“WANTED: AN OPPOSITION” proclaimed the front cover of the UK’s liberal magazine New Statesman, on its edition of March 31st this year; underneath the caption read “The Labour Party has collapsed. A hard Brexit is looming. Who will speak for Liberal Britain?” A mere twelve weeks later, on June 23rd, the magazine’s cover now said, with hardly a hint of embarrassment, “The Zombie PM: The doomed premiership of Teresa May”.
So what caused this major shift in the magazine’s view and how did this incredible turnaround in the fortunes of the two parties come about?
The short answer is a snap general election took place in between and it produced a result that very few expected. But there is also a longer answer that is worth exploring in some detail. While yes, it is true, the Conservative Party did get the most seats in the election, even King Pyrrhus might have baulked at claiming this as a victory. As the Greek biographer Plutarch reported him saying after one particularly bloody fight, “If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined.” No wonder the Conservatives are keen to avoid another contest.
After all that has happened in the last few months it is quite hard to remember that Theresa May called the election when the Tories were twenty per cent ahead in the polls and her personal rating as prime minister was a sky-high plus-thirty-six per cent. She said she did so because she wanted a strong mandate in her negotiations with the EU and to be able to deal with opposition in parliament or, as the Daily Mail charmingly put it in a headline, to “Crush the Saboteurs”. Various political commentators predicted a landslide for the Conservatives, with some even suggesting that the election could finish off the Labour Party as a major political force. But as Ted Heath, the former Conservative prime minister, discovered when he called a snap election in 1974 focused on the issue of “Who runs the country?”, you should never ask a question, particularly in politics, that you do not already know the answer to. Just as the voters reply to Heath was “Well not you, mate”, May got an equally dusty response and instead of a greatly increased majority, she managed to downsize her party by thirteen seats, lose overall control of the House of Commons and create a hung parliament. Her feeble performance during the election campaign also managed to trash her reputation as a leader, with the former chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne, describing her as a “dead woman walking”.
Meanwhile the “unelectable” leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, ran a well-organised campaign based on the most left-wing manifesto produced by the Labour Party in over a generation. Despite the dire predictions of political commentators and opinion pollsters, Labour made a net gain of thirty seats for a total of 262 with a forty per cent share of the vote. This was the highest percentage vote for an opposition party since 1970 and it was Labour’s highest share of the vote since Tony Blair’s landslide in 2001. The 9.6 per cent increase in the party’s vote share compared to the 30.4 per cent achieved in 2015 by Ed Miliband was the greatest percentage gain since 1945. So while it is true that the Conservatives did get more seats than the Labour Party, in football parlance Labour “got a result”. Figuratively speaking, they scored two away goals with the home leg still to come. So there are, in fact, many ways the election result can be seen as a victory for Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party. Thirteen million people, forty per cent of the electorate, voted for left-wing policies; Corbyn managed to attract both UKIP Leave supporters and committed Remainers; over sixty per cent of young voters supported Labour and the party won seats like Canterbury, which had been a Tory stronghold for a over hundred years and Kensington and Chelsea, the richest borough in the country.
Since the Blair era, it has always been maintained that the Labour Party could not progress if it put forward left-wing ideas as the public would not support them, but the 2017 election result has clearly disproved this notion. Labour’s manifesto, although not particularly radical, as many of the objectives were government policy in the 1970s, contained some clearly left-wing ideas such as renationalisation of public utilities and transport systems, large-scale public investment, a free National Education Service (including getting rid of university tuition fees) and increased taxation on the wealth of the richest five per cent of the population. Equally important, it was consistent in its views and did not try to accommodate itself to right-of-centre ideas on austerity, deficit reduction and fears of immigration as the previous Labour leader, Ed Miliband, had done during the 2015 campaign.
