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14 June 2022

Five years on, what was the meaning of the 2017 general election?

Labour’s surge showed that left-wing policies aren’t always a hindrance, and exposed the sheer fragility of public opinion.

By Rory Scothorne

This time five years ago, Labour was surging ahead of the Conservatives, fresh from a shocking general election result that had produced a hung parliament. On 10 June, a few days after the election, a Survation poll had Labour at 45 per cent, six points clear of Theresa May’s wilting Tories. The international media suddenly had to assemble serious profiles of Jeremy Corbyn, the strange old man with a beard and wonky glasses who had come from obscurity and ridicule to within a few hundred votes of 10 Downing Street.

The New Yorker’s John Cassidy praised the Labour leader for “defying the political, media and economic establishments to breathe fresh life into a politics that had become stale, formulaic and moribund”. In Politico James P Rubin, assistant secretary of state in Bill Clinton’s administration, offered the establishment perspective, fretting that “Americans have almost no experience with political leaders from the far left, like Corbyn, who have made a career of attacking US foreign policies time and again… As an American living [in Britain], it is troubling to think how close he came.”

But if “Jeremy Corbyn’s achievement”, as the New Yorker put it, once prompted fear and admiration across the western world, five years later it has almost vanished from sight – even at home. Labour’s astonishing rise in the polls during and after the 2017 campaign has been ejected from political history almost as quickly as it forced its way in. A year later Sky’s political correspondent, Lewis Goodall, now at the BBC, reflected on “the significance of the 2017 general election” in an article that mentioned Corbyn just once, and only to note that he was being blamed for the failure to get Brexit done.

For the left, however, 2017 remains all-important. Last year Ell Smith wrote in Tribune that “the lesson to take from 2017 is clear: left-wing policies are popular, can build broad coalitions (even in England) and can result in tremendous gains for Labour”. In this reading the election also proved that Labour does best when it offers a real alternative, against the instincts of party centrists. Reporting on the party’s manifesto launch, the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg explained that “this is not an election where voters can say, with justification, ‘they are all the same’”.

There are other, more fatalistic ways of thinking about the result, which play down the importance of Corbyn and the left. The British Election Study found that despite its surprisingly low profile in the campaign, Brexit was a powerful factor, helping both the Tories and Labour to consolidate Leave and Remain voters into their respective camps at the expense of smaller parties. With the Brexit debate in 2017 focused on how to leave rather than whether to do it at all, Labour benefited from its support for a “soft” Brexit with single market access.

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In this reading 2017 was just a flash in the pan – a moment when Brexit drew Labour’s electoral coalition together rather than splitting it apart. Ironically, the resulting hung parliament only intensified the issue, and Labour was the main victim of the fallout.

It’s also true that Corbynism didn’t actually win in 2017, and that May ran a terrible campaign. But pessimistic interpretations of the result miss the most important political point, at least as far as Labour is concerned. For decades, Labour’s left had been told that they had to sacrifice both policy and principle for the sake of electability, because the public was repelled by left-wing ideas. Regardless of why it happened, the transformation of Labour’s fortunes between May and June 2017 demonstrated that moving left is not necessarily a hindrance to the party’s prospects, and can even coexist with (if not necessarily cause) significant electoral gains. It was a solid basis on which to consolidate the more socialist identity for the party that had been declared with Corbyn’s election as leader.

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Of course, in the years after June 2017 Corbyn’s personal reputation collapsed, and took Labour’s with it. Keir Starmer was elected by members and affiliates who believed him when he promised a more professionalised and marketable variant of Corbynism. His pivot to the right since then has been justified, however, by the argument that the British public didn’t just dislike Corbyn but held the entire policy platform in contempt.

Philip Collins, a New Statesman contributing writer and one of Starmer’s speechwriters, has repeatedly drawn on the former Labour minister Edmund Dell’s book A Strange Eventful History – an elegantly cynical intellectual history of the Labour Party – to make the case that “Clause Four socialism” is “an impediment to electoral success”. Under Corbyn, Labour never proposed the nationalisation of the economy’s commanding heights, but it did pledge to take over utilities – and public opinion was on its side, with polls regularly showing majority support for public ownership of things like energy and rail even among Tory voters.

One lesson of 2017, in fact, was the sheer fragility of “public opinion”. In a now-deleted Twitter thread recalling the campaign, the former Yougov pollster Chris Curtis reflected on the shock and anxiety with which he and his colleagues experienced the rapidly changing poll results. Such an ordeal ought to caution pundits and politicians alike against making sweeping claims about what the public will and won’t tolerate.

The truth is that “the public” is not a real thing out there in the world. It is a mishmash of the weird, conflicting and disorderly opinions and interests which real people have. In the absence of any truly deliberative democracy, the public has no collective opinion of its own that can be separated from the things that fleetingly measure and describe it, from elections and polls to pundits and politicians. Britain entered May 2017 with a public that was, supposedly, solidly opposed to socialism. By mid-June, almost half of the same public was ready to vote for a party led by a far-left firebrand who struck fear into American security officials.

There is, again, a less hopeful way of looking at this. Yes, public opinion may be constructed to suit particular political agendas, but the left doesn’t get to do the inventing. For right-wingers in the party such as David Miliband, Labour winning – even from the centre-left – requires “brilliant people”, the subtext being that only Messianic charisma can escape the dead weight of media and corporate scepticism. The most generous assessment of Starmer’s project so far, which has steered away from any transformative vision, is that he has sought to close off all possible Conservative lines of attack that might portray Labour as out of touch.

Left-wing politics will always be open to attack, however. As Leonard Cohen put it, “there’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in”. In 2017 Corbyn and the movement around him tried to let in some light by saying the thing you’re not supposed to say so directly: Britain’s media, its politics and its economy are overwhelmingly controlled by bad people, whose fundamental interests are at odds with those of the British public, and any serious progressive project will have to directly challenge those people to make any lasting change. Corbynism was eventually punished for that, but not before it gave us a glimpse of what a serious, long-term plan for power looks like – and how hard it will be resisted.

If Starmer and his “moderate” supporters had such a plan, they would at least have to match their endless rhetorical pandering to the rich and powerful with an agenda to undermine that wealth and power once in office, so the left might have a chance to reshape public opinion in its image. That would mean breaking up the influence of billionaire-owned media and encouraging public-interest alternatives; stifling the political access of private donors and improving the strength of democratic civil society; rebalancing workplace authority away from owners and management and towards workers; and giving some substance to British democracy with meaningful constitutional reforms such as proportional representation, expanding the voting age to 16 and giving far more power and money to local government, where democracy is closest to people.

Not even a hint of a strategy along these lines has been forthcoming from the leadership, or anyone around it. As Labour’s polling under Starmer rises to within touching distance of the heights achieved by Corbyn in June 2017, it looks more and more like he has a plan to get into office without ever taking power. The public, that fickle thing, will eventually punish him for it.

[See also: Why Tory leadership contenders should wield the knife against Boris Johnson]

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