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Basking in a surprise success, Corbyn’s team is planning for victory next time

"He’s shown he can win, and that’s enough for me."

The day after parliament returned on 12 June, I was sitting with Andrew Fisher, Jeremy Corbyn’s director of policy and the author of Labour’s manifesto, in Portcullis House, where many MPs have their offices. We were interrupted by Karl Turner, the MP for Hull East. He bounded over to Fisher and shook his hand. “Well done!” he cried. “Well done! A lot of us are eating humble pie!”

The scene was particularly remarkable, as Turner had quit his role as shadow attorney general in 2016 in the mass shadow cabinet walkout over Corbyn’s leadership. But it wasn’t the only time this had happened to Fisher that day.

For the first time in at least five years, there is a feel-good factor among the professional ranks of the Labour Party. There is a particular glee to unexpected success, and the party went into the election expecting to be not only beaten but smashed. Instead, it has advanced. After the 2015 election, ­Labour needed to gain 94 seats to end up with a majority of one – better than any of its election performances other than the landslides of 1997 and 1945.

To take power, it needed to work out how to win either Kirkcaldy, which the SNP held with a majority of 9,974, or Kensington in west London, whose incumbent, Victoria Borwick, had a majority of more than 7,000.

In the event, Labour won both Kirkcaldy and Kensington. A Parliamentary Labour Party expecting to be shrunk has dozens of extra members. This is the first election in which Labour has gained seats since 1997. The picture is less 1997, more 1992 – a surprise result that leaves Labour tantalisingly close to power, needing just a 3.5 per cent swing to win a majority. But this time, Labour has the benefit that the surprise has injected optimism into the party, not plunged it into despair and recrimination.

No one working for Labour expected the exit poll that showed the party not only holding on but making advances. For the leader’s aides watching the results at Southside, Labour’s London headquarters, it was only when the result from North Swindon came in at midnight that they began to believe something remarkable was happening. The immediate result has been to unify the PLP behind Corbyn. One of the party’s most influential operators in the parallel whipping operation that Corbynsceptics have been running summed up the mood: “I’m a utilitarian. He’s shown he can win, and that’s enough for me.”

Although a few outspoken ultras – both Chris Leslie, the MP for Nottingham East, and John Spellar, the MP for Warley, criticised the result – will remain outside the tent, the Labour leader will enter this new period with a party united behind him.

Having expected to be in a fight for survival, Corbyn has a more congenial but even more difficult task: finishing the job and taking power at the next election, whenever it may be. That requires changes to how the campaign is run. “What is the point,” one senior trade union official texted me on the morning after polling day, “of spending our members’ time and money on a system that tells us we’re losing by 5,000 [in a seat] when we’re winning by 10,000?”

The leader’s office hopes that this failure will lead to greater support for the organisational review that is being conducted by Bob Kerslake, the former head of the civil service and cross-bench peer, into how Labour operates and organises.

He already reorganised the leader’s office last year. That reorganisation and the appointment of Karie Murphy as Corbyn’s chief of staff have been credited with sharpening the effectiveness of the operation. One friend says that Murphy would “pick a fight with her own reflection”, and another senior staffer describes her admiringly as a “battering ram”.

Part of Labour’s success this time came from expanding the electorate: more than 1.5 million people voted in the 2017 election who did not vote in 2015. Corbyn’s team hopes to build on this by running voter registration drives, particularly in areas where students might not be on the rolls.

The astonishing gain in Canterbury – a student-heavy seat that has been Conservative for longer than the Labour Party has been in existence – has already inspired former Corbynsceptics. “Look at Camborne, big campus there,” one New Labour grandee gushed. “Look at Loughborough, big campus there. We can do there what we did in Canterbury.”

Corbyn will also continue to maintain a permanent office at the party’s headquarters, a convention that was abandoned by Ed Miliband. By working alongside party staff, he has eased suspicions on both sides. “There are still structural problems,” one aide to the leader observes. “But I think what needs to change is how HQ operates, not who works there, for the most part.”

