Hope, Hubris and Humility

If only election victories were measured in the same way that Ofsted assesses value added or pupil progress.

Sadly for Labour – and more importantly, for the people who need them in power – elections results are actual not comparative. Even so, Corbyn’s achievement in being only as unsuccessful as Gordon Brown is truly astonishing.

Within a few weeks Corbyn’s team turned the ship around. A Corbyn who we have never seen before arrived at the dispatch box this week and there is a very followable feeling of support.

My prediction in the week before the election was that there would be a poor Tory turn out, a massive Labour turn out, all working in Corbyn’s favour. But I never expected this result. The huge shift not just in the polls but in the gap between the shifted polls and the result now means that polling as a measurement of prediction or permanence is dead.

Most of the party is now tipsy on the success of the moderation of our failure. But another election could be in the offing. If so, what next?

Firstly the momentum is with Corbyn. Having done so much better than expected, he will be taken much more seriously by the media and the general public. The idea that “actually he’s not so bad ” is likely to spread rapidly unless contained by the (otherwise engaged) Tories. The BBC has decided that the Tory meltdown is far more titillating than the tired Corbyn / PLP story and is helping the Labour cause by sticking the knife into the Brexiteers and flailing May leadership. More importantly, the fact that a major party can put forward such a massive spending agenda without getting slapped down for it, could mean that reluctant Labour voters will start to assume that, if other people say it’s affordable, then it must be affordable. There is also hearsay evidence that people are now fed up with cuts. The benefits of austerity have failed to materialise, and with the US and the EU enjoying good growth while we are still stagnating in real wage reduction, rising inflation, near zero interest rates – and all this before Brexit – people have had enough. With a generational gap in economic opportunity widening by the day, Corbyn holds all the aces.

But with talk of “the biggest swing to Labour since 1945” filling my social media bubble , I sense hubris in the air… maybe even a faint whiff of Kinnock? Here is why, as ever, I’m worried.

Labour has shown its hand

The best news for the country is that the Tories have seen what is appealing in the Labour manifesto. It is very likely that they may start to pull back further from austerity. I imagine that a priority will be to offer the NHS a few crumbs well dressed as loaves and (as we already seeing) the odder policies such as grammar schools and less appealing ones like pension changes are likely to be cancelled. (Written before Queen’s Speech confirming this.) But, in that this is good for the country, it is bad for Labour, as, Tory strategists have all the time they need to find holes in the Labour plans, hit the focus groups and be fully prepared with counter-narratives. The good news for Corbyn’s Labour is that if the next election is in five years, the demographics could well shift in his favour as current young voters keep the faith, and more young voters come on board.

Celebrating another failure to win power could give the wrong impression.

Maybe I am old fashioned, but the current triumphalist mood makes me very uncomfortable. We lost. Again. We probably out of power for another five years. The likelihood of another Tory leader risking an early election is surely negligible. The hubris of Kinnock’s pre-election speech of 1992 must be on the minds of older Labour supporters. However, the celebrations of Corbyn’s reversal of fortune are not about Labour party relief. They are about the victory of one faction over another. For the vast majority of party members, quite understandably, this election result is a vindication – and one that has been hard won in the face of a critical media, PLP and people like me. But the party should be careful about celebration because this cannot be seen as a victory for the Labour party, or anyone who Labour seeks to represent. The party is still more than 60 seats away from being able to form an independent government. Comparison with Brown’s 2010 result should not be written off lightly. There was no celebration then and should be none now. Many would rightly say that Corbyn’s situation is different, having suffered the lack of support from his MPs and suffered a terrible haranguing in the media. But Brown had suffered denigration (notably much less than Corbyn) from the press for years as Chancellor, increasingly so during his leadership. Let’s not forget the endless narrative about his difficult relationship with Blair, rumours of his temper, cruel caricatures of his physical tics and the “misplaced microphone” that gave us the Bigoted Woman. Crucially, he was being scapegoated for the global financial crash. So Corbyn does not have the monopoly on a staggered start. Where Miliband and Corbyn had to combat the SNP, Brown faced a virile Liberal party. Whatever the case of Corbyn’s advantages or disadvantages, Labour need to be aware that they may not have turned round the party’s fortunes, but rather just invented, as Jack White might say, another way to die.

The next Conservative election campaign will not be so unprepared or uncharismatic.

The crux of the analysis of the election result must come down to what extent it was Corbyn’s success and May’s disaster. The fact that, just a few weeks previous, Labour was continuing to lose council seats must make us cautious.

It is unlikely that the May-bot will represent the Conservatives at the next election. As Joey Jones, a former adviser to Theresa May, said on Saturday PM, the Tories were so busy putting out fires sparked by their flawed and uncosted manifesto that they couldn’t get stuck in to undermining Labour’s spending plans. With a less cocksure, better prepped leader, with a longer lead up in which to twist the knife, things will be much trickier.

Is this as good as it can get?

Labour had many things on their side this time: a robotic May, a terrible Conservative manifesto, a huge army of supporters, the collapse of UKIP, a weak Liberal party and the benefits of a very well organised exogenous movement for a progressive alliance.