In trying to explain how political changes come about it has been suggested, with hindsight, that political ideologies operate on cycles of about thirty-five years when the hegemonic ideas of one era break down and give away to something new. Over the last hundred years a pattern of such changes can be traced in the political landscape of the UK, starting with the Liberal electoral landslide of 1906 that swept away the Conservative government of the time, to Clement Atlee’s victory for Labour in 1945. That government delivered the welfare state and a social democratic consensus but was then superseded in 1979 by Margaret Thatcher and the rise of neoliberalism. As James Callaghan, the former Labour prime minister, reflected a few days before Thatcher’s victory (with some political wisdom but also getting his excuses in early): “There are times, perhaps once every thirty years, when there is a sea change in politics. It then does not matter what you say or what you do. There is a shift in what the public wants and what it approves of.”
2017 can perhaps be seen as another watershed moment when the human cost of neoliberalism and the economic damage caused by financial austerity became too obvious to ignore and as a political philosophy it started to collapse under the weight of its own failures. By terrible coincidence, the appalling fire a few days after the election at Grenfell Tower in London, which killed at least seventy-nine people and possibly many more was, as Owen Jones, the Guardian columnist, pointed out, a stark reminder of where neoliberal ideology has led. The lack of proper regulation, the cost cutting inherent in privatisation and the inequality which condemns the poorest and most vulnerable to live in such unsafe circumstances in the borough with the most expensive housing in England are the end result of policies aimed at dismantling the public sector. For many, Grenfell Tower has become a symbol of the failure of austerity and neoliberal policies.
While the stars may have been aligned towards political change, many other factors were still needed to make the progress towards a new political context a reality. The most recent book on Jeremy Corbyn, The Candidate by Alex Nunns, published in late 2016, is described in its subtitle as the story of “Jeremy Corbyn’s improbable path to power” and that is a key point: it was improbable, and also unlikely and unexpected, as many mainstream commentators acknowledged, but that was because most of them missed (or dismissed) what was taking place. Although Nunns admits, “It was easier to imagine the famous monkey hitting random keys on the typewriter and producing the complete works of Shakespeare than hammering out a plausible story that ended with Corbyn at the helm of the Labour Party,” he identifies three main factors that were crucial in bringing Corbyn to power. These were the trade unions; Labour Party members; and the social movements and the activists of the left, particularly the anti-austerity movement. What political analysts didn’t realise when predicting the outcome of the 2017 election was that large sections of these three groups had abandoned New Labour and moved to the left since the financial crash in 2008 and the advent of the Conservative-led coalition in 2010.
In fact for the unions it was not only the last seven years of austerity; their leftward shift had been going on for a much longer period. Under the leadership of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown trade unions had been allowed far less influence on government policy than under previous Labour administrations, so they saw no reason why they should accommodate their demands to suit the party leadership. Ordinary union members were also very aware of the deterioration in their earnings since the coalition came to power and started to seek a change of direction by electing more vocal and critical union leaders. As a result, when Corbyn stood for office, many union members and their leaders were ready to take the opportunity to both gain more political influence and also support a genuinely left-wing candidate.
Similarly, many Labour Party members had become disillusioned by Tony Blair’s acceptance of neoliberal policies and his support for the UK’s disastrous involvement in the Iraq war. They had become passive and non-participative members of the party and their voices were not heard at local party meetings. These people were also open to a more left-wing approach.
The third factor that Nunns says was crucial in Jeremy Corbyn’s success and has given his campaigns their special character are the social movements that have arisen in the UK since the 2008 financial crisis. The crisis was the impetus for political protests against austerity across the world and, as the traditional parties of the left have been more or less wiped out because of their support for neoliberalism, the gap was filled by the emergence of radical left-wing parties such as Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece. In the UK, groups like the People’s Assembly Against Austerity, the Occupy movement and UK Uncut, as well as older organisations such as the Stop The War Coalition, were out on the streets organising marches and demonstrations or, in some cases, more spontaneous flash mob protests against big corporate tax avoiders like Starbucks and Apple. The kinds of people involved in these actions were diverse: long-term committed activists, members of the middle class concerned about a particular issue, local people who wanted to protect their communities, students protesting against the rise in university tuition fees to £9,000 a year. These groups were highly committed to their individual causes but many were not necessarily politically active, often taking the view that “all politicians are the same”. But the nomination of Jeremy Corbyn for the Labour leadership changed all this. Here was the activist’s activist who had been out on the streets campaigning on all these issues for over forty years. He had marched on the demonstrations and spoken at the rallies and had been involved in setting up many of these groups. As Naomi Klein, the Canadian author and anti-globalisation activist, has pointed out, there are many similarities between Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, the radical US senator who nearly won the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016, as they both have created powerful mass movements. However, Sanders did not have control of the Democratic Party and so had to create a movement outside of an institutional structure. On the other hand, although Corbyn was a committed activist, as an MP he also provided a link for people in these groups to connect with a longstanding political institution – the Labour Party.
The shift in political focus among ordinary trade unionists, party members and activists happened gradually and to a large extent went unnoticed by the Labour hierarchy. Even as late as the 2015 election defeat the parliamentary Labour Party was still thinking that the membership (and the unions) had finally realised their mistake in choosing the “wrong” Miliband as leader in 2010 (Ed instead of David) and would therefore meekly return to supporting a politician of the middle ground. Consequently the party establishment were taken completely by surprise when their choice of three centrist, austerity-lite candidates for the ensuing leadership election – Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall – failed to inspire the voters but instead opened up a space on the left that Jeremy Corbyn could move into. But as well as needing a broad constituency, a political movement also needs a mechanism that can make change possible. The irony is that, in Jeremy Corbyn’s case, the mechanism that facilitated his election was actually created by the Blairite wing of the party specifically in order to keep out left-wing ideas and undermine the power of the unions. For internal party political reasons Labour had changed its method of electing leaders in 2014. Instead of an electoral college where the MPs, unions and members each had a weighting of a third in the overall electorate, a new system of one-member-one-vote was introduced. This had long been an aim of Tony Blair and his supporters as they regarded union bosses as having too much power under the old system. The unions were prepared to accept this as long as it also applied to the MPs and meant the removal of their third of the electoral college, which it did. At the same time the Blairites, with that unshakeable self-confidence for which their leader was renowned, wanted to widen the potential electorate and bring as many people into the party as possible based on their strong conviction that the general public were likely to have more centrist political views than the activist full-time members. To do this it was agreed that anyone who was not a member of another political party and supported the party’s aims and values could sign up as a registered supporter and vote in a leadership election by paying £3.
The paradoxical effect of this change on MPs’ influence was most starkly shown after Jeremy Corbyn’s initial election as leader when, in an effort to depose him, 175 of the 230 Labour MPs supported a vote of no confidence against him. Under the old system such a large negative vote by MPs would have had great weight and probably have led to resignation but under the new voting system it was only equivalent to 175 individual votes or .07 per cent of the 250,000 votes Jeremy Corbyn had received in the leadership election nine months earlier. While this particular rule change benefited Corbyn greatly in both leadership elections, another change brought in at the same time might have snuffed out his campaign before it even got started. This second rule had increased the number of nominations a potential candidate needed to get on the ballot for a leadership election to at least fifteen per cent of Labour MPs, in this case thirty-five, but the best estimate of his supporters was that he could only count on about fifteen to twenty. In previous elections this had been a stumbling block for Corbyn’s fellow left-wing MP John McDonnell, for when he put his name forward he failed to get sufficient nominations.
In order to get Corbyn on the ballot, somehow up to twenty more reluctant and unsupportive MPs needed to be persuaded to nominate him. Achieving this required not only some good old-fashioned arm-twisting of colleagues by Corbynite MPs but, more interestingly, a highly modern social media campaign to organise supporters on the ground. After Corbyn agreed to stand John McDonnell immediately contacted long-time Labour activist Ben Sellers who, since 2011, had been involved in an activists’ Facebook page called Red Labour. Drawing on this experience and seizing the opportunity, Sellers and his colleagues worked fast and had both the Twitter and Facebook accounts for “JeremyCorbyn4Leader” up and running within a few hours. By the end of the first day the Facebook page had already received 9,000 likes.
