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16 June 2017updated 09 Sep 2021 6:08pm

Labour is closer to power. Here’s how it can get over the line

Joshua Simons, a former staffer in Jeremy Corbyn's office, on the party's unexpected advance, and what Labour must do next. 

By Joshua Simons

Last week, Jeremy Corbyn secured a victory that has transformed the electoral map. His strategy and message during the campaign reaped rewards in places I thought would never find him convincing.

Victory in seats like Glasgow North East and Kirkcaldy in Scotland, or Lincoln and of course Canterbury in England, mean that Labour is much closer to power than anyone – including myself – thought. A host of seats across Britain have become marginals that Labour can target when the inevitable happens and Theresa May’s government falls.

I left my job working with Corbyn doubtful of his capacity to build a team that could win. Though he did not win, it is important to understand what happened and how it has reshaped Labour’s path to power.

First, Ukip voters returned to Labour in much greater numbers than anyone expected. At this stage, it is hard to know why, but many are likely to be people who could vote for parties other than Labour, but who could not stomach voting Tory. Labour’s opaque stance on Brexit almost certainly helped.

Second, Labour picked up significant swings in liberal, university towns, boosting turnout among young people. Here Corbyn’s campaign was pivotal. Third, Labour won the votes of 50 per cent of people aged 35-44. This is remarkable, unexpected, and it will make Tories shudder.

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The most significant divide was generational. Labour won about 67 percent of voters aged 18-24, 50 percent of voters aged 35-44, 33 percent of those aged 55-64, and just 23 percent of voters older than 65. In seats like Warwick and Canterbury, Corbyn energized voters of my generation (18-24). Nobody has any clear data on what drove the surge yet, but it is very likely that the political turbulence of the present moment, and understandable anger about tuition fees, encouraged more of my generation to vote than ever before.

If so, that represents a momentous shift in the electoral logic of British politics. As a child of the 1990s, I never believed the zeitgeist view that globalisation signaled an end to the capacity of politics to change things. As a student, I thought it strange that my elders really believed this, as history is littered with moments of crisis in which politics has changed everything. But I was always told that my generation could change nothing in democratic politics because we didn’t vote.

For the first time, we have exercised our latent electoral power. Political parties on both sides will not forget us in a hurry again – and we must not let them, for over the coming years and decades, our votes have the power to change the character of British politics.

There is much we need all parts of the Labour Party to do. Politically, the party must come together.

For those of us who grew up with a Labour government, the old divisions between the left, centre and right of the party do not carry much historical weight. I don’t remember Wilson or Benn or Foot, nor can I picture 1974 or 1983 or even 1997.

I have a ferocious appetite for the history of those moments, but what matters to me is winning, so that a Labour government can make this country better, not whether Blair or Brown is more to blame for Labour’s three consecutive electoral losses.

The current euphoria will not last forever and unity does not happen of its own accord. Corbyn should broaden his own team, hiring competent and professional staff who can work with a broad range of MPs and party staff.

He should draw on the wealth of talent Labour now has in its parliamentary team and broaden his shadow cabinet, bringing back talented politicians like Chuka Umunna, Yvette Cooper, Rachel Reeves and Stella Creasy. In turn, those politicians must accept that Corbyn has won the right to take Labour into the next general election, help him develop an ambitious and rigorous programme for government, and ensure that disagreements remain internal.

The internal politics of the Labour Party will not and should not go away, for there are sincerely held and important differences of policy and strategy. I never agreed with Corbyn’s views on foreign policy and security, and I still don’t. But what people my age do not accept – or to some extent understand – is that those differences should come before the broader aim of securing a Labour government.

Labour still has much to do. First, on politics. Though the Union as a whole is stronger this week than last, much to my relief as a half-Scot, Labour still came third in Scotland.

Labour cannot have a stable period in government without improving its position in Scotland. In the Midlands, Labour’s results were better than expected, but we will still need much bigger swings there to achieve an overall majority. And Labour must continue to make inroads in its heartlands in the North East and North West.

On policy, there is even more to do. Labour must still grapple with deep questions of identity that will not disappear as a result of this election. International politics continues to be more uncertain than at any point in the postwar period.

As a result, events are likely to draw attention to internal divisions about how Britain should best confront this unstable world. But Labour can now address these questions with a spirit of unity and purpose, rather than despair.

Above all, as Corbyn always said it would, this election has indeed shown the British public are sick of the Tories’ austerity argument. They do not have an intrinsic aversion to reasonably radical, if not wholly imaginative, economic policy.

The present political moment is ripe for ambitious and creative policies that deal with the dislocation felt by many as a consequence of globalisation, immigration, and technological change – and which encourage innovation and investment.

Labour still has much to do to think about how best to achieve progressive aims in Britain in the century that stretches before us – and all wings of the party have much to contribute.

For my generation, it is that goal which matters above all others. This election has shown the energy and dynamism that our votes can encourage – Labour must now do all it can to harness it.

Joshua Simons worked as a policy advisor to Jeremy Corbyn until April 2017 and is now a Kennedy Scholar at Harvard. 

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