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5 July 2024

After a historic Labour victory, I’m choosing hope

Pessimism is easy. But this change in government gives us all reasons for optimism.

By Pippa Bailey

A little under five years ago, in December 2019, I wrote a column – among my first for this magazine – reflecting on the result of that month’s election, in which Boris Johnson’s Tories won a historic majority. In the early hours of the morning, dejected after a burst-balloon of a New Statesman election party, I wrote of my growing sense of futility and despair. I had, at that time, voted in four general elections, and each had been won by the party I vehemently opposed. My vote, which I had been raised to believe mattered, didn’t seem to matter much at all.

Fourteen years of Tory rule mapped exactly on to the 14 years I have been eligible to vote. In 2010, my first election, aged 18, I voted Lib Dem, only for Nick Clegg to sell out my cohort of soon-to-be university students. Then in 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2019, I lost again and again. Each time I hoped a little less, invested a little less, grieved a little less. If there was a political home for those like me, who wanted desperately to believe that there was such a thing as society, but did not believe David Cameron when he said “we’re all in this together”, I could not find it. I had never known electoral victory. Until last night.

As the cheers and hollers went up at this year’s New Statesman election party the moment the exit poll was released, I found myself quieter, less elated than I had anticipated – perhaps simply because it was, after weeks of every commentator talking of the result as a foregone conclusion, not a surprise. But also because the implications of it will take time to process; getting off the Tory merry-go-round has made me quite dizzy.

I have long felt that my generation – the one that came of age as David Cameron entered Downing Street – slips between the neat, dividing lines of Millennials and Gen Z. I was five when Tony Blair won his, I am told, euphoric landslide in 1997, more interested in the impending release of the first Harry Potter book than in politics. But my peers and I spent our conscious childhoods under Labour, and we imbibed the grand optimism of the Nineties. We believed that things could only get better, both individually and nationally. The world was becoming progressively more peaceful, more prosperous, more democratic, and our lives were ours to be shaped as we wished. If we worked hard and treated those around us with respect, we could achieve anything we wanted.

It was all, of course, hopelessly naïve and entitled; a dream state. (That many of us were first politicised by the Iraq War should have been enough to instil some realism.) But it made what followed – austerity, youth service closures, the betrayal over tuition fees, graduating into the post-crash labour market with higher levels of debt and job insecurity than those before us, wage stagnation, a criminally unaffordable housing market, the fracturing of truth in the new online world, and the prospect of retiring, if at all, into poverty – all the more painful.

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Looking back, part of my anguish over the 2019 election result was a feeling of keen alienation from the rest of the country. My cohort had a profound and furious conviction that the status quo did not work for us, and were more likely to vote for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party than for Johnson’s Tories as a result. La-la-la-la-la, the rest of the country seemed to respond: what are you complaining about, you silly little children? Aren’t you mature enough to realise that Corbyn is an unelectable crank?

In the 14 years since I cast my first vote in a general election, I have not grown more conservative, as received wisdom says I should. Small c-conservatism – the value of tradition and consistency, and the desire for society to remain unchanged – has little appeal to a generation prevented by economic conditions from building a traditional, stable life. We remain in a state of arrested development; politically, we are still 18.

Perhaps it was this childishness that meant I felt more watching Corbyn hold on to Islington North than I did watching Keir Starmer’s nasal thanks to his cheering crowd. Still, the Prime Minister said something in his victory speech that spoke to my very deepest rage, and gave me cause for hope: “Whoever you are, wherever you started in life, if you work hard, if you play by the rules, this country should give you a fair chance to get on.” A fair chance to get on is, should be, a humble ambition. The desire for it unites, I believe, Brexiteers and Reform backers with Remainers like me who put their vote behind Starmer’s campaign for change. The chance to get on was taken from us – from my peers, and many thousands of others – and we want it back.

Much will be said and written in the coming days and weeks of the challenges that face the new Labour government: the traps ahead; the volatility of modern politics; the consequences come 2029 if it has not (as surely it cannot) achieved fast and complete change; the warning of the 4 million who voted for Reform. But, as I wrote in 2019, “It is easier to be a pessimist than an optimist, to say ‘I told you so’ rather than ‘I hope so.’ The pessimist is either right, even when the result is undesirable to them, or pleasantly surprised.” But today, at least, I choose to turn away from my instinctive pessimism, to hail the first Labour government of my adult lifetime, and to hope for a nation transformed.

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This article appears in the 10 Jul 2024 issue of the New Statesman, All Change