It has yet to be fully evaluated but this is probably the first time that a social media campaign had such a direct influence on a political election in the UK. Working from the bottom up and using the hashtag #JezWeCan, the activists organised Twitter storms, petitions and mass letter-writing campaigns to encourage party members and wider supporters’ groups to put pressure on their Labour MPs to nominate Corbyn. The focus of the social media campaign was continually positive in order to counteract the ferocious attacks on Corbyn by the mainstream media, and its effect can be judged by a YouGov survey which found that fifty-seven per cent of Corbyn supporters used social media as their main source of news. As the MPs’ mail boxes and Twitter feeds were filling up with messages urging them to nominate Corbyn, they were also being canvassed personally for their nominations by Corbyn-supporting MPs, who used the argument that he should be on the ballot not necessarily to make him leader, but so that there could be a broad debate within the party. On this basis some agreed to do so but made it clear they would be voting for someone else. Alex Nunns gives a gripping account of the final morning when nominations were due to close at noon (to add a theatrical touch the first chime of Big Ben would be the signal). As the final minutes approached and with Corbyn just needing a couple of nominations there was a rather absurd scenario with a handful of MPs standing around, each of whom had agreed to be Corbyn’s thirty-fifth nominee but only if he already had the other thirty-four nominations. Although with this group included he would have had more than enough nominees, none of them were willing to go first. The story is that with just seconds to go Corbyn’s campaign manager, John McDonnell, got down on his knees to beg the reluctant MPs to hand in their nomination papers. At the last moment two of them cracked and Corbyn’s name was on the ballot.
It is possible that when political historians look back on this tumultuous period in UK politics they will identify the moment Jeremy Corbyn secured a place on the leadership ballot in 2015 as the key to all that followed. If Corbyn had not got on the ballot it is probable that left-wing ideas would have remained the preserve of a few hard-core activists and UK politics would have continued with some version of an austerity-led, neoliberal approach.
Once this first essential step had been achieved and Corbyn was a candidate, it was then possible to use the other rule change of one member one vote and the new category of the £3 registered supporter to work towards getting Corbyn elected. Social media played a vital role in this sending out messages to different activist groups explaining how they could register as a “£3er”. The success of this approach was demonstrated by the fact that over 88,000 people registered in the first leadership election in 2015 with the great majority voting for Jeremy Corbyn. In the second leadership election in 2016, there were 130,000 registered supporters, again mostly voting for him.
Of course there was nothing preventing the more centrist candidates encouraging their supporters to sign up as “£3ers”, but it just didn’t happen.
At the same time messages were also going to union and party members encouraging them to get their union or their local party branch to endorse Corbyn. In both leadership elections he had far more support than the other candidates in terms of union and local party endorsements.
One of the striking things about Jeremy Corbyn’s rise to the post of Labour leader is the democratic credibility of both his leadership elections. In the first he received a quarter of a million votes and in the second, almost a third of a million. By contrast, when David Cameron resigned after the EU referendum, Theresa May was appointed Conservative Party leader without a vote only because she was the last candidate standing after Boris Johnson was stabbed in the back, George Osborne was defenestrated and Andrea Leadsom tripped and fell on her sword. She then became prime minister by default. Her allies the DUP, who are keeping her in power, had an electorate for their last leadership contest of precisely forty-six but as one candidate, Arlene Forster, was nominated by seventy-five per cent of those entitled to participate, no vote was necessary. The Liberal Democrats recently appointed Vince Cable as their new leader without a contest and in Ireland in 2016 Brendan Howlin was also made leader of the Irish Labour Party without an election. In the recent contest to choose a new Fine Gael leader (and also Taoiseach) the winner, Leo Varadkar, was elected under a system where votes of the seventy-three members of the parliamentary party are worth sixty-five per cent of the electorate while those of the 21,000 members have a twenty-five per cent weighting. As a result it takes just over one vote of a TD to make up one per cent of the total votes cast but 840 members votes to do the same. Not much chance of the members out-voting the parliamentary party there then.
In April, when Theresa May called a snap general election for June, the decision was a genuine surprise for most people as she had a workable majority and was highly popular as prime minister. Even so, nearly every political commentator was convinced that the Conservatives would come out of the election with an increased majority.
