Labour Lost. Its New Hubris is Not Going to Help it Win

Treating leaders as celebrities is nothing new. Nor are political anthems. The Roman legions of Gaius Julius Caesar sang a ballad too bawdy for the sensitive ears of the Twitter generation. So “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn” must be seen in this context.

Caesar merely conquered Gaul. Corbyn conquered Glastonbury.

If it was a fault of political commentators that they paid too much attention to precedent in predicting the future, the present danger is that social media becomes a new barometer of public opinion.

The reaction to the fire at Grenfell Tower was one of the most consuming of modern politics. So many pointless deaths was a shock; it may be seen in future years as a transformational moment. The other reaction was more partisan: as the leader of the opposition hugged distraught residents, his supporters gave him the mantle of leadership he had previously been denied. Glamis, and Cawdor, and King hereafter.

Corbyn filled an emotional vacuum left by Theresa May but that does not make him prime minister. Moreover, it denies the obstacles in his pursuit of power. The inevitability of Prime Minister Corbyn should be dismissed as readily as the previous rejection of its possibility should have been.

the champagne should be kept on ice. Or preferably in the shop

None of this is to begrudge his supporters their cheer nor credit to the man himself. He won a magnificent defeat after a positive campaign that saw Labour’s biggest vote increase since 1945. Labour took seats, such as Canterbury and Kensington, that had never elected Labour MPs before. He did this in the face of near-universal disbelief.

But it was a defeat. And when John McDonnell jabs the Tories by saying that they should get their act together because Labour will need a coherent opposition, it comes across as arrogant: Labour should stop measuring the Downing Street curtains now.

The net gain in seats that Labour made from the Tories was small. Even smaller was the swing from the Conservatives to Labour: at 2% it leaves Corbyn as one of the poorest-achieving Labour leaders. It also ignores the working-class swing from Labour to the Conservatives.

Those who worried that Corbyn’s Labour would pile up wasted votes were right. He did. The youth vote saved Labour but that is a trick that can only be performed once. To beat the Tories next time, Labour needs a swing twice the size of 2017.

Supporters should be pleased that Labour is leading in opinion polls for the first time since the referendum. But May’s disastrous few weeks has not seen a Tory collapse: their ratings remain stubbornly above 40%. Styled by his supporters as the People’s Prime Minister, Corbyn is 1% more popular than the actual prime minister. That may change but until then, the champagne should be kept on ice. Or preferably in the shop.

There is a further problem for Labour. In the plethora of voter motivation, it is undeniable that Labour secured the Remain vote. Many of his MPs are committeed to Single Market membership.

Despite that, both Corbyn and McDonnell have said that Brexit means leaving the Single Market. In this, Corbyn has the justification of coherence: his referendum enthusiasm was based on the idea that, only by remaining inside the EU's capitalist club, could Britain reform it. Brexit means there is no chance any British leader can change the rules. Single Market membership is out.

Therefore, Labour is nominally as committed to Hard Brexit as the Tories, something Corbyn did not mention at Glastonbury. Unless he changes tack, his wry offer to voters of “strong and stable government” is as meaningless as May’s.

The Fixed-term Parliament Act means the next election may be further off than people currently envisage. So long as Corbyn is Labour leader, the DUP will do anything they can to keep Labour away from Downing Street and they struck a clever deal to ensure it. That’s irony, isn’t it? Corbyn supporters feel their man has brought them closer to power than at anytime in seven years but it is the man himself who prevents them from picking up the keys to Number 10 from Mrs Windsor.

let’s ask Neil Kinnock how complacency panned out

So Labour will fight the next election as a serious political force. Supporters may despise the media but Labour got away lightly considering its badly-costed manifestoGaffs from future ministers will not be so easily forgiven by voters. Labour MPs will no longer be able to beg for votes on the basis that Corbyn cannot become prime minister. And negotiations with the EU27 will test Labour’s Janus-like policy.

None of this may matter. The thin ice the government is skating upon may crack as the economy plunges into Brexit chaos. The tenuous Tory unity may evaporate as negotiations get tougher. At the next election, a donkey with a red rosette may prove a better bet after the years of Tory failure. But let’s ask Neil Kinnock how complacency panned out. 

The most admirable thing about Tony Blair during his tenure in opposition was that he never took victory for granted. For three years, he worried about a fifth defeat. Having come back from the political dead, it is understandable that Corbyn thinks one more heave is all that Labour needs. It is risky though.

So let’s stop treating a middle-class festival as an momentous event on a par with the Conference at Nicaea. Predictions of victory are best left to the augurs of Caesar’s army. And remember, the gods punished Theresa May for her hubris. They might punish Jeremy Corbyn as well.

More about the author

About the author

Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).

A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.

Follow Graham on Twitter.

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