the best possible deal” on Brexit, which is fundamentally an argument about commerce, trade and the 1%. By campaigning strongly on the issue of a “workers Brexit” Labour was able to ensure its working class vote held up.
Of course, Labour didn’t “win” the election. The damage done by the financial crisis to Labour’s brand continues to be an issue for Labour, and Labour are still seen by some as a party of tax-and-spend. The party still has some way to go to regain the trust of the electorate on the economy, and convince a public that Corbyn is really up to being Prime Minister without the press being on side. None of this will be easy, and although the Tories are in crisis now, they are unlikely to be for long. Corbyn also faces the invidious choice of whether to invite some of his former detractors back into his shadow Cabinet (and how to avoid diluting his message if he does so).
However, Labour are now much closer to power than they were two months ago, and they are no longer the only party with difficult choices to make. The Conservatives are going into a confidence-and-supply arrangement with the homophobic and anti-abortion DUP, with all the negative impact on the Tory brand that that will bring. You can say what you want about the traditional attitudes of shire Tories, but they are a world away from the attitudes of the DUP. Theresa May stands a much-diminished figure, her credibility damaged, perhaps fatally. For all the right wing Press has parroted the line that “Labour lost”, the Tories don’t seem much like winners at the moment. The table-banging of the 1922 committee only served to re-emphasize that the Tories don’t really have many other options right now.
The question is now more about where Labour and the left goes from here. Labour needs to learn from the successes of this campaign. Momentum, much maligned before the campaign as a front group for Corbyn, produced some of the biggest social media hits of the campaign, including a video that was viewed over 7 million times. It’s vital that Labour builds on their success of these campaigns, enabling Labour to wrest back control. There was something incredibly old-fashioned about the static “repeat one message continuously” nature of the Conservative campaign. In an age of social media and fast news cycles, the Conservatives came over as rigid and inflexible. I’m not a believer in Facebook micro-targeting swinging elections, but believe that Labour made up some ground there too.
Labour also needs to find a way to keep its young supporters engaged and on a permanent campaign footing now the election is over. The left can’t settle back into trying to protect Corbyn at all costs, he now needs to look like a Prime Minister in waiting. Gaffes and flights of fancy about handing back the Falklands have to go, and to an extent, “Jeremy being Jeremy” will have to be reigned in. As a potential PM, every word Corbyn says is going to be scrutinised like never before. Holding onto the natural flair that has kept young voters engaged while looking like a potential Prime Minister will be a difficult balancing act.
That said, this election has shown that the public are ready for a new kind of politics, and if Labour can continue to chip away at the Conservative advantage they could find themselves pushing on an open door when the next election comes around. As it stands, Labour are the only party with a positive vision for the country, and with the nationalist vote beginning to ebb in Scotland, there will be an opportunity to win seats back there too. Slowly but surely, Labour thinking is also starting to win the argument on austerity, though old orthodoxies about debt and “credit cards” still hold fast. If Labour can continue to maintain this progress, it’s genuinely all to play for at the next election.