Mrs May framed her election campaign around two related issues: the first was to claim that she was the resolute leader the country needed to provide “strong and stable” government and secondly, that she was the right person to negotiate the best deal for Britain in relation to Brexit. In both cases she personalised it by making clear it was a choice between her and Jeremy Corbyn. Even her campaign bus had her name in large letters and the Conservative Party in very small letters underneath. However as soon as the election began it became clear that it was a terrible mistake to base the Tory campaign around the personality of Mrs May. It was immediately obvious that her image as a strong leader and a “safe pair of hands” was a myth she had managed to create by dint of doing nothing in the previous twelve months. During the EU referendum campaign she had claimed to support the Remain side but had made almost no effort to campaign on its behalf. In comparison Jeremy Corbyn seems like an EU-supporting zealot. As Mrs May did not trigger Article 50 (the procedure for leaving the EU) until March this year, in reality nothing had happened in relation to Brexit in the first nine months of her leadership and she could get away with repeating meaningless soundbites such as “Brexit means Brexit” and “No deal is better than a bad deal”. Therefore when she called the election and it was necessary for her to appear in public and on television, this exposure cruelly revealed her limited social skills, which mainly consisted of repeating set phrases robotically in response to whatever question was asked. It also highlighted her complete lack of empathy with ordinary people. These inadequacies were soon picked up on by the media and her resemblance in interviews to a malfunctioning android led her to be labeled “the Maybot” by the political columnist of The Guardian, John Crace. Unfortunately for her this name gained general recognition. In writing about the use of the term recently, Crace commented that for him it seemed to “encapsulate her awkward, disengaged manner and her inner mediocrity”.
On the other hand, for the previous two years Jeremy Corbyn had been in an ongoing war of attrition but despite this he had successfully led the Labour Party through two bruising leadership elections, a major parliamentary coup attempt and other minor insurrections against a much more ruthless and treacherous enemy than the Tories would ever be – Labour’s right-wing MPs.
The second main issue that Teresa May and the Tories wanted to focus on in the election was Brexit and they thought by doing so they could expose divisions in the Labour camp. However, it is often said that politicians always fight the last election again and this was very true in relation to Brexit. While it had obviously been the centre of the debate at the 2016 referendum the voters, both those voting to leave and to remain, had moved on a year later. The leave voters wanted Brexit to be implemented not just talked about, and the remain voters had mostly accepted the referendum result as a democratic decision and also wanted action on achieving the least damaging outcome possible for the UK. This meant that the Liberal Democrats, whose main election offer was a new referendum, achieved very little traction and only won four extra seats (to add to their rather meagre collection of eight) and UKIP, the party whose core identity was connected to Brexit, were almost completely wiped out as a political force. Instead Jeremy Corbyn spent very little time talking about Brexit and fought an anti-austerity campaign based on a progressive manifesto, which focused on the need to address poverty, inequality and the problems faced by the NHS and schools.
The effect of the Labour manifesto should not be underestimated. It was leaked to the press a week in advance of its publication date, just after the local election results in May. Labour did not do well in these elections (but not as badly as many had predicted), putting some pressure on Jeremy Corbyn, and it is possible that some on the Labour right thought that, following this result, an early preview of manifesto pledges such as the renationalisation of the railways, a £10 minimum wage, more tax on the rich and free university education would also weaken Corbyn by portraying him as an irresponsible tax-and-spend left-winger. However, like many of the right’s manoeuvres in their battle against Corbyn, this one spectacularly backfired. Firstly, they misread the local election results, where Labour got twenty-seven per cent of the vote compared to the Conservatives’ thirty-eight per cent, as confirmation of an anti-Corbyn effect. In fact, paradoxically, these figures were a big improvement on the opinion polls, which were showing a Tory lead of over twenty per cent. Also, this election did not cover the whole country and turnout was a low thirty-six per cent, with very few young people voting. Secondly, as soon as the leaked policies were published, Labour canvassers found there was an immediate positive response on the doorsteps. It was no longer possible to say that all the political parties were “the same” as the Labour Party had created clear policy differences between itself and the Conservatives. The leak of the manifesto a week early gave Labour wall-to-wall coverage of its policies in the media, much of which was quite supportive.
There is another political truism that election campaigns rarely change people’s minds but rather mostly confirm their voting intentions. The manifesto turned this notion on its head. Post-election research has shown that the policies it contained were very well-received by the electorate and this was a major factor in increasing the Labour vote.
