20 June 2017
I saw Jeremy Corbyn speak at the barnstorming final rally of his election campaign at Union Chapel in Islington on the evening of June 7th, the night before the election. Though visibly exhausted after a long day of campaigning the Labour leader was relaxed, fluent and on point – a man in command of his message, his audience, and his campaign. Closing the speech, he quoted Percy Shelley’s ‘The Masque of Anarchy’, the final lines of which, ‘Ye are many – they are few’, had inspired the Labour Party’s resonant campaign slogan ‘For the many, not the few’. “No one”, Corbyn quipped disarmingly to cheers from the crowd, “should be afraid to admit they like poetry”.
When I left the venue to the news that the latest YouGov poll had revised Labour’s vote share downwards to 35 percent, more in line with earlier, less optimistic forecasts, the unguarded enthusiasm of the rally suddenly felt a bit silly, earnest and naïve. But we all know what happened next. The Labour Party, while short of government, increased its vote share more than at any election since 1945, denied Theresa May the opportunity to ‘crush her saboteurs’ with the larger majority she had greedily counted on, and forced the Conservatives to seek a divisive coalition with the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party. Since the election the potentially volatile impact of a deal with the DUP to the politics of Northern Ireland, and the sickening tragedy of the Grenfell fire, have continued to harden public opinion against a Tory regime that is increasingly seen to have aided, abetted and responded callously to inequality in British society.
Much of the relative success of the Labour campaign can be ascribed to May’s weakness, poor Tory strategy, and Corbyn’s strengths as a campaigner. But Labour also did better in this election than in 2015 because, under Corbyn, its message was not only more confidently and persuasively delivered, but more concrete, policy-focused, and forward-looking than it has been for many years. From 2010 to 2015 the Labour Party was engaged in a thoughtful but defensive reconsideration of its identity and purpose. Many of its policy thinkers and party intellectuals sought to craft a politics that rejected both the market-friendly technocracy of New Labour, and the perceived statism and class politics of the pre- Third Way left and labour movement. They mined history for inspiration, citing intellectuals like Raymond Williams and Karl Polanyi and intellectual movements like the New Left and the English radical tradition as inspiration for politics that highlighted civic engagement, community, and patriotism. But the thoughtful nostalgia of One Nation Labour didn’t really fly, as a politics that took inspiration from the complex and subtle thinking of socialist intellectuals in decades past failed to galvanise the public – though as some have commented, May’s embrace of a rhetoric of compassionate conservatism has invoked many of the themes and policies of the Miliband era.
Corbyn has often been derided as a political throwback, but, romantic poetry aside, his manifesto and his messaging have been explicitly future-centred, and unconcerned with allusions to history. The 2017 Manifesto’s clear condemnation of inequality, promises to invest in infrastructure and renewable energy, and offer of free university tuition and maintenance grants represent tangible, redistributive offerings that people – and especially young people – can wrap their heads around. Good old-fashioned social democracy now feels acutely relevant, and the Labour Party is finally, for the first time in a while, facing the future.
Lise Butler is a Lecturer in Modern History at City, University of London and a commissioning editor for Renewal.
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