Theresa May called an early general election in the expectation of achieving the first Conservative landslide majority since 1987. An inept campaign left her humiliated, and her tenuous hold on power dependent on the support of the unpleasantly reactionary Democratic Unionist Party. The Tories were deservedly punished by the electorate for their failures in office and for their joyless, arrogant campaign.
After seven years of austerity economics, they could not explain how they would improve public services or return hope to the British people. Mrs May’s encouraging early positioning – and her vow to remake conservatism, as well as her desire to eradicate “burning injustice” – was never developed.
During the election, she abandoned the language of compassionate conservatism and used robotic clichés. Rather than seeking to earn voters’ trust, she assumed that the promise of a “hard” Brexit and antipathy towards Jeremy Corbyn would suffice. Were it not for 12 Conservative gains in Scotland, where the Scottish National Party recklessly promised a second independence referendum, Labour might well be in power.
Yet though they lost 13 seats, the Tories achieved their highest vote share since 1983 (42.4 per cent). It was not a Conservative collapse but a Labour surge that cost Mrs May her majority.
Labour unexpectedly won 32 seats and increased its vote share from 30.4 per cent to 40 per cent – the largest rise since Clement Attlee’s landslide victory in 1945.
The Conservatives will be wary of calling an early election because they now fear that Labour could defeat them. Much credit for this unlikely turnaround resides with the maligned Mr Corbyn. The Labour leader delivered on his original promise to revive the party by attracting young voters, non-voters and former SNP, Ukip and Green supporters. He ran an optimistic and even joyful campaign, defined by policy initiatives rather than slogans.
Most of his MPs expected him to lead Labour to a shattering defeat; in the event, he has inspired an astonishing revival. No one would dare underestimate him again, certainly not as a campaigner, even if he is far less impressive as a Commons performer and day-to-day operator.
Labour’s manifesto proposed popular (indeed, populist) measures, such as the abolition of student tuition fees, universal free school meals and the renationalisation of the railways. It eschewed the politics of generational warfare in favour of a social-democratic offer to young and old.
Mr Corbyn was also pragmatic. By promising to renew Trident and increase police numbers by 10,000, he blunted Tory attacks over national security. Mr Corbyn recognised the positive role of immigration and the importance of public investment to the economy. And Labour’s position on Brexit was sufficiently ambiguous to attract both Remainers and Leavers.
Under attack from much of the media and his own MPs because of his past associations, and doubted by the New Statesman, Mr Corbyn showed considerable resilience. He enjoys campaigning and it shows. Rather than condemning his party to a decade of opposition, he has improbably created the conditions for victory next time, as Neil Kinnock did by losing narrowly in 1992. In spite of his many shortcomings, Mr Corbyn has earned the right to lead the party into the next election, whenever it falls. He has won the Labour civil war.
Now, it is time for the party to unite behind him. Backbench critics should be prepared to serve in the shadow cabinet or as shadow ministers. In return, the leader’s left-wing allies should cease all talk of deselection and accept policies such as support for Nato. For Labour, as its election campaign demonstrated, unity is strength.
The party must also recognise that, while it advanced, it did not win. For the third successive election, Labour finished comfortably behind the Conservatives when it should have won. Labour must do more to convince the many voters who retain doubts about its economic credibility and Mr Corbyn’s fitness for the highest office.
Yet, after seven years of austerity, there is a real desire for transformative change of the kind that only Labour can deliver. We are all weary of the effects of neoliberalism, ultra-globalisation and the underfunding of public services.
On the eve of the Brexit negotiation, Britain faces yet more political instability. Yet, if there is any consolation, the election has demonstrated that there is no Commons majority for a hard Brexit. Nor is there one in the country. A reinvigorated Labour and MPs of all parties should compel the government to prioritise the economy, rather than immigration control, in the negotiations.