One of the reasons the Tory party strategists got their campaign so wrong was that, like the mainstream media, they dismissed the grassroots movement supporting Corbyn as made up of either hard-left agitators or star-struck Corbynistas. But actually it is much more than that. In his first leadership campaign in 2015 Corbyn had been supported by groups of activists using social media to reach people who had never voted before and those who were disenchanted with politics generally. After the successful outcome to that leadership contest, this movement became more formalised into a group called Momentum that looked to support Corbyn and the Labour Party on the ground in constituencies around the country and operated almost totally on social media. At the same time, Corbyn had also increased the membership of Labour to over 600,000 by encouraging many young people to join a political party for the first time, as well as bringing back considerable numbers of “lapsed” members who had resigned or drifted away in the New Labour years. By the time Theresa May called the election in April Jeremy Corbyn had a large and committed group of supporters who were ready to get out and campaign for him and the Labour Party.
One key area that Corbyn’s campaign concentrated on was developing a sophisticated and rapid-response social media campaign. These skills had been honed through the two hard-fought leadership contests where social media had been used to engage with younger voters, run campaigns on local issues and organise meetings and rallies at short notice. Adapting these skills to the 2017 election, Corbyn’s supporters were ready to respond rapidly to Tory initiatives using memes (usually videos or pictures with a brief caption uploaded on Twitter or Facebook) that were then shared, adapted and developed by others. For example, when Theresa May launched her campaign with a speech which mentioned the soundbite “strong and stable” more than twenty times, this was immediately caricatured on social media by pictures of a Dalek stuck at the bottom of stairs mechanically bleeping, “Strong and stable, strong and stable.”
The influence of Momentum was significant as it focused on organising people at grassroots level in as many constituencies as possible. It held training sessions for activists throughout the country, many run by people who had worked with Bernie Sanders’s campaign in the US. In sessions run in Newcastle, one of Sanders’s key organisers had over a hundred people of all ages role-playing how to talk persuasively to ambivalent voters and giving them key tips on how to listen to their concerns and attempt to convince them to vote Labour. These sessions were practical, useful and fun and people came away energised and ready to canvass. Other techniques developed by Momentum were a phone-based app which allowed volunteers to target voters and supporters from the home, a car pool which brought volunteers to support candidates in marginal constituencies and, in particular, the mobilisation of thousands of volunteers on election day to ensure that voters turned out for Labour.
For a long time the received wisdom has been that young people may go on a protest march but they do not actively campaign or, in many cases, don’t even go out to vote. The last election comprehensively demolished this notion. In a series of post-election articles in the Boston Review, Michael O’Neill analyses detailed data from YouGov, the only polling organisation to predict a hung parliament, which showed that in every age group up to fifty, Labour was well ahead of the Conservatives. Among voters in their thirties it had a lead of fifty-five to twenty-nine per cent but, most interestingly, the lead was sixty-two to twenty-two per cent among voters in their twenties and a game-changing sixty-six to nineteen per cent for the eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds. These figures were dramatically reflected in seats won by Labour, particularly in cities with big student populations such as Canterbury and the victory in Nick Clegg’s constituency in Sheffield. He had been the Liberal Democrat leader in the 2010-2015 coalition government with David Cameron which had tripled university fees to £9,000, despite the Lib Dems having promised to abolish such fees in their manifesto prior to that election.
This active involvement of young people did not happen by accident. The Brexit vote in 2016 had been a real wake-up call as they realised that not only were they having to pay huge university fees but their whole future in terms of jobs, careers and the possibility of living and working in different countries had been put at risk by the votes of older generations. They also understood that by not voting they had allowed this to happen. Jeremy Corbyn tapped into this discontent and connected it to a positive vision of hope for the future and, most importantly, brought them out to vote.