The electoral maths still looks difficult and when Corbyn skeptics like me reviewed the Miliband performance, one of our main concerns was that even if you put together all the progressive MPs of Labour, the Liberals, Greens and SNP, Labour still would have been far short of a majority. So, polling expectations aside, it is unsurprising that Corbyn’s Labour has very successfully brought in the votes of the other progressives (at the national level). Subsequently, I still do not believe that Labour can win without something that has a significant appeal to other non-Labour-voting groups. My personal belief hasn’t changed that, to appeal to these voters, Labour needs to appear much more technocratically capable. But I also believe that this is not in contradiction to having a similar manifesto to what we have now.

The End of the Technocrats?

Rebecca Long-Bailey’s flickering eyes and stilted response when asked on Question Time where the money will come from really worries me. Even McDonnell seemed incapable of credibly explaining the multiplier effect when on Andrew Marr. This is worrying because much of the spending is costed in terms of expected multipliers. I am concerned that no clarity has been given about the different multipliers expected from the various spending areas. Fiscal stimulus in infrastructure can have the desired multiplier effect, but not so housing, and not so student loans in the short term. Most importantly, for the people who need Labour’s help, there are questions over the practicalities of delivery. Is building one million homes possible? Is there capacity in the skilled workforce? Where will they be built? What quality controls will be put in place and how will they be enforced? (Miliband’s housing review concluded that 500,000 was a difficult but possible maximum number.) I am concerned that policies like this are correctly morally value based, but without solid technocratic backing they could be the equivalent of May’s immigration targets or Blair’s PFI contracts. Superficially these seemed a good way to achieve policy goals, but lack of detail about implementation, and scant consideration for long term consequences and potential abuses will only lead to harsh retrospective reproach. I also suspect that the Labour manifesto was so rich in promises that it was one of a party that never expected to be in government. With that clearly no longer the case, Labour senior staff need to swiftly get hold of the facts and the narrative – and look at the detail of how the spending goals cannot just be costed, but practically achieved safely and without exploitation.

The Angry Bubble 

In terms of the quality of debate and the outward image of the party, I am concerned about the rise of online content from sites that are the left wing equivalent of the right wing press: leading with spicy, crowd-pleasing, bubble sealing headlines, followed up with empty, contradictory or non-sequitur content. I despair that the Canary and Skwawkbox are frequently quoted as primary information sources by members. This is a race to the bottom, where equivalence is replacing moral and factual superiority. Similarly, I have gritted my teeth as I’ve watched members hiss and boo on television debates, heckle during conference speeches and de-friend friends who express alternative views with them on social media. With the surprising result from this election, members are now digging their heels in, and I fear the culture within the Party is descending from something that was fun tribalism into something less self-aware and inward looking. “If you’re not with us, you’re against us” may carry some weight at election time, but in our internal discussions, and, in the all important search for common ground with those who do not vote Labour, this is going in the wrong direction. Language used about “Blairites”, centrists and moderates is now unrepentantly aggressive and accusations that those who were skeptical of Corbyn are traitors, rebels and worse are seemingly embedded as fact. If the membership cannot tolerate a divergence of views within Labour without sniping and bitter dissent, it will be difficult to draw in those who are currently not even Labour voters. The Party at all levels must be more self-critical, outward looking, welcoming – and even humane.

The Return of the Natives

As I have said before, Corbyn-critical MPs returning to the front bench will not be able to get through an interview without it being dominated by questions about U-turns, disloyalty or just being wrong. Once this narrative gains traction it will be overwhelming. The 81% should continue the self-flagellation and the leadership should try and find any new shadow cabinet members from the new influx of MPs.

The End of Polling

The polls did approximately reflect the shift of opinion as it happened – but, in general, utterly failed to predict the result. While I am delighted for Survation (the closest poll by a mile) whose representative was cruelly pilloried by Andrew Neil and another sneering pollster the day before the election, the failure of the psephologists is one of the most depressing features of the election. Much of my argument against Corbyn was based on polling data. A personal mantra to idealistic friends was, “You cannot just deny the political science!” Oh dear. I was completely wrong. I trusted in the experts but found myself in an anti-Govian parallel universe. This disturbs me greatly. The danger now is that the polls can no longer guide informed decision. It is a big part of the armoury to take away and leaves us very vulnerable to unsubstantiated beliefs.

 

This has been a rambling outpouring of concern, but let me finish my clarifying something that may appear to be a dichotomy in my thinking. Is my primary concern is Corbyn as a leader? Or is it that I think the party needs to have more centrist policies? I was critical of Brown as a choice of leader, and very critical of Miliband. Corbyn has in some way answered my call (using a quote from Krugman) that the opposition should not simply “fold”. Indeed, I, along with many “pragmatists” am supportive of many policies which would be considered very hard left. But my perennial frustration with Labour has been its inability to put forward and choose a leader who can provide a suite of good policy but who can do so in a way that does not startle the deers. Technocratic competence is the start of this. Appearing to have this (which is critically different) is another important feature. Not having controversial baggage is another. I am loathe to say it because of the non-immediate consequences, but maybe the McDonnell Amendment (meaning that leadership candidates need just 5% rather than 15% of the PLP to nominate them) may give the party a chance to continue with the current policy direction but allow Corbyn the opportunity to stand aside for a less controversial figurehead.

Whether this is what the party wants is another issue.

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