The much-criticised Labour leader made a surprisingly strong showing in the general election, and not just among the young. Sarah Ebner asks why
On May 28 this year, I tweeted: “If Tories want to actually win election need to stop offering “fear of other” as main reason to vote for them Didn’t work w/ Brexit.”
This was at a time when everyone still seemed to think Theresa May would achieve a huge victory. Recalling how badly the negative campaigns had gone for Remain in the EU referendum and for Zac Goldsmith in the London mayoral election, I felt they had picked the wrong battle lines. The problem with running a campaign that is all about fear of the opposition is that, if the opposition suddenly seems less terrible, you are left in deep, deep trouble.
Yet when I spoke to committed Tory voters, it was almost as if they couldn’t (or wouldn’t) see any possibility other than a May victory. Even though their campaign was negative, listless, and all about the fear of what the alternative might bring, they couldn’t see an alternative. They just didn’t think people would vote for Jeremy Corbyn.
Well, they were as wrong as the advisers surrounding the Prime Minister. They treated the electorate as if it was stupid; as if people would vote only out of fear of what they didn’t know. They didn’t think it was possible – even after Brexit, and to a lesser extent Trump – that people might choose to jump into the unknown.
My feeling is that the British public rarely does something stupid – unless given a very, very good reason. This holds for all sorts of things, from voting for the winners of televised talent shows (a poor, talentless candidate may have a good run, but never actually wins) to mayoral elections. Brits don’t like being taken for granted or told what to do.
Brits also like to give people a chance, particularly an underdog. So, if you call a seven-week election campaign, then that’s more than enough time for someone to be given that chance. And for them to take it and run.
There are so many reasons why Labour outperformed predictions in this election – some due to Corbyn and many due to May’s own mistakes. But some of Corbyn’s success was undoubtedly in energising younger voters. I’m delighted that the young finally made their voices heard – they matter as much as everyone else and in the last few years they have suffered Brexit (which they didn’t want), higher tuition fees and a sense that they will never get on the housing ladder. The Conservatives offered them nothing.
The Labour Party offered them, yes, a bribe (getting rid of tuition fees and restoring maintenance grants). More broadly than that it offered hope, while Conservatives talked of things that seemed entirely irrelevant to their lives – not least the IRA. And finally in Corbyn the young saw a politician who appeared to “get” them, to like young people and be able to talk to them. (Although I have been pondering, as my own daughter said to me, why the young seem to like old, white men such as Corbyn and Bernie Sanders so much.)
Whatever drove so many of them to register and turn out to vote in this election, the young seem to have made a big difference in seats such as Reading and Bristol West. But the upturn in Labour’s vote was not entirely due to them.
It was about two weeks into the campaign when I saw the tide begin to turn. Many of my friends had complained about Jeremy Corbyn for some time – in particular, they disliked the people he was surrounded by and were concerned about some of the aggression that his leadership seemed to have unearthed, including misogyny and anti-Semitism.
But when the election began in earnest, when Theresa May offered nothing but negativity – not just in her speeches, but in her manifesto – those fears, at least for many, seemed to ebb away. Suddenly the “nasty” party was back.
People suggested, passionately (as they always have done), that if you voted Tory, then you were voting against a fairer society. Those who had been anti-Corbyn talked of voting for the party, not the leader, and persuaded themselves that he wasn’t “that bad”, and that the worrisome things about him were in the past. His success seems due to a mixture of those who voted for Labour despite him, and those who voted specifically for him.
Pundits laugh at the idea that well-off Londoners in boroughs like Kensington or Battersea would vote for a leftwing party, but many people really do care about fairness. They are willing to pay higher taxes so that schools can be better funded and people better cared for. Older people may not be full of idealism any more, but it’s not just the young who would like a society that seems more equitable.
We live in a more diverse society and Mrs May did not seem to be able to reflect that (fields of wheat? Really?). Londoners – like many others – do not want a political party which thinks that bringing back fox hunting could be a priority, or sees them as “citizens of nowhere”. And they certainly did not like their mayor being criticised by the US President. If the PM had slapped him down, it would have helped.
It was also fascinating to realise that, when it comes to elections, foreign affairs just don’t matter that much. No one seemed too concerned that Corbyn and those closest to him are pro Putin; that the shadow chancellor John McDonnell paraded under an Assad flag, or that Seumas Milne, Corbyn’s director of strategy and communications, thinks Stalin and the Stasi have been mistreated by history (yes, really).
Labour did not win the election, but they could have done. Since the Brexit vote politics have been turned upside down: Britain seems to be split, and the future is unpredictable. But whatever happens next, politicians need to take note of all the electorate – the many, not just the few.