What is also interesting about the YouGov data is that it is clear the main reason the Conservatives won the largest number of seats in the election was thanks to the very high levels of support they received from older voters – fifty-eight to twenty-seven per cent among sixty-plus voters and an astonishing difference of sixty-nine to nineteen per cent among those over seventy. However, as the Tory grandee and former deputy prime minister Michael Heseltine pointed out, each year two per cent of this Tory vote dies away while another two per cent of most likely Labour-voting eighteen-year-olds is added to the electorate. Martin O’Neill argues what the voting analysis shows is that the “cleavage is not so much between different age-groups as between different cohorts”. Unlike previous generations where many people became more centrist or right-wing as they grew older and became established in a careers, started a family, took out mortgages, became home owners and settled into a comfortable and financially secure lifestyle, the current young generation will be poorer than their parents, have a more precarious career path, be less likely to afford to buy their own home and may have to delay starting a family. But the difference is that at least fifty per cent of them will be university-educated and the YouGov data shows that graduates voted Labour by a margin of forty-nine to thirty-two per cent. O’Neill suggests that as more graduates come out of universities this is likely to increase the graduate cohort continuing to vote Labour, even as they get older.
One of the most revealing things about the campaign was how relatively little influence the mainstream media, and particularly the right-wing media, had on many voters, especially the younger ones. When Tony Blair was in power he went to great lengths to appease Rupert Murdoch in order to get the support of his newspapers and, of course, when John Major beat Neil Kinnock in the 1992 general election, the Sun infamously claimed in its headline that “It’s the Sun What Won it” Now young people get much of their news from social media. As a result many of the negative stories published in the papers failed to have their usual impact. Even the mainstream media’s usually reliable tactic of painting Corbyn as a friend of terrorists, and the IRA in particular, was ineffective. As a final effort, the day before the election, the Daily Mail printed thirteen pages supposedly illustrating the links with, and support for, terrorist groups by Jeremy Corbyn and others but it still did not cause a stir. What the tabloid press didn’t seem to realise was that to be old enough to have any memory of the IRA as a terrorist group, people would have to be in their forties now. A video circulated on social media gave an insight into what people of that age and younger felt about the whole issue. In it a teenager is talking with his mother on FaceTime when some Tory canvassers come up to her door and she starts to talk to them through the window. It is only possible to hear her side of the conversation but she can be heard saying, “It’s appalling how you have treated disabled people.” Obviously the canvassers then decided to try a new tack to which she responds, “I don’t give shit about the IRA.”
As one commentator noted when the Tories signed an agreement with the DUP to keep them in power, “Teresa May did warn us that a general election could throw up a coalition of chaos, with the government being propped up by Irish politicians with links to shadowy paramilitary groups. The only thing she left out was the fact that she would be leading it.”
The contrast between Corbyn’s campaign and that of Teresa May was stark. It is hard to explain how bad the Tory campaign was, and Theresa May in particular, unless you were actually watching and reading UK news every night. It was car-crash TV. While Corbyn held mass rallies involving thousands of people, she held very small events with a few hundred supporters that were usually closed to the general public. The disparity between the two leaders was most vividly illustrated by their different responses to the Grenfell Tower disaster. Jeremy Corbyn visited the next day and walked freely in the area empathising and talking to residents, survivors and volunteers. Theresa May turned up a couple of days later, surrounded by police and spoke to emergency workers but not local residents. This has been described as May’s “Katrina” moment, a reference to the time President Bush flew over New Orleans in a plane after the devastating hurricane Katrina had hit the area but did not land. It seems very unlikely Mrs May can recover her authority and the reality is that she is only being kept in place by the lack of an agreed alternative and the Conservative Party’s fear of another election.
The remarkable rise of Jeremy Corbyn, against all the odds, and the reinvigoration of the Labour Party has changed the nature of the political debate in the UK. By highlighting of the failure of the Conservative Party’s austerity agenda and the neoliberal ideology that underpinned it he has returned left-wing ideas to the centre of political discourse and forced the Tories to either abandon or change many of their policies. A left-wing Labour government in Britain in the not too distant future is now a strong possibility. However, there have been so many unexpected events in the last two years that it is probably worth heeding the advice of Antonio Gramsci when predicting political change: “pessimism of the spirit; optimism of the will”.
Jeremy Kearney lives in Newcastle upon Tyne and is a member of the Labour Party.