While Jeremy Hunt remains in place as Secretary of State for Health, the leader’s office believes that the NHS will stay a major election issue. It thinks that hospital cuts can be as effective a cudgel as school spending cuts were in this campaign. And it believes that the health issue will help Labour hold on to and extend the small gains that it made with older voters, though the assumption has to be that the Conservative Party will not fight such a helpfully maladroit campaign again.

Whoever leads the Conservatives into the next election – and the leader’s office assumes it will not be Theresa May – Lab­our’s settled view is that it will be Jeremy Corbyn, not a successor sharing his politics, who will face the next Tory prime minister. It’s not just Corbyn’s staffers who believe in his unique appeal now. One newly elected Blairite MP summed up the mood: “This wouldn’t have happened with another candidate. It was him.” What a difference an election makes.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

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Our union backed Brexit, but that doesn't mean scrapping freedom of movement

We can only improve the lives of our members, like those planning stike action at McDonalds, through solidarity.

The campaign to defend and extend free movement – highlighted by the launch of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement this month – is being seen in some circles as a back door strategy to re-run the EU referendum. If that was truly the case, then I don't think Unions like mine (the BFAWU) would be involved, especially as we campaigned to leave the EU ourselves.

In stark contrast to the rhetoric used by many sections of the Leave campaign, our argument wasn’t driven by fear and paranoia about migrant workers. A good number of the BFAWU’s membership is made up of workers not just from the EU, but from all corners of the world. They make a positive contribution to the industry that we represent. These people make a far larger and important contribution to our society and our communities than the wealthy Brexiteers, who sought to do nothing other than de-humanise them, cheered along by a rabid, right-wing press. 

Those who are calling for end to freedom of movement fail to realise that it’s people, rather than land and borders that makes the world we live in. Division works only in the interest of those that want to hold power, control, influence and wealth. Unfortunately, despite a rich history in terms of where division leads us, a good chunk of the UK population still falls for it. We believe that those who live and work here or in other countries should have their skills recognised and enjoy the same rights as those born in that country, including the democratic right to vote. 

Workers born outside of the UK contribute more than £328 million to the UK economy every day. Our NHS depends on their labour in order to keep it running; the leisure and hospitality industries depend on them in order to function; the food industry (including farming to a degree) is often propped up by their work.

The real architects of our misery and hardship reside in Westminster. It is they who introduced legislation designed to allow bosses to act with impunity and pay poverty wages. The only way we can really improve our lives is not as some would have you believe, by blaming other poor workers from other countries, it is through standing together in solidarity. By organising and combining that we become stronger as our fabulous members are showing through their decision to ballot for strike action in McDonalds.

Our members in McDonalds are both born in the UK and outside the UK, and where the bosses have separated groups of workers by pitting certain nationalities against each other, the workers organised have stood together and fought to win change for all, even organising themed social events to welcome each other in the face of the bosses ‘attempts to create divisions in the workplace.

Our union has held the long term view that we should have a planned economy with an ability to own and control the means of production. Our members saw the EU as a gravy train, working in the interests of wealthy elites and industrial scale tax avoidance. They felt that leaving the EU would give the UK the best opportunity to renationalise our key industries and begin a programme of manufacturing on a scale that would allow us to be self-sufficient and independent while enjoying solid trading relationships with other countries. Obviously, a key component in terms of facilitating this is continued freedom of movement.

Many of our members come from communities that voted to leave the EU. They are a reflection of real life that the movers and shakers in both the Leave and Remain campaigns took for granted. We weren’t surprised by the outcome of the EU referendum; after decades of politicians heaping blame on the EU for everything from the shape of fruit to personal hardship, what else could we possibly expect? However, we cannot allow migrant labour to remain as a political football to give succour to the prejudices of the uninformed. Given the same rights and freedoms as UK citizens, foreign workers have the ability to ensure that the UK actually makes a success of Brexit, one that benefits the many, rather than the few.

Ian Hodon is President of the Bakers and Allied Food Workers Union and founding signatory of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement.