After Jeremy Corbyn’s stunning general election vindication, he must now show real leadership by reaching out to all parts of the Labour party, argues Joff Wild
So, Jeremy Corbyn will be able to take a holiday in August. After spending the last two summers fighting Labour leadership elections, this year he can head off for a fortnight at a socialist poetry workshop in the sun safe in the knowledge that he stands triumphant and unassailable as leader of the party.
True, Corbyn has just led Labour to its third successive general election defeat, but whatever moderate naysayers might wish he has undoubtedly proved us wrong. His past record of associating with apologists for terrorism would be exposed and the electorate would recoil, we said; well, it was and his ratings went up. His economic policies would not stand up to scrutiny, we claimed; but Tory Garden Tax and income tax scares cut no ice. His Brexit stance would put off Remainers and Leavers alike, we warned; nope, voters on both sides had little problem with it. He would crack under the relentless pressure of a long campaign, we predicted; actually, unlike Mrs May, he gave every impression of having a really good time.
But it was not just that. During the election campaign, Corbyn showed that you can pitch policies from the left and get a hearing; while, crucially, he also demonstrated that you do not have to live in fear of the right wing press. Previous Labour leaders have focus-grouped policies to death, stage-managed their every appearance and carefully measured each word in order to avoid unhelpful coverage in the Mail, the Sun and the Express, but Corbyn just carried on regardless. He knew that the negative headlines and the character assassinations would happen whatever he did, so he did not bother kow-towing. There are, he understood, other ways to get to the people you want to address. How Ed Miliband must wish he had pursued the same strategy in 2015.
And there’s more. Although no detailed studies of the election will emerge for the while, when they do they are likely to show that Corbyn energised younger voters to turn out in a way that they have not done for many years. More importantly, though, he also grabbed a large proportion – if not a majority – of all working age voters. The Tories are reliant, more than ever, on the elderly to keep them ahead. Then there is Scotland, where Labour started to win again. After a long decline, the party’s vote increased and it gained seats, while becoming competitive in a number of others. That could be huge for future general elections. At least some of the credit for the revival must go to Kezia Dugdale and her Scottish Labour team, but there is no doubt that Corbyn was a powerful factor, too.
In short, Corbyn played a blinder. Against all expectations and despite a polling deficit of 20 points at the start of the campaign, Labour gained millions of supporters, its vote share went up and so did its number of MPs. Depriving the Tories of a majority has probably killed off the ridiculous threat to destroy the UK economy and the living standards of millions of people by walking away from the EU without a Brexit deal; while within months it is likely that the current prime minister will have departed the scene. By contrast, there will be no Labour leadership contest now until Corbyn decides to stand down.
But, here’s the rub: despite all of the above, Labour did lose. Mrs May’s mind-numbingly poor campaign and her utter mediocrity notwithstanding, the Tories won more votes than Labour and many more seats. If Labour ever wants to be in government again, it is vital the party does not forget this – especially as its next opponent is highly unlikely to be Mrs May.
Corbyn has demonstrated that being opposed to austerity is nothing to be afraid of. What is less certain, though, is whether Labour’s economic package was seen as sufficiently credible by enough voters in enough marginal constituencies. John McDonnell – who will undoubtedly remain the shadow chancellor – would be well advised to ponder on whether the state acting as a guarantor of high quality service provision at a reasonable price, rather than mass nationalisation, is the way forward for the Labour party in the 21st century.
For all her manifold faults, Mrs May has opened the way to having a sensible discussion about funding social care for the elderly – Labour should seize the opportunity. A return to Andy Burnham’s 2010 policy proposals, killed off by the Lansley/Osborne/Cameron Death Tax slur, is a possible way forward. A more enlightened approach to Corporation tax than a straight, across the board rise might also be worth a look; along with a rethink about where education spending priorities should lie. Labour must stand for redistribution and this can be radical in nature, but to get to a majority more voters have to be convinced that the sums add up and money will not just be frittered away.
As we have seen to such tragic effect, in a rapidly changing, highly connected world, threats can emerge from anywhere. Voters rightly want to be certain that their government will keep them as safe as possible. Corbyn’s past did not hurt him, but Labour still trails the Tories by a large margin on security and defence. Until that changes, the party will find it very hard to form a government. This is an area that definitely needs more thought and much greater work. It would also help greatly if Labour could embrace patriotism. It is not a bad or embarrassing thing; most people of all political persuasions are naturally patriotic about their country.
The last two years have seen Labour in a state of almost permanent civil war. A ceasefire was declared six weeks ago and look what happened. After showing all of us what a great campaigner he is, Jeremy Corbyn must now turn his hand to real leadership – something that he has struggled with up to now. Since he took charge, policy creation has been ad hoc, often contradictory and almost totally opaque – generally confined to a small group of close Corbyn advisers, many of whom hail from the Marxist left and have no strong affection for the wider Labour family. This needs to change.
There are many excellent MPs in all parts of the Labour party and they should now be used. If the leader can find it in himself to open up the policy-making process, to reach out to the soft left and moderates and to put together a shadow front bench of all the talents – one that includes not only the likes of McDonnell, Keir Starmer, Emily Thornberry, Angela Rayner and Jon Ashworth, but also figures such as Yvette Cooper, Chuka Umunna, Dan Jarvis, Ed Miliband and Stella Creasy – then Labour will very quickly begin to look like a government-in-waiting.
For their part, Corbyn’s critics in the Parliamentary Labour party and the wider movement must now accept that the left has won the civil war and that he is here to stay. Jeremy Corbyn has definitively earned the right to set the party’s policy direction and to be its face to the world. With Theresa May emasculated and the Tories in seeming turmoil as the uncertainty of Brexit approaches, the UK needs a strong opposition. By reaching out to his opponents and showing magnanimity in victory, Jeremy Corbyn can give the country what it craves, so paving the way for Labour to assume power whenever the next general election is called. If he fails to do so, we may just find that 8th June 2017 marks the high point of Labour’s appeal to the electorate.
Joff Wild posts on Political Betting as SouthamObserver. You can follow him on Twitter at @SpaJW