At 10pm on election night, as the exit poll was published, Jeremy Corbyn’s team reacted with the same surprise as the Conservatives. Although they had wargamed a potential hung parliament, their assumption was that the Tories would be returned with an increased majority. When the numbers flashed up on TV screens at Labour’s HQ in Victoria Street, central London, the joy was as great as the sorrow had been in 2015. “We may live in interesting times but nothing prepared me for this,” an ally of the Labour leader told me.
Jeremy Corbyn has done what almost all of his MPs thought he could not do: gained seats from the Tories. On the now-distant April day when Theresa May called an early general election, Labour began preparing for the worst. MPs feared the party’s weakest performance since 1983 or even 1935.
Under Corbyn, whom MPs had sought to depose just a year ago, Labour instead won its highest number of seats since 2005 (262) and its highest vote share since 2001. From the subterranean depths of 24 per cent early in the campaign, the party rose to 40 per cent – a 10-point increase since 2015 (30.4 per cent) and the largest improvement it has seen since 1945. Labour won Kensington in west London, it won Canterbury in Kent, it advanced in Scotland, it surged in the south-west – and in cities, it won majorities that would make Kim Jong-un blush.
“The most important thing was Jeremy’s role,” Jon Lansman, the founder of the activist group Momentum and a Corbyn confidant, told me. “He emerged looking strong, principled and determined. That absolutely made the difference.”
Even long-standing Corbyn critics say that the result came because of their leader, not in spite of him. Wes Streeting, the MP for Ilford North (whose majority increased from 589 to 9,639), told me: “There’s no doubt that all throughout the general election campaign, we saw Jeremy Corbyn at his very best and Theresa May at her very worst. It’s clear there was a surge in turnout that can only reasonably be attributed to Jeremy and the national Labour campaign . . . He connected with young people in a way that, frankly, cynics like myself just didn’t think was possible based on previous turnouts.”
Although Corbyn did repel some voters – Streeting spoke of having the door slammed in his face by lifelong Labour supporters – converts outweighed the deserters.
Another critic, Peter Kyle, the MP for Hove (whose majority increased from 1,236 to 18,757), told me: “Jeremy did exceed expectations, including mine, through his campaigning zeal and sure-footedness under pressure, particularly about his past record.” But, he added: “I had to spend six hours of every single day of the campaign calling people who the previous day had said that they liked Labour and they like me but couldn’t vote Labour because of Jeremy.”
Kyle maintained that he did not regret his vote of no confidence in Corbyn last summer. “We had let the country down over the EU referendum, we now know that. The country shouldn’t be facing the negotiations in the circumstances that we are; the root cause of that was an arrogant Tory leadership and a half-hearted Labour campaign led by Jeremy. I had an absolutely emotional connection to that vote, and still do, so I certainly don’t regret what that vote of no confidence said and what it was about.”
Corbyn’s surge upended conventional assumptions about British elections: that young people are reluctant to vote, that campaigns don’t make a difference and that opposition leaders never recover from a bad start. “Labour did something next to impossible: Jeremy Corbyn got a second chance to make a first impression,” YouGov’s Marcus Roberts, a former party strategist, told me. Corbyn aides presciently argued that his standing would improve once the election broadcasting rules kicked in. They prioritised footage of the leader addressing rallies over interviews with hostile newspapers.
Such was Labour’s advance that Corbyn allies accuse the party’s official field operation of excessive pessimism. “We [Momentum] targeted both offensive and defensive marginals and very often we were the only people targeting offensive marginals,” Lansman told me. “I think we got it right, and I’m afraid the party got it wrong.” He complained: “The party treats the membership with suspicion, not as a resource that can make a big difference.” (Labour officials say that campaign spending became more “offensive” as time went on and that, at all points, decisions were taken jointly with the Leader’s Office.)
On 12 June, as MPs returned to parliament, some resembled reprieved prisoners. At Portcullis House in Westminster they smiled knowingly at colleagues. As well as Corbyn, MPs credit the party’s manifesto (adroitly leaked) with transforming their fortunes. Written by Andrew Fisher (a former trade union official whom backbenchers once wanted expelled from Labour), the document proposed populist – and popular – policies such as abolition of university tuition fees, universal free school meals and renationalisation of the railways, the water industry, the energy grid and Royal Mail.
Although the manifesto owed more to Keynesianism than Marxism, it remained the party’s boldest in decades. For the first time in the post-1979 era, Labour has advanced from the left. In 1983, under Michael Foot, although Corbyn’s mentor Tony Benn hailed “eight and a half million” votes for socialism, the party lost 52 seats. In 2015, after Ed Miliband rejected New Labour, it lost 24. Under Corbyn, who had no frontbench experience before becoming leader, the trend has been reversed.
The shadow cabinet minister Jon Trickett, one of Corbyn’s original supporters, told me: “After the 2005 election, long before Jeremy was a gleam in anybody’s eyes, I said I thought there was something changing among the electorate. I talked about an insurgent feeling in the country and that if the Labour Party was seen as the establishment it couldn’t really win, because there was always going to be an establishment party – the Tories.”
Corbyn’s strong pitch attracted socialists and liberals as well as former SNP, Ukip and Green voters, all of whom were united by a desire for change. I asked the Labour peer Stewart Wood, formerly Ed Miliband’s chief strategist, whether the result proved the party should have run from the left in 2015. “What Jeremy had, which by election day I think Ed Miliband didn’t, was authenticity,” Wood said. “Jeremy was himself and his manifesto matched his character in a way that I think resonated with a lot of people. And love Ed as I do, part of our problem was that our manifesto was a mosaic of concessions to different parts of the party, rather than an authentic expression of the radical Ed . . . Jeremy didn’t have an immigration mug equivalent, let’s put it that way.”
At the outset of the campaign, Brexit appeared to be an electoral curse for Labour as Ukip voters fled to the Conservatives. Yet it also proved a blessing. Labour’s nuanced position on Brexit – for withdrawal but against a “hard” exit – allowed it to attract both Remainers and Leavers. Issues such as the deficit and immigration, which the Tories exploited in 2015, were neutralised by the EU referendum result. Rather than Theresa May’s tentative interventionism, many voters decided they wanted the real thing. As the Prime Minister knew but did not articulate, Brexit is a collectivist, not an individualist, moment.
After Labour’s advance, the leadership is Corbyn’s for as long as he wants it. Critics recognise not only that he cannot be defeated, but that he should not be. By any reasonable measure, they say, he has earned the right to lead. He can now appeal for “unity” from a position of strength. Most MPs had only words of praise for him in the election’s aftermath. “The civil war is over,” a former shadow cabinet minister told me the morning after the election. A discordant note was sounded by the former shadow chancellor Chris Leslie, who argued that Labour had missed an “open goal” and warned that the result should not be treated as a “famous victory”. Clive Lewis, a Corbyn supporter and former shadow cabinet minister, told me that Leslie “needed to go down into a darkened room, lie down for a while, and come back and support Jeremy Corbyn. If he can’t do that, then he should consider his position as a Labour MP.”
Although Labour lost a third general election in succession, its gains were sufficient to make victory next time plausible. It needs a swing of just 1.6 per cent to become the largest party (winning 34 seats) or one of 3.6 per cent to achieve a majority (winning 64 seats). As well as gaining 33 MPs, Labour turned hitherto safe Conservative seats into marginals. Such figures explain why Tory MPs have offered May a stay of execution: they fear another election.
Given the Prime Minister’s squandering of the Conservatives’ majority, she will struggle to pass the planned boundary changes (which would have disadvantaged Labour). Living standards are being further squeezed, with wages stagnant and inflation at 2.9 per cent. Meanwhile, the Tories’ old divisions over Europe are reappearing in a new form as “open” and “closed” Brexiteers clash. There will be no shortage of political opportunities for Labour.
Pessimists fear that the result was a product of unique circumstances, including a surreally bad Tory campaign, and that “Peak Corbyn” may have been reached. To win a majority, Labour will need to attract more Conservative voters while retaining left-wing supporters.
Yet Corbyn allies argue that his forward march will not be halted. “The result absolutely has shown you can win from the left,” Lansman told me. “We were converting Tories; we may not have been targeting Tories in the way that Blair did through triangulation, but we targeted Tories by producing a radical alternative that actually offered people hope.”
Corbyn’s team anticipated a defeat narrow enough to allow him or a nominated successor to remain leader. But by eliminating May’s majority, they have expanded the limits of the possible. Far from being condemned to the wilderness, Labour is within reach of government once more.
This article appears in the 14 Jun 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel