Late Election Special: Jeremy Corbyn

How the fuck did he do it, eh? How did Jeremy Corbyn lose the election so well? Labour went to war a listless, dejected outfit, pitied by the media (and Alan Sugar). The debate will rage on about whether the contempt of the commentariat shaped public distrust of the party or vice versa, the political equivalent of the nature/nurture argument, but everyone who saw the polling data and examined the recent local election results agreed – Jeremy Corbyn was going to be butchered at the ballot box. It would be like Murder on the Orient Express with each member of the public taking their turn to plunge in the knife.

Yet, with a final tally of 262 seats (that’s 30 gains), Jeremy Corbyn looks like a rock solid loser, the new Neil Kinnock. Except, whereas the Welsh colossus had to compromise everything he believed in to end up further behind the Tories than Corbyn is today, Jeremy, leader for less than two years, wiped out the government’s majority on his general election debut, estranged from the party’s so-called modernisers.

The assumptions of the last 30 years were hit hard – perhaps harder than Clint Eastwood’s right hook to Jessica Walter’s face in Play Misty for Me. 13 million people turned out for Labour, motivated by noble causes like improving society and giving the Tories a good kicking. And the bedrock of this new support? Hitherto indifferent youngsters – fresh faced victims of government policy who’d grown up knowing nothing but Thatcherite continuity. Not old enough to have internalised propaganda about the insanity of the alternative, and largely ignorant of the 1980s, the kids liked the cut of his jib and intuited he had a slim chance of winning. Sure, he was an ideological Brexiteer who’d barely engaged in the referendum campaign, consigning Remain to defeat, but a helpful Theresa May neutralised the issue by triggering the Article 50 process. What a useful ally she was.

It was oft noted that Jeremy, by every measurable yardstick, was the opposite of Theresa May – ideologically, educationally, sartorially. He only had one pair of shoes. There was also a gulf in confidence, though Corbyn felt more comfortable sparring with May than Cameron, her lack of patrician self-belief and plastic charm going a long way to diffusing his inferiority complex. But who knew, as the Tories geared up for suicide, that Jezza, as he was known in the pubs around Belfast, was also the psychological antithesis of the Conservative leader and this factor, above all else, would prove decisive?

May went into the election expecting to win but, I suggest, daring herself to lose in the dark nook of the brain that knows the unspun self; the “me” plagued by doubt and an honest appraisal of one’s own limitations. Corbyn, by contrast, expected to lose but dared himself to win. His impetus? Not a belief in himself but in the message he carried; an unapologetically left wing programme based on the wholesale repudiation of Thatcherism and its attendant assumptions about markets, public services and the role of the state.

It wasn’t a hard sell for the Labour leader, he’d never wavered on the fundamentals, so already knew his lines backwards. His manifesto, only slightly watered down by the party machine, had existed in his head for 30 years, a copy and paste of Tony Benn’s speeches. Transposing it to paper was a mere formality. There’s an advantage to being the enemy of a tired consensus – everything you say reads as radical and fresh.

The problem with being the Tories is that a stupid amount of electoral success means the country runs and works according to your design; you’ve achieved everything you wanted, for the people you care about, and have disadvantaged the rest as planned. Consequently, all that’s left to do is undo any socially progressive measure that slipped onto the statute book during freak periods of Labour government. Corbyn’s switchbacks were plenty, but after 30 years of reversals there was more than enough to fill a manifesto – one no Labour leader had dared propose in modern times from fear of alienating the beneficiaries of Tory policies.

So-called moderate Labour MPs, “moderate” really being a euphemism for conditioned by Thatcherism, withdrew from the campaign completely, intent that Corbyn should own the disaster to come. The leader’s strategy was entirely predicated on galvanising millions of people to embrace an alternative to the politics of the past 30 years. As there was no proof enough sympathetic voters existed, this was a leap of faith – a mark of how socialism, at its most pure, functions like religion. Corbyn’s millions didn’t register in local elections, didn’t answer the phone to pollsters, and never appeared on television. They were, quite understandably, thought by political scientists to be fictitious. But Jeremy’s brain, covered in a thick membrane constituted from utopian (but most definitely not terrorist) cells, didn’t worry.

In parliament, in opposition, Corbyn had been mostly dreadful – a dispirited and miserable beta male flanked by two hundred bitter colleagues. By the time it came to fight the election, abysmal opinion polls reflected accurate reports of disunity and intellectual incoherence. Labour’s talent pool was so dry that only loyal lieutenants like Diane Abbot and Emily Thornberry could be ultilised in the campaign, spokespeople who despite John McDonnell’s post-election attribution of the label “winning team”, were box office disasters – charmless, badly prepared, sanctimonious in the extreme and dogged by a long record of bare-faced hypocrisy. In short, they were the kind of social democrats Conservatives studied to feel good about themselves.

Corbyn, with extensive media training to smooth down any rough edges, had better human credentials and could simulate speaking from the heart. He single-handedly won over those who couldn’t cope with the spectre of a landslide Tory victory, giving them a positive reason to vote for something else. May lost the election but Corbyn lost it better. A Tory poll lead of 20 points was cut to just 2 on the final count – exclusively the achievement of him and his cabal. May launched the election hoping to build a nationwide personality cult. It was her only success.

So what next for Jeremy Corbyn? Is he really modest and unassuming as his spin doctors tell us, or, like most intellectually insecure men held together by an idealised sense of self, likely to be monstered by adulation? Assuming they’re amenable, will he now invite Labour’s old guard to professionalise the operation on the strict understanding that the core tenets of the programme aren’t up for negotiation? And can he win an election without first finding a way to convert soft Tories whose self-interest makes winning the 65 seats that separate him from the winning post a potential bridge too far?

There, Corbyn may finally have found an answer to a hitherto unanswerable question: what are moderate Labour voices for? But the 2017 campaign was based on the idea of no compromise and courting new voters. Doubling down next time against a better Tory leader, disinclined to repeat the party’s mistakes, will make the fight that much tougher. Voters, taking the prospect of a Corbyn government seriously, will expect a much stronger front bench. Jeremy knows how to galvanise the public but he’s never reached out to a single Labour MP. If he can do it and acknowledge there’s only so far you can travel without your parliamentary party, then the 2017 result may yet be a staging post rather than a peak.


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