This general election is the first since 1987, when Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives were defending a huge majority, from which Labour should have, in my opinion, no expectation of emerging as the governing party. Beguiled by the polls and a messianic self-belief, even Ed Miliband went to bed on the eve of the 2015 election intoxicated by intimations of immortality: he was certain that he would fulfil his destiny by becoming our new prime minister, perhaps as the leader of the largest party in a coalition government. Jeremy Corbyn should have no such expectation.
In recent days, I have been speaking to Labour candidates, including those defending small majorities in marginal seats, as well as to activists. The picture emerging is bleaker than the polls would suggest and the mood is one of foreboding: candidates expect to lose scores of seats on Thursday. There’s a sense, too, that two campaigns have been conducted simultaneously: candidates with majorities under 10,000 are trying to hold back the Tory tide, while Corbyn is, as some perceive it, already contesting the next leadership contest – one in which, at present, he is the sole candidate.
Corbyn is an energetic and resilient campaigner. In strongholds across England he purposefully goes about his business addressing rallies of the converted which have all the fervour of religious revivalist meetings or the gatherings of a cult. Corbyn is enjoying the campaign. He and his supporters are buoyed by improving opinion-poll ratings. They believe that their signature manifesto pledges – higher income taxes on those earning £80,000 a year or above, nationalisation of the railways and other utilities, free university tuition fees for students – are popular.
Corbyn and John McDonnell have shifted the “Overton window”, it is said, by broadening the range of policies that the public will accept. They have changed the language and priorities of our politics. They have made the return of socialism in one country if not inevitable then possible. If they go down in flames, they will have done so on their own terms, in their own way. No point pretending to be other than who or what they are – and this, at least, is commendable.
Yet Labour is heading for defeat on 8 June all the same – because, in spite of its energetic campaign, it is engaged in a dance of death. Corbyn and Corbynism are conspicuously popular among students and older radicals who fondly remember the anti-Vietnam protests of the late 1960s and early 1970s, as well as among anti-Blairites. The problem is that the party’s vote share is heavily concentrated in safe seats and it is overly reliant on young people actually turning out to vote.
The political scientist Tom Lubbock has been studying public polling data and, in a thread of tweets, he likened Labour’s plight to that of the proverbial frog in boiling water. “Over the course of the period since it lost in 2010, Labour’s position has worsened with many important groups, especially the over-55s and over-65s,” he told me when we spoke before the Manchester bombing. “Its position has worsened geographically as well – its votes are piling up in safe seats – and in the fundamentals of leadership and credibility. But the overall perspective is obscured by each new crisis.”
The rabid focus on Corbyn’s leadership has disguised a deeper malaise. Like the frog unaware that the temperature of the water in which it swims is dangerously rising, Labour is oblivious to, or refuses to contemplate, the danger it is in. Lubbock, who is a lecturer in politics at Regent’s Park College, University of Oxford, believes the polls are flattering the party. “Even with a vote share of 33 per cent, the party could suffer a catastrophic loss of seats to the Tories because, unlike in 2005, when it won a majority on 35.2 per cent of the vote, Labour’s vote share is now poorly distributed from the point of view of winning in marginals and it faces a Conservative Party polling around 15 percentage points higher than it did under Michael Howard – in other words, Labour is now disbenefited by the electoral system.”
As well as in Scotland, Labour is struggling in the West and East Midlands, in the north-east and Yorkshire, and in some of the outer London constituencies. One MP told me the party was “dangling over a cliff” and only “just about holding on by its fingertips”. Another spoke of an “existential crisis”. He added: “There is nothing inevitable about Labour’s survival. We may find after this election the ground moves beneath us and people simply give up on waiting and form a new movement or party to represent them.”
Atul Hatwal, who edits the Labour Uncut website, has studied canvassing returns and spoken to many candidates and activists. “The defeat will be greater than 1983, with leading figures such as Tom Watson, Dennis Skinner and Caroline Flint facing defeat while many others, including Yvette Cooper, Ed Miliband and Angela Rayner, are teetering on the brink,” he wrote in a 20 May post for Labour Uncut.
Recent political shocks and the volatility of the polls should make one instinctively sceptical of such emphatic forecasting but Hatwal was unperturbed when I spoke to him. “It’s looking terrible,” he told me. “First, there are the Ukip-to-Tory switchers. Second, there is the drop-off in our vote where people are just not going to vote. Third, and this will have a direct bearing on how bad it is, there are those who are switching directly from us to the Tories. There are people in our heartlands of the north-east and Yorkshire who are ashamed to say they’re voting Tory and yet they are voting Tory. We could be falling towards extinction levels.”
