13th June 2017
–By Keith Nieland-
The Mirage in the Desert
Success is often measured against expectation. When Theresa May called the General Election in April the expectation was that she would win with a thumping Commons majority, perhaps in three figures. For Jeremy Corbyn expectation was very different. He was expected to lead Labour to one of its worse defeats ever.
Never Believe the Evidence!
The evidence for these predictions was overwhelming. May enjoyed record level poll leads for both her party and her personal competence. Most weeks she wiped the floor with Corbyn at PMQs. For his part Corbyn’s Commons performances were usually appalling and listened to in silence by his own benches and often his backbenchers did not even bother to turn up. He could not form a shadow cabinet so how could he form a government? He could not command the respect of his MPs so how was he ever going to command the respect of the country?
Corbyn has views that many considered outside the British mainstream on defence, Trident renewal and foreign policy. He had in the past kept some dodgy looking company – the IRA, Hamas and Hezbollah. In over 30 years as an Member of Parliament Corbyn had not even been a minor shadow minister let alone held any office of significance. He has, as a matter of routine, voted against all the different leaders of his Party.
So what could possibly go wrong for May?
Campaign What Campaign?
The 2017 General Election turned out to be one of few where the outcome was heavily influenced by the campaign. It was almost a text book example of how to snatch defeat from the jaws of certain victory. I say ‘almost’ because the Tories did actually win albeit by the skin of their teeth with help from friends from over the water.
Quite simply May did not engage. She had no press conferences, did not turn up to debates and had no forensic examination of Labour’s manifesto. Her public appearances were obviously stage-managed and the Tory Party manifesto launch was one big bodge. How could a party so dependent on the votes of the over-60s come up with the “dementia tax” proposal? Didn’t anybody think to stress test it beforehand?
She had little to say to anyone beyond bad news and voters noticed.
It’s the Economy, Stupid!
May christened the campaign ‘the Brexit election’. She was seeking a strong mandate to take to Brussels. However, beyond a few empty platitudes, she hardly mentioned Brexit, and Corbyn even less so. Since 2010 the Tories’ ace card has been economic competence but May did not seek to built on that reputation. She made a major miscalculation by assuming voters were prepared, if not happy, to continue with austerity. After all they had endorsed it by a majority of two million votes two years ago. It turned out voters, while apparently liking the talk of deficit and debt reduction, did not like the reality and declared they had enough and wanted to move on.
Corbyn in the Wheat Fields
May’s campaign left Corbyn free to do what he does best – run a leadership campaign.
Free of the restraints and challenges of the House of Commons he was able to roam the country talking to sometimes huge adoring crowds of supporters. He talked in positive terms and used the word “hope” a lot. He promised an end to austerity and new investment in public services. He promised one of the biggest public spending binges of all times to be supported by a record level of tax take. This was wrapped in a promise that the rich would pay for it all. No mention was made of the deficit or the level of national debt or how the wealth from which the tax would be taken was to be created. The IFS had done a demolition job on Corbyn’s tax and spend plans but the arrogant, over-confident Tories did not bother to follow up.
While May was saying little, Corbyn was telling many voters what they wanted to hear, albeit it in generally vague terms. He looked good on television in comparison to May’s edgy and defensive performances. You just do not tell a nurse live on national TV who expresses concern about no pay rise for years that there is simply no magic money tree. Corbyn was left free to cultivate a wise old uncle act. He often looked like a kind, cuddly Jackanory reader.
So Corbyn toured the country making a very similar speech free from any forensic examination of his programme while instead the Tories resorted to insults. The Tories made the fatal mistake of thinking Corbyn would self destruct and that the Corbyn they see in the Commons would be the same Corbyn speaking to the crowds in the wheat fields.
But Hang on a Minute!
If May was so bad, and believe me she was, if voters had had enough of austerity, if they had rejected the “no Bexit deal is better than a bad deal” mantra, how come Labour did not win? Why couldn’t Labour overturn the narrow Tory Commons majority? Why did it feel like the loser won and the victor lost?
The answer to that goes back to the levels of expectation when the election was announced.
A few days have passed and the celebrations in the Labour ranks have calmed. If Labour is to progress further it faces some steep challenges. The reality is that the Tories won the most seats and May is planning to embed herself for a number of years. Frantic work is going on behind the scenes to present a united Tory front.
Over the weekend Twitter presented me with some interesting statistics informing me how well Corbyn did, that by some measures he actually won and that Labour is but a short skip from being landlord for Larry the Cat.
So let us have a look at the numbers that really count:
- Labour remains 56 Commons seats behind the Tories
- to close that gap they would have to gain twice the number of seats taken last Thursday
- to achieve that they would have to bank last Thursday’s popular vote number and increase it by a further one million (at least)
- Labour remains 64 seats away from a Commons majority of just one
- Labour would have to further increase its vote share by 3 to 4 per cent
- the Party is 90 plus seats away from what Blair achieved in the 1990s
- the more we revert to a two party system the more votes Labour needs to rack up in winnable seats
- for Labour to do well history tells us it also needs the Lib Dems to do well also by taking seats in more traditional Tory areas
Quite simply, to win the next election Labour needs to win more seats directly from the Tories.
It needs to win in places like Milton Keynes, Crawley and the Kent and Essex estuary seats. Some seats it would need to target have five figure Tory majorities. It would need to reverse the drift away evident in some midland and northern seats and make further gains in Scotland. Labour will need to advance further beyond the suburbs into rural areas (remember when Labour held a seat in Dorset?). It short it would need to perform well all over the country.
Socially Conservative Labour Voters and Liberal Tory Voters
What worked for Jeremy Corbyn this time will not work next time – the Tories will not underestimate him again. They will be ready and waiting.
If Labour is serious about gaining power again it will need to develop a strategy that not only appeals to its 2017 voters but also to those it needs to gain. They are more likely to be middle-of-the-road socially conservative Labour voters or more liberal Tory voters; voters who are wary of extremes, cynical about grand promises and hold more traditional values. Voters who put store in family, thrift, hard work and turning a profit.
To capture these Labour’s strategy will need to stretch towards the middle ground of politics. This is ground occupied by what some of Corbyn’s less informed supporters define as “Red Tories, Tory Lite” and sometimes worse.
Jeremy Corbyn’s 2017 manifesto was not new – it reflected views he has held for decades – nationalisation, trade union rights, higher public spending levels, more state intervention and higher corporation and high wage earner taxes. His challenge is to go beyond that with a programme even more relevant to the opportunities and promises of the 21st century that will inspire an even wider group of voters than last Thursday.
Lake of Opportunity or Desert Mirage?
Little was expected of Corbyn by many before last Thursday. His better than forecast result has saddled him with a hopefully welcome level of expectation. Will he take the view that the tried and tested is sufficient and one more heave will get Labour over the line? Will he take the view that there is more to be milked from the alliances he built last week?
If he does Labour will go backwards at the next election. If it fails to build new bridges, levels of trust among new voters, to reach out to areas which have been no-go for over 10 years, then the promise of last Thursday will be lost and the lake of opportunity will turn out to be have been a mirage in the desert.