Oh! Jeremy Corbyn Did Not ‘Win’ the Election After All
In May 1997, the new foreign secretary, Robin Cook told the world that from then on Britain would have an “ethical foreign policy”.
So infamous is this that during the recent election, shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry invoked Cook’s spirit to state that Labour would return to the Cook Doctrine and embrace his “ethical foreign policy”.
The only trouble? Cook said no such thing. What he actually said was that Labour’s foreign policy should have an ethical dimension. Yet every time the government was found to act with less than Augustinian purity, the mythology of Labour’s ethical foreign policy was thrown back at them.
Politics is full of myths that have assumed near-factual status: John Major tucked his shirt into his underpants; Jim Callaghan declared “Crisis? What crisis?” during the Winter of Discontent; Peter Mandelson cannot distinguish between mushy peas and guacamole
None are true. Nor is the latest myth that it was Jeremy Corbyn who ‘won’ the 2017 election for Labour.
Chastened commentators allowed the myth to go unscrutinised. Now the man is serenaded. His more extreme supporters, somewhat pathetically, insist that in reality - without holding the office - he is the real prime minister.
Brexit was the key issue
A post-election YouGov survey showed that a mere 13% considered Jeremy Corbyn a reason for casting their ballot for his party. In fact, marginally more Tory voters (14%) put anti-Corbyn feelings as one of their main reasons for voting Conservative. Given the habit of herding after the event in polling, it is surprising that how low the Corbyn factor is. More than double that number put the manifesto as a reason.
After the financial crash, voters remain desperate for some kind of change. They voted against a public sector pay cap, against cuts in benefits and in-work tax credits. They voted for investment in schools and hospitals. That policies such as renationalisation of public services did not put them off is significant. However, they voted Labour because their energy bills have increased more than their salaries, not because they have swung ideologically towards state-ownership.
It was a change election and Labour became the change party.
People who are capable of embracing - in art and in life - complex human motivation apply different standards to politics. Voters become two-dimensional characters. Neoliberalism dead. Four legs good. Tories evil. We should be better than that.
As we slowly piece together the election, it is clearer that Brexit - not Corbyn - played a large part in Labour’s vote. The central party tried to ignore it, but as August’s BES report showed, Brexit was the key issue. Remain tactical voting cost the Tory party seats. Brexit increased anti-Tory tactical voting that had abated since David Cameron’s modernisation. Now Best for Britain adds more analysis: Remain voters saved Labour.
The Conservatives appear not to have learned the lessons. Their loss of a majority also saw their largest share of the vote since 1983. Yet if the next election is held post-Brexit, then it may be difficult for the party to hold its 2017 coalition together. Its only offer was Brexit. So what happens afterwards?
Labour supporters want it both ways: voters who were ill-informed or duped at the 2015 general election or during the Brexit referendum campaign, are suddenly wise and informed when they vote for Jeremy Corbyn. The truth is, they were ill-informed in 2015 and 2016 - and they were in 2017. Most people do not follow policy detail but have an emotional feel for the way they are going to vote. Voters wanted change and thought they saw a lifeboat.
The Corbynista doth protest too mUch
2017 was not a personal victory for Corbyn; any leader might have defied the opinion polls had she or he combined a message of change with opposition to hard Brexit. In BES’ election word cloud, nationalisation is nowhere to be seen. Considering Corbyn’s euroscepticism and the party’s ambiguous Brexit policy, a different leader might have done better. But that might be a counterfactual too far. As the man in charge, Corbyn gets the credit. Fair enough. But all things in moderation.
In wallowing in the mythology of Corbyn as the man who overturned a twenty-point lead, Labour are ignoring that after every disaster to have befallen this government since the election, public scepticism of Brexit negotiations and the tragedy at Grenfell, they are only level-pegging with the Tories.
It could get worse.
In 1989, the Tories cried “Ten more years!” as Margaret Thatcher stood on the conference stage. Since her resignation, the party has been ungovernable. Opposition saw them set litmus tests of True Toryism, including euroscepticism. Deviation from the doctrine was prohibited. They did not consider that Thatcher’s premiership might be an aberration, allowed by particular circumstances. Instead it became a golden age. A myth if you like.
In 2017, Labour supporters sing “Oh! Jeremy Corbyn”, put Corbyn “twibbons” on their social media profiles and share “funny” memes. Some say it is tongue-in-cheek. Maybe I missed the ironic laughter at Glastonbury. The Corbynista doth protest too much. In their adulation, they might ensure that Corbyn’s legacy for his party is as toxic as Thatcher’s was for hers.
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.
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