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7 July 2017

How can Labour transcend Britain’s divisions and offer hope for the future?

In England, two elections happened simultaneously – one about Brexit and the other austerity.

By John Harris

I keep bouncing between alternate realities. One minute, it’s Glastonbury, and droves of people way beyond the usual suspects – more Tim from The Office than Che Guevara – are doing the “Ohhh, Jeremy Corbyn” chant, and crowding into big-top debates where they talk about everything from Grenfell Tower to Donald Trump in an open, optimistic spirit. The next, I’m reporting from somewhere very far away – a threadbare suburb, or some post-industrial town – where the mood seems almost unchanged since 2015: sour, sullen, full of resentment about how bad things have become, but dismissive of the idea that much could be put right.

In England, two elections happened simultaneously. One was about Brexit, and whether it was Corbyn or Theresa May who was best equipped to get stuck into the negotiations – and in the minds of most of the people who saw things through this prism, whatever the reality of their daily lives, May won hands down. But the other contest was about austerity, schools and hospitals, and the basic condition of society; it was this terrain on which Labour won a thumping moral victory.

For anyone spurning the specious wisdom of opinion polls and reporting on the ground, these two competing paradigms meant that trying to get a sense of what was happening was a vexatious business: in ten minutes of conversations with voters, you could flip between them four or five times, leaving you none the wiser as to which one was winning.

The two perspectives mapped roughly on to age, level of education and simple geography, something reflected in the final electoral statistics. Labour was ahead by a mile among the under-44s, but when it came to the over-70s, the Tories had a lead of 50 per cent. In a small handful of post-industrial places – Stoke-on-Trent South, Mansfield, Walsall North, Middlesbrough South & East Cleveland, and North East Derbyshire – Labour lost seats to the Conservatives, but in all of England’s big cities, Corbyn’s party walked it. Meanwhile, still more alternative realities played their part in the final result: the swing to the Tories in the north-east of Scotland, the patches of Brexit-influenced tactical voting that provided a tantalising glimpse of so-called Progressive Alliances, the fact that in plenty of rural and suburban places, the Tory vote went up.

What a Balkanised country we are, full of mutual estrangement and a frequent sense that people only down the road may as well be from another planet. On election day, I spent time at polling stations eight miles from the middle of Birmingham where middle-aged white men spat venom about Corbyn and his supposed associations with the IRA, while in the middle of the city, young people sang the Corbyn chant and looked forward to a future of free school meals and an end to student debt.

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To the end, some voters remained convinced that May was the very embodiment of fortitude and resolve, while other people saw her as a U-turning laughing stock. And every now and again, I had a powerful sense of where I had last seen this kind of polarisation: in America last year, where a short drive from one neighbourhood to another sometimes felt like travelling light years.

Some of this, of course, is about globalisation and its very different effects on different groups of people. But what increasingly accelerates and deepens the divisions is the way we now communicate, and the so-called bubbles – actually thick, encrusted boundaries, more like shells – that enclose us. In six weeks of election reporting, one daily experience underlined the basic point: the moment when I would turn on my phone, open up Twitter, and find my feed full of people on much the same page as me, before colliding with perspectives that were not just different, but often rooted in a completely opposite set of assumptions: not just about politics, but such fundamentals as work, people’s entitlement to help from the state, Britain’s place in the world, and more.

Let there be no doubt: Corbyn and his people’s achievement is immense. But at the same time, the disposition of some of his cheerleaders suggests that they might not quite be ready for the next step forward. Their challenge – obviously – is to broaden their electoral coalition, get their head round why some people will still not countenance a vote for Labour, and think about how their message might be fine-honed for next time, when they will surely face a much more formidable Tory party, and have to win seats where Labour has done precious little business for years.

Given the widespread sense of the post-Thatcher settlement finally starting to hit the buffers, this may not involve vast compromises. But politics, perhaps more than ever, is replete with trap-doors and trip-wires (Labour’s essentially fudged position on Brexit, for example, was an electoral asset, but could easily turn into a defining political problem), and navigating those while trying to extend the party’s reach will be an arduous task, in which all that post-election euphoria – as justified as it is – will probably be more hindrance than help.

If Labour has a central shortcoming, it might be essentially attitudinal. When I went to a Corbyn rally in Gateshead four days before polling, I watched one platform speaker giving it some about the enemy. “There shouldn’t be anybody in this region, in this country, [who] supports the bloody Tory party,” he said. It did not sound like something uttered with the expectation of winning, but an example of what New Labour used to call “the purity of opposition”. Moreover, to any outsiders, it would have blended into the very familiar sound of old-fashioned tribes bashing their heads against each other, and the sense of a world full of sound and fury, but precious little clarity or assurance.

Beyond those who were supporting May or Corbyn, in the course of the six-week campaign, when I asked a lot people the kind of questions that can usually be relied on to open interesting conversations – How is your town doing? How do you feel about the future? What needs to change? – they replied with shrugs, and the sense of a world that has precious little time for logic, let alone the grand narratives of politics. Such is the huge difference between the 20th century and the 21st. The former was the age of great power blocs, two competing ideologies, and an array of things – trade unions, the church, heavy industry – that offered a sense of continuity and certainty, albeit historically brief. By comparison, our own time looks like a bamboozling puzzle, yet to be solved by anyone who either holds or aspires to power.

Meanwhile, the world speeds on: Brexit, Trump, Putin, Isis, Manchester, London Bridge, Finsbury Park, Grenfell Tower, and one more damn thing after another.

Read more: Phillip Blond on the march of the Red Tories

The new model Labour Party’s essential challenge is to somehow transcend the chaos and fragmentation, break beyond the bubbles, and offer a convincing prospect of calm, lucidity, and hope about the future. In a matter of weeks and against huge odds, with the help of that hugely increased membership, it has come a hell of a way. But in the absence of most of the other social and political structures on which Labour once relied, the next phase will require a mixture of skill and effort probably unparalleled in the party’s long history. 

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This article appears in the 05 Jul 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn mania