June 8 reinvigorated the centre-Left and sparked a Tory civil war, providing a remarkable and, to many, unexpected but genuine alternative to austerity and the crooked policies of successive Tory-led governments.
For much of that we must thank Theresa May whose cynical gamble in calling a snap election – which she and her blinkered cronies reckoned would be a walkover – backfired in such spectacular fashion. Rather than the “strong and stable” image her spin doctors put out relentlessly, she was found out day-after-day as a weak and prevaricating leader.
Her manifesto was, as Gary Lineker put it, an own goal which included the dementia tax on family homes to cover up her cuts to social care budget, means-testing of other benefits for the elderly … and even the return of fox-hunting. She proved a chicken when challenged to TV debates, she tried to steal Labour polices such as a cap on home power prices, and she offered no explanation for economic policies which have made fat cats even richer while seeing a surge in food banks. And after the tragic recent terrorist attacks, she offered no explanation of her record as Home Secretary in cutting police numbers by 20,000. He messages on Brexit were mixed and contradictory. Her U-turns during a misbegotten presidential-style campaign shattered the illusion she had fostered and, despite the sterling efforts of Diane Abbott, she was humiliated. One Tory minister told Robert Harris: ”She had a 20-point lead but managed to turn that crock of gold into a crock of shit.”
We must also thank Jeremy Corbyn who, despite months of media sniping and sneering, proved that a Left-wing agenda could take the Tories to the wire. Not only was his campaigning style superb – refusing to get rattled by Downing Street smears, and unlike Mrs May getting out and meeting the people – but his policies struck a real chord amongst voters, young and old. Privatisation of the railways, a cash injection for the NHS, abolition of student fees, and an end to austerity policies which benefit the well-off and super-rich and hit the poorest and most vulnerable – all of these proved wildly popular and will do so again.
Corbyn has proved divisive in Labour terms over the last 18 months but the campaign showed that he is not naïve. His strategic abilities were not only accomplished and disciplined, but driven. Antony Gormley put it in prosaic terms: “It strikes me that in the last weeks we have seen the remarkable transformation of an idealist into a leader capable of statesman-like argument on all issues. This (is a) man who can listen as well as lead, who is principled and yet has shown himself capable, in ways that we could not have imagined, of uniting both young and old, rich and poor, recently-immigrated and old Britishers. ” Theresa May represented the worst of old politics, cynical and privileged, self-entitled and ultimately incompetent.
Politics are, however, changing for the good. If centre-left politicians want to find new support for their policies while re-engaging with traditional labour there are some pointers to be offered by Mr Corbyn. He is qualified to talk about the inequality of wealth and power in moral terms, what is right and wrong. And after this election, some statistics are encouraging. The third highest share of the vote since Clement Attlee, stands out. With over 40% of the vote, the Labour Party made gains in all regions and nations of the country, delivering the biggest increase in the Labour vote share since 1945. Corbyn’s bonus ball was the freedom to believe again. The freedom to hope again. The Corbyn plan outlining a vision of public ownership which included the nationalisation of rail, mail and energy plus an end to tuition fees and an annual National Health Service cash injection of £6 billion was the most ambitious since 1983. Moreover, the Corbyn agenda buried most of the shibboleths of public sector cuts and austerity deployed against the hopes of the working classes.
But …there are many buts. The immediate aftermath of the election was distorted by a triumphalism that does not stand close scrutiny. It is not just Chris Leslie who points out that a third Labour general election loss in a row is not that much of a cause for celebration. Or that given the scale of public disgust at the Tory record, trailing them by over 50 seats represents a degree of failure. Labour’s scattershot successes in much of the capital, Scotland and the South should not blind us to the significance of losses in former Midland and Northern heartlands as Mansfield (Labour since 1923), Derbyshire North East, Middlesborough South and Cleveland East, Walsall North, and Stoke-on-Trent South.
Give the current degree of Tory turmoil, back-stabbing, blaming and plotting – which if nothing else means that they will never again allow Mrs May to lead them into another general election – Labour must now show unity of purpose again. That means combined powers of persuasion to minority parties with pride in its own platform to defeat what remains of a shattered Tory administration’s legislative programme in the upcoming Queen’s Speech. Whether that would lead to a vote of no-confidence, a governmental downfall and another election remains unclear at the time of writing. But Labour is ready for that challenge.