What I got wrong: personal reflections on the election

I made some fairly pessimistic predictions about this election, partly out of a sort of self-protective attempt to avoid the grim disappointment that followed the 2015 election and the Euro-referendum. I don’t think my pessimism was objectively unjustified, given the polls and the local election results. Owen Hatherley’s piece about the election captured how I felt when the election was called (with my endlessly optimistic mother, who told me there was “everything to fight for!” playing the role of Owen’s Momentum group):

“I sat in silence, struck dumb by the contrast between my expectation of disaster and the enthusiasm and optimism of nearly everyone else in the room. A Tory leader with a gigantic lead in the polls had set out to crush the left for a generation—an obvious and, it seemed, easily achievable aim—yet Momentum seemed unfazed. We can do this, they insisted. Don’t trust the polls. I was incredulous.”

I did think that Corbynism had a good chance of being electorally successful over the longer term, but I had a fairly confident expectation that Corbyn would turn out to be the George Lansbury to someone else’s Clement Attlee: that it would take time for Corbyn’s message to gain in popularity, that Corbyn’s own role would be to lead a renewal of the ideas within the Labour party, but that a younger politician would be the one to achieve electoral success on a left-social democratic manifesto. I thought that if the PLP co-operated (a big if), a result on the scale of the 8th June might be achievable by 2020, and an electoral victory in the following election.

So I went into this election with the expectation that Theresa May would successfully increase her majority; that the best result I could hope for was that Corbyn would increase vote share but not gain seats – I was fairly convinced by those who suggested he would increase majorities in safe seats but not narrow the gap in marginals – and that the outcome of the election would be highly contested within the Labour party itself. Anything short of clear success would lead to a further leadership challenge and a further period of internal antagonism, stalling yet again the attempt to move on from the pre-global financial crisis politics of the Blair and Brown era.

Furthermore I thought it was increasingly likely that if the PLP succeeded in getting rid of Corbyn that the Labour Party would essentially be condemning itself to complete irrelevance and Pasokification, with no hope, under FPTP, of a British SYRIZA or Podemos: an endless future of austerity, increasing social alienation, the continuing rise of UKIP-type nativism, but made respectable as it became more dominant inside the Conservative Party. Perhaps I was over-dramatising, but this felt like a final roll of the dice for the British left, at least for a generation.

Campaigning under those circumstances is emotionally exhausting: maintaining enough energy to keep knocking on doors, to keep trying to convince people that there are good reasons to go out and vote Labour; at the same time not wanting to let yourself build too much hope and set yourself up for crushing disappointment on the 9th June; and looking ahead not just to the expected result, but beyond it to the possibility of more intra-Labour warfare, another protracted period of anxiety, another period of having, yet again, to defend the Corbyn project in the face of electoral disappointment and widespread scepticism about the kind of left-social democratic policies he was proposing. “How many MPs would Labour need to have on June 9 for you to think ‘This isn’t working’?” a friend asked me in early May. I answered, honestly, that I was expecting the election to be a disaster for Labour.

But something started to change. The manifesto was good; not only that, it received a widely positive response from serious people. The polls started to go up. The Tory campaign started to implode, and neither UKIP or the Lib Dems seemed to be going anywhere. Most of all, people seemed to be unusually engaged by the election, by the issues at stake. People wanted to talk about Brexit, about Corbyn, about Northern Ireland, about austerity. They wanted to talk on the doorstep, on the street, even in the Tube. I was surprised how much they wanted to talk. I asked other people with longer experiences of campaigning whether they thought there was more general interest from the public than in previous elections; most agreed that there was.

On June 8th the result showed that my impression of wider, deeper engagement with the political process had been correct.

In the light of my own pessimism about the result, I think the pundits and others who emphasised the failures of the Tory campaign had a valid point (even when this was being deployed as an argument to downplay the success of the Labour campaign.) Yes, Corbynism has shown itself to be electorally attractive, but it’s also fair to acknowledge that Theresa May’s failures gave Labour an unexpected advantage. Stephen Bush’s piece about what he got wrong highlighted how unprecedented the dementia tax U-turn was – and it doesn’t undermine my own position that Corbynism could be successful to accept that Labour benefited from a number of unforced mistakes on the part of the Conservative Party.

But what I learned from this election was a personal lesson about how to think about doing politics: that the best thing to do is just to focus on doing what is right and important, and try not to give too much importance to the surrounding circus of analysing every incident, every poll as it appears. In the last few days of the election campaign I sat in a pub with left-Labour party comrades, and the conversation turned to a rather high-falutin attempt to define our own politics: Marxist, socialist, social democratic. A younger member said: “I don’t know anything about socialism, or anything like that. I just looked at Corbyn, and I liked what he stood for, and he seemed to offer something no one else had offered before.”

It’s hard though, to have that political clarity and not be constantly mired in doubt and anxiety. But the last few weeks of the election campaign had a really profound effect on me: it was literally the first time in my life that a politics I believe in got a fair hearing, and wasn’t simply dismissed out of hand as laughable, derisory, idealistic nonsense. Which I suppose is where the overwhelming tendency towards self-doubt comes from: all my life, I’ve been losing; this is the first time I’ve ever felt that winning was not just possible – but even likely.

[This piece is an expansion of a long Facebook comment on a thread about what people had got wrong about the election and how they might think differently in future.]


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