Labour’s brilliant defeat: that was the label Private Eye gave to the party’s performance in 1987, its third successive general election defeat. Although he lost to Margaret Thatcher’s Tories, Neil Kinnock saw off the threat of the SDP/Liberal alliance and transformed his image. It was enough to keep him in place until 1992, when Labour lost narrowly to John Major.
The phrase resonated this year when Theresa May called a general election on 18 April. A “brilliant defeat” was the best that anyone in Labour’s professional class, whether Corbynite or Corbyn-sceptic, hoped for. For most MPs, that meant holding on to their seats. The night the election was called, many of them drowned their sorrows at the Strangers’ Bar in parliament, and compared majorities in the manner of patients comparing ailments.
For the political directors of Labour’s affiliated trade unions, “brilliant defeat” meant doing their best to protect those politicians who had defended their interests, whether in government or opposition.
For the party’s field team, led by Patrick Heneghan, its executive director for elections, “brilliant defeat” meant drawing a red line underneath MPs with majorities of 8,000 or more – and saving them.
And for the leader’s office, “brilliant defeat” meant doing well enough so that either Jeremy Corbyn, or a chosen successor, could survive as leader to fight the next election.
It’s fair to say that Corbyn’s team did not expect May to go back on her repeated assurances that she wouldn’t seek an early election, but they nonetheless came back from parliament’s Easter break in surprisingly high spirits. The first months of 2017 had not been kind to Labour. January was dominated by Corbyn’s decision to whip the party in favour of triggering Article 50. The move put him on the wrong side of the party membership for the first time.
It also led to the loss from the front bench of Clive Lewis, the great hope of many of Corbyn’s few supporters in the commentariat.
February saw the loss of Copeland in a by-election after the resignation of Labour’s Jamie Reed; the Conservatives’ win there was the first time the governing party had gained a seat in a by-election since 1982. And, in the last days before the Easter recess, the leader’s office had to endure the spectacle of political journalists on Twitter discussing the superior organisation of the Liberal Democrat press operation compared to Labour’s.
So, they went into the Easter break determined to get back on the front foot – and succeeded. A series of eye-catching announcements – including free school meals for all primary school pupils and a £10 minimum wage – set the agenda over the recess. In the leader’s office, Corbyn’s team believed they had proved they could “break stories and set the narrative”. When the election was called, the plan for the campaign was to do “Easter, but bigger”, in the words of one insider. Corbyn may have been unpopular but his team was encouraged that the ideas he was putting forward commanded large majorities in polling.
Much has been made of the influence of staffers from Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign, who have helped run training sessions for new campaigners. That boosted the morale of Labour activists, who retain a fascination with all things American. But the leader’s inner circle believed that the lessons of Sanders’s run for the presidency could be distilled into two simple truths: “hold big rallies, make great videos”.
As a consequence, the leader’s office took Corbyn into safe Labour seats that shared an ITV or BBC region with marginals. The result: cameras captured him with adoring crowds and beamed the images into the homes of marginal voters.
Corbyn’s aides also thought that the leader was an unappreciated asset once let loose from SW1. “The truth is that Jeremy hates Westminster and is not at his best there,” one ally told me. “But outside: he loves trains, he loves meeting people, he loves campaigning, he’s in his element.”
If nothing else, the campaign succeeded in changing the mood music around the Labour leader, externally and internally. As the campaign ended, the leader’s more optimistic aides and allies began to talk about the potential of victory, while Corbyn-sceptics began to redraw their plans for the immediate aftermath.
“He’s done better than we feared,” one candidate told me. “And the truth is, the nightmare has [already] happened: we’ve gone into an election with Jeremy Corbyn [as leader]. I don’t think we can move against him.”
Corbyn, too, can claim validation in two other respects. The first is in the party’s manifesto, largely written by the policy chief Andrew Fisher – the “unsung hero” of the campaign, in the words of one senior source. Although Corbyn’s “inner inner circle” is made up of the older generation, with leading figures including Seumas Milne, his director of strategy, Diane Abbott, the shadow home secretary, and John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, Fisher is the most influential and respected of the second generation in the leader’s office. The popularity of the 2017 manifesto, in the country and to the membership, is such that any successor will have to commit to large chunks of it.
The leaders’ allies also feel vindicated on the European Question after the Liberal Democrats’ failure to impose themselves on the campaign.
True, Corbyn is a Eurosceptic of long vintage, who voted against every European treaty that came before the Commons. A family member once joked that he had been “replaced by a double” when he briefly supported a Remain vote. Still, whether the decision was easy or hard, it helped Corbyn, and Corbynism, to end the campaign burnished rather than reduced by prolonged contact with the electorate.
This article appears in the 07 Jun 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Election special