Corbyn hasn’t won, but Labour got its biggest vote share since 2001 (41%), and the biggest swing from one party to another since 1945.
Thanks to an abysmal nineteenth-century voting system, those gains haven’t translated into a majority Labour government, let alone a landslide (in 2005, Blair got a majority of 66 on the back of just 35% of the vote, because of the way those votes were distributed around the country) — but a Tory Prime Minister who said, ‘if I lose just six seats, I will lose this election’ lost twelve.
Now the commentariat is trying to compute what’s happened. Pundits have spent eighteen months insisting Corbyn would be an electoral catastrophe. In fact, he’s become the most successful Labour leader since Blair — despite going against almost everything Blair stood for.
They’re now claiming this result was utterly unforeseeable. “No-one expected this!”, exclaimed Huw Edwards, doing that irritating speak-for-the-nation sweeping generalisation thing BBC types like to do on big occasions like these.
Actually, quite a lot of people did. I’ve heard Aaron Bastani and others moot 40%-plus as a possibility. Personally, I wasn’t expecting Labour to do as well as that — 35%, maybe? — but the level of bafflement we’re seeing could only come from people who genuinely believed no-one in their right mind would ever vote for Corbyn.
So why did they think like that? Why were they so spectacularly bad at grasping Corbyn’s potential appeal?
Firstly, it’s their blinkered vision of politics. To them, the only politics that matters is in Westminster. Grassroots activism is fringe — it’s divisive, and spooks respectable voters.
Secondly, it’s their quasi-religious faith in ‘centrism’. They looked at Labour’s performance in the Blair-era — three successive election victories, having shedded its left-wing identity and enthusiastically embraced neoliberalism — and assumed that was the only way the party could win elections in post-Thatcherite Britain.
They thought British politics had changed forever — and that the British electorate had been put off 1945-style social democracy for good.
In fact, New Labour only ‘worked’ when it did — or at least delivered majority Labour governments — because of a specific set of circumstances. Those circumstances have now drastically changed — and 41% of the voting public have shown themselves willing to vote for a party led by its most radical leader since George Lansbury in the 1930s.
I have a cod-psychological theory that everyone has a worldview that legitimises the way they live their life, and casts them as one of the good guys. A generation of journalists, commentators and Labour politicians didn’t just rationally calculate that centrism was the right political position to adopt — it became an integral part of their identity, and their sense of self-worth. Socialism was dead, people like Corbyn were dinosaurs, and they got to be rich and selfish and individualistic, and still be the progressive good guys.
To me, at least, that explains the ferocity with which the liberal commentariat attacks Corbyn. It’s not just (if at all) rational critiques of his policies — it’s also a primitive psychological backlash against someone whose very existence threatens to undermine their sense of self-righteousness and self-worth.
Today, that’s why we’re seeing so many of Corbyn’s liberal and inter-Labour critics interpreting events in the way that’s least upsetting to that worldview — because otherwise they’d have to confront the fact that they’ve been wrong about almost everything for 25 years, then deal with the resulting trauma.
So David Miliband congratulated voters for ‘rejecting hard Brexit’. Alistair Campbell declared that ‘this election is a rejection of May and hard Brexit’. Laura Kuenssberg decided it was ‘worth saying a lot of Lab MPs who’ve done well were prominent critics of Corbyn’. As I type, she’s on TV downplaying the scale of Labour’s achievement and saying ‘Labour lost as badly as they did in 2010’ (yes, Brown won 258 seats, but only 29% of the vote cast). Various pundits have made the laughable claim that Labour would’ve won with a better leader (would 18–24s have rushed out to vote for Yvette Cooper?)
Some, like arch-New Labourite John Rentoul, are more self-aware — he refreshingly admits that he’d got Corbyn wrong, but still says he needs to be replaced before the next election.
Even those who are being a bit magnanimous tonight are likely to revert to type before too long. They’re practically allergic to Corbyn, Corbynism and everything it represents. They deeply, passionately, irrationally desperate for a centrist Blair figure to emerge and wrench back Labour for them and their view of the world.
I’m sure I’m not alone in finding it hard to believe a Tory minority government propped up by religious extremists in the DUP will last until 2022. That means we’re likely to face another election with Corbyn as Labour leader — one we could genuinely win.
But if we’re ever going to see a radical left-wing government in Britain, we need to build new institutions, to counter both the centrist fundamentalists of the liberal establishment, and the Mail and Murdoch axis of evil. And that includes a new media.
Last night, I got my election coverage from Novara Media. It’s a left-wing news organisation that produces podcasts and videos and puts on live events. At the moment, it’s small and London-centric, but with more support, it could grow into something much bigger and more powerful.
I’d encourage you to subscribe, as I’ve just done — you can do so for as little as £1 a month — or make a one-off donation. I’m going to be making a conscious effort to plug them as much as I can.
It’s easy, and often feels much safer, to be pessimistic. I’m pessimistic. I supported Corbyn, and privately thought he had less than 1% chance of even getting on the ballot paper when he first stood for Labour leader. But if we put the effort in, and keep building our own institutions and ways of communicating with one another, I think it’s possible we could see something resembling socialism in our lifetimes.