Hatwal expects Labour to lose “over 90 seats”, which would be the party’s worst return since 1935, when, under the nascent leadership of Clement Attlee (who had a few weeks previously replaced George Lansbury, a Christian pacifist who had lost the confidence of the party), it won 154 seats. In 1983, in the aftermath of the Falklands War, Michael Foot’s Labour won 209 seats, on a 27 per cent vote share.
On Tuesday 6 June, Hatwal wrote another post for Labour Uncut which was headlined “Party braced for the worst”. He concluded: “After Corbyn’s triumph in the Labour leadership, Brexit and Trump, the old certainties no longer hold sway. This is certainly the desperate hope of Labour candidates up and down the country. Rarely have so many, who have worked so hard knocking doors, hoped that they’re so wrong.
“But the evidence from Labour’s own data and the Tories’ campaigning choices is compelling and it suggests that they are not.”
Draw an imaginary line across the country from the Severn in the west to the Wash in the east, then exclude London, where Labour is protected by the shield under which cosmopolitans shelter from the post-liberal turn that is transforming our national politics. Below this line there are 197 seats, of which Labour holds 12; of these, several are ultra-marginals. “It’s very close,” Wes Streeting, who is defending a majority of 589 in Ilford North, told me. “There’s a lot of warmth towards me – and I have a terrifically motivated team. In a way, our ground campaigning didn’t stop when we won two years ago. But will it be enough?”
Peter Kyle, who was elected the MP for Hove and Portslade (majority 1,236) in 2015, one of the few Labour gains from the Tories last time around, said: “This is a maverick election; some of the conventions we’ve been guided by have broken down. I represent a strong Remain constituency and I’m finding that lifelong Labour supporters are leaving because of Jeremy and the Corbyn project. Yet what is counterintuitive is that lifelong Tory supporters are voting for me because of my stance on Article 50 – I broke the whip. A large proportion of voters are thinking with their hearts, not their heads. So, we’re on the right playing field here in Hove. But in other parts of the country we are struggling to get on the pitch.”
That the much reduced Tory poll lead should be considered a measure of success is a further indictment of the leadership’s poverty of ambition. Len McCluskey, the Unite power-broker, said early in the campaign that he would be satisfied with a return of 200 seats. McCluskey is in blood stepped so far with the Corbyn project that there is no way back: Karie Murphy, whom Unite lawyers describe as McCluskey’s “close friend”, is one of Corbyn’s principal aides. Andrew Murray, who was the chair of the Stop the War Coalition and until last December a long-time member of the Communist Party of Britain, has been seconded from Unite, where he is chief of staff, to work as a strategist on Corbyn’s campaign.
McCluskey’s influence and power have been fundamental to the survival of Corbyn – and yet he expects the party to lose badly. How has it come to this?
I have recently returned from a reporting trip to Scotland, where the once-hegemonic Labour Party – think Ramsay MacDonald, Keir Hardie, John Smith, Robin Cook, Donald Dewar, Gordon Brown – has collapsed and where the Tories under Ruth Davidson, in their role as the ultimate defenders of the Union, have improbably re-emerged to unsettle the Scottish National Party. Entering the 2015 general election, Labour held 41 of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats; it will be fortunate to retain its solitary seat in this election, Ian Murray’s in Edinburgh South.
One evening I accompanied Angus Robertson, the deputy leader of the SNP, as he and his aides canvassed in the largely rural constituency of Moray (pronounced Murray), which he has represented at Westminster since 2001. We went door-knocking in a ward of council and former council houses in Elgin. Nearly everyone we met supported the SNP; we encountered a few bashful Tory supporters. “And this used to be a Labour area!” Robertson said to me, more in awe than celebration.
In England Labour is mounting a largely defensive campaign: its robust, unapologetic tax and spend policies have proved especially attractive to core supporters. The aim is not to win seats but to lose as few as possible, even with all the uncertainty and anger among Remain voters, many of whom feel unrepresented by the three main political parties in England. (In Scotland, they have the SNP to speak for them.) Led by a cabal of Eurosceptics, Labour has been feeble in its opposition in parliament to Theresa May’s pursuit of a hard – she prefers “clean” – Brexit. Unthreatened in the Commons, the Prime Minister has unified her party (at least superficially, for the purposes of the election) and reunited the right, “bringing home” former Ukip supporters along the way.
Like all political parties, Labour is an uneasy coalition. It comprises Bennite socialists, social democrats, neo-Marxists, public-sector workers, urban liberals, cosmopolitan intellectuals, students, the white working class and various minority groups. But what unites the pro-immigration, middle-class liberal in London with the disaffected, socially conservative, working-class Brexiteer in Sunderland? Not a lot, as the EU referendum and the Corbyn wars have shown. If Labour and social democracy are to find a renewed purpose in an age of globalisation, high immigration, deracinated cosmopolitanism and fractured social and class solidarity, it must be above all to defend the labour interest and redress the power of capital for the common good.
In recent weeks, a paper has been circulating among some Labour MPs and influential supporters. Written by Jonathan Rutherford, who worked for Ed Miliband and is close to Jon Cruddas, it offers an analysis of Labour’s plight and returns to George Orwell’s celebrated essay “The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius” in an attempt to articulate a new language of progressive patriotism. Rutherford believes that Labour has ceased to be the party of the labour interest: the more socially liberal the party has become, the more it finds itself estranged from the people it once sought to represent.
“An alliance between the Tory shires and the ex-industrial working class is taking the country out of the EU,” Rutherford writes. “It is the same alliance that held the country united in 1941 . . . Orwell’s essay remains the best guide to the character of the country – ‘it will change out of all recognition and yet remain the same’ – and so to the kind of politics that Labour must build.”
In his essay, Orwell denounces revolutionary leftist internationalism and writes with respect about the patriotism of the ordinary man and woman. “One cannot see the modern world as it is unless one recognises the overwhelming strength of patriotism, national loyalty. In certain circumstances it can break down, at certain levels of civilisation it does not exist, but as a positive force there is nothing to set beside it. Christianity and international Socialism are as weak as straw in comparison with it.”
Orwell was writing in 1941, during the Second World War, when the British nation was isolated and imperilled. For Orwell, the nation was bound together by an invisible chain. “At any normal time the ruling class will rob, mismanage, sabotage, lead us into the muck; but let popular opinion really make itself heard, let them get a tug from below that they cannot avoid feeling, and it is difficult for them not to respond.”
Rutherford believes the vote for Brexit was an Orwellian tug from below: popular opinion was making itself heard. The millions of Brexit voters in Labour constituencies were not appealing for a return to state socialism of a kind that only the command economy of the Second World War made possible, but expressing frustration with being told what was best for them by plummy elites, even as their wages stagnated and the public services on which they relied atrophied.
So far, the Conservatives have responded most nimbly to the new political realities created by the referendum: Theresa May believes that Brexit was not only a vote to leave the EU but a vote for a new political economy, and it is this she wishes, however falteringly, to create. If Ed Miliband wanted to govern a country that did not exist, as John Gray has written, Jeremy Corbyn has little feeling for what Orwell called the social atmosphere of the country, certainly beyond the metropolis and a few other big cities.
Labour will not win again until it stops choosing leaders – Miliband, Corbyn – whose severance from the common culture is absolute. It must find a way to relink the invisible chain that holds the nation together. “Patriotism and intelligence will have to come together again,” Orwell wrote, four years before what he desired became manifest in the landslide victory of the postwar, Attlee-led Labour Party. Patriotism and intelligence: the argument will have to be made all over again.
The great irony is that there is perhaps a majority in Britain that shares some version of traditional social-democratic values. The progressive/soft-capitalist consensus of the Tony Blair and David Cameron period has collapsed, but that doesn’t mean the country has swung harshly to the right. The enthusiasm for Corbynism among the young shows how deep is the desire for a new political and economic settlement. But first you have to win power and hold it.
“At some point,” said Peter Kyle, who is struggling to hold on in Hove, “the electorate will be allowed into the discussion we’ve been having as a party. If we aspire to govern, we should listen to what the electorate is about to say on 8 June; we should listen to what will be the unvarnished truth.”
If it listens or not, and whether it loses 30, 50 or even 70 seats, the Labour Party is heading – and it gives me no pleasure to say this – for a shattering defeat under Jeremy Corbyn, just when it should have been seeking to remake our politics for the common good.
What will come next? No one knows. But what we do know – and the trends matter far more than the messes and mishaps and U-turns of an election campaign that will for ever be remembered for the terrorist attacks in Manchester and London – is that an era is passing and the right is once more in the ascendant in these unsettling new times.
This is an updated version of an article which appeared in the 2 June edition of The New Statesman.
This article appears in the 31 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Labour reckoning