The sweet illusion of victory, Corbyn’s bungs, and what Putin could have done to repay Labour

Peter Wilby's First Thoughts.

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When the exit poll commissioned by the BBC, ITV and Sky predicted a hung parliament at 10pm on 8 June, a roar of celebration went up from the liberal metropolitan elite – or, at least, from that section of it gathered at the Oxo Tower in London for the New Statesman’s ­election-night party. Yet many people there, including me, had spent the past 21 months insisting that Jeremy Corbyn’s incompetence as leader, his past associations with terrorists and his attachment to outdated, quasi-Marxist ideas made him unelectable.

In defiance of our wisdom, Corbyn delivered what seemed to me (momentarily) the most thrilling victory since the 1960s, sweeter than that of 1997, when Tony Blair ended 18 years of Tory rule by rejecting ­almost everything Labour had historically stood for. Wordsworth came into my head: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive . . .” Then I remembered that Wordsworth, in the same poem on the French Revolution, mentioned “we who were strong in love”. Nearly all of us, including some of Corbyn’s natural political allies, failed that test.

Cold light of May

Morning brought sober reality. This was not the French Revolution. Corbyn hadn’t won. Theresa May was still Prime Minister. The Tories were still in power. After seven years of austerity, with public services all but wrecked and millions of ordinary people worse off than they were a decade ago, Labour couldn’t get enough votes even to become the largest party.

May – cold, wooden, nervous, humourless and entirely lacking in conviction – was the least appealing major party leader I could remember. Even Iain Duncan Smith could have done a better job if he’d been allowed to fight an election.

Corbyn proved an inspiring campaigner and a slightly more plausible prime minister than most commentators expected. However, his record left him with too much to do. His Commons performances made May seem a woman of towering intellect and rapier wit. Corbyn is a poor opposition leader, a role that he must, alas, continue to perform for a while longer.

British contrarians

It is now common wisdom that the British are fed up with being told by a metropolitan elite how to vote and what to think. But is something more happening? Voters now habitually do the opposite of what pollsters and pundits say they will do.

Told they will oust David Cameron, they give him a bigger majority. Told they will vote Remain, they vote Brexit. Told that Brexit makes them less confident about the short-term economic future, they spend recklessly. Told their confidence about the future is rising, they stop spending. Told they will give May a landslide, they vote against her.

The under-25s have joined this game. Told they are too lazy and disorganised to go out and vote (not least by me, last week), they descend on the polling stations in their millions.

The world economy, and particularly the digital economy, is based on expectations that people will behave in consistent and predictable ways, so this form of protest has interesting possibilities.

Borrowing from the right

For the past 20 years, both main parties have pretended that we can enjoy European levels of public services and benefits with American levels of taxation. In her clumsy way, Theresa May tried to be more honest. She didn’t repeat David Cameron’s promise not to raise income tax, National Insurance or VAT. Corbyn did, with the caveat that he would raise tax on the 5 per cent earning more than £80,000 annually.

May said the winter fuel allowance would no longer be paid to all pensioners and that she would end the triple lock on the state pension. Even though these are treated as if they were founding principles of the welfare state, engraved on tablets of stone brought from the South Wales valleys by Aneurin Bevan, both are recent chancellors’ bungs to secure the pensioner vote: the former from Gordon Brown, the latter from George Osborne. Labour promised to keep both.

May proposed a solution to the growing need for social care, which threatens to overwhelm the public finances, taking the NHS with it. Corbyn denounced her proposal as “a tax on dementia”, imitating the way the right has managed nearly to abolish inheritance tax by calling it a “death tax”.

Labour, I felt, was being unfair. Then I remembered a friend who often says, “Why should we be fair? Nobody else is.” The right in Britain and America won many elections by making the preposterous claim that if the wealthy were allowed to keep more of their money, the proceeds of their productive efforts would somehow “trickle down” to the rest of us.

This time, Labour borrowed from the right’s playbook, which is to yell, “Ya, boo, sucks!” at serious debate. Unfortunately, it still didn’t win the election.

Friends in fiery places

Considering how much flak Corbyn and his spin doctor, the ex-Guardian journalist Seumas Milne, have taken for their past associations with the IRA and Vladimir Putin, respectively, you would think they could rely on a bit of support when they needed it.

Sinn Fein, originally the IRA’s political arm, has seven MPs but, following custom, they won’t take their seats. If they did, they could make it even harder for May to govern and could, perhaps, eventually propel Corbyn into Downing Street.

As for Putin, supposedly the master of manipulating foreign elections, couldn’t he have arranged a few extra votes to repay Milne for succumbing, as the Daily Mail put it, to his “iron grip” at a “propaganda summit” in 2014? A few more votes would have ousted the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, in Hastings and Rye and the mouthy former minister Anna Soubry in Broxtowe, Nottinghamshire.

At the NS party, I saw Maurice Glasman, father of “Blue Labour”, and Phillip Blond, father of “Red Toryism”, embracing. Does that, in these bewildering times, provide us with some clues about the future?

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article appears in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel