I’ve been a lefty for long enough to be pretty familiar with the sensation of losing elections. I remember weeping in 1992 when John Major’s Tories beat Neil Kinnock’s Labour – but this time hurts like no other.
When campaigning for Kinnock in 1992 and Blair in 1997, I had grave misgivings about some their fundamental political values (mine lie further to the left). But I was more motivated by trying to end 13 and 18 years of Tory rule and was willing to bat for anyone who might deliver this.
These last two elections are the only time in my life that socialists like me have been able to campaign for the country to take decidedly the direction which we think really would create a fairer, more hopeful Britain. As bad as John Major was, he was a far more palatable brand of Tory than Theresa May and was virtually Frantz Fanon when compared to Boris Johnson. Brexit has shifted the Tories from the party of David ‘hug-a-hoodie’ Cameron to Boris ‘send ‘em back’ Johnson. It was still the promise (although slightly overplayed towards the end) of Corbyn’s ‘For the Many Not the Few’ slogan that made this loss so much more visceral for me.
For weeks, this election looked winnable. The policies Jeremy Corbyn was proposing were popular. Since Corbyn became leader, and ran the Tories so close, people like me had dared to believe that the country was starting to see the world in the same way as we did. To find out, then, that such a large section of our country sees it as polar opposite, is incredibly hard to take.
I worked six days a week on the campaign to re-elect the brilliant Battersea MP Marsha de Cordova throughout this election and the campaign in South London was breathtaking. Marsha’s team ran three full canvasses seven days per week with up to 20 teams of canvassers on each. At the weekends, we counted canvassers out in their hundreds. Marsha managed to more than double her majority to 5,668 despite the Lib Dems adding around 5,000 votes. There were similar scenes in neighbouring Putney, where my councillor colleague Fleur Anderson took the Tory seat previously held by Justine Greening.
My particular part of south London was a bubble though. With large Remain supporting electorates, and sizeable working class BAME communities, from Streatham to Putney, London voted for Remain supporting women and stemmed the blue wave. In other parts of the country though, it seems the public took a look at the image of Jeremy Corbyn they were presented with and said ‘no thanks’.
It’s something that we on the left will have to take seriously. It’s not enough for us to sit back and think that the working class communities in the Labour heartlands are going to wake up one morning and realise they’ve been sold a pup with Brexit and Boris. People become wedded to their electoral decisions, are incredibly resistant to accepting that they may have made a mistake. If life gets harder for these communities and those already struggling in our cities (as I fear it will) the left will have to offer a vision for the future that is both transformative and credible.
The last time the Conservatives were this strong, Thatcher bolstered her position with the Falklands war – and a war on the unions. More importantly, she was able to dig into the nation’s resources to give away council homes, public utilities, and other goodies that gave large chunks of the working classes the idea that their lives were getting better. This time, the cupboard is bare. The Conservatives have already given away everything so repeating the trick, especially if leaving the EU brings any of the negative impacts that have been forecast for our economy, will be much harder.
I have no wish to start thinking about who will lead Labour in the future. I know Jeremy Corbyn is not everyone’s cup of tea – that’s been made blindingly obvious by the electorate, but he is responsible for permanently changing British politics.
The days of Blair and Cameron, when voters said they didn’t think there was much difference between the parties are a distant memory. Our politics is one of stark choices. We have a strong right-leaning electorate, a third of country choosing Corbyn’s Labour and the other parties generally failing to make headway (apart from SNP-dominated Scotland).
Despite the way he has been successfully portrayed, Jeremy Corbyn is an honest, humble man who has always fought for peace and justice. His fair, polite way of debating politics was commendable but ultimately no match for a well-managed campaign of counter information and personal smears. For a man who has been a lifelong anti-racist to be called an anti-Semite must have been incredibly hard to take. I don’t feel let down by him right now, or angry. In fact, I have nothing by gratitude for him for how much he endured. From repeated internal coups to an almost universally hostile media, he stood tall and strong. The ideas that he brought back into the public sphere and the vibrancy he sparked on the campaigning left will not go away.
In our polarised political age, it will be tempting for those on the right to think that ‘the country’ has backed Boris and his brand of politics and that my side was soundly rejected by ‘voters’. Yes, 14 million voted Tory. But 10 million people voted Labour on Thursday, in defiance of all that was being said and written about Jeremy Corbyn. They’ll be feeling pretty gutted this weekend, but they’re not likely to think that they voted the wrong way. The political force behind Jeremy Corbyn was defeated on Thursday. But it’s still pretty large and is not going away.
I’m not sad for Jeremy, for Labour, or any of the MPs who lost their seats. I’m not even sad for the army of activists who worked so hard to prevent this outcome from coming to fruition. My real sadness is for all the people whose lives are about to get even harder.
I’m so unbearably sorry that we were not able to deliver the change that would have eased the suffering for some many of our neighbours, who are really up against it. I’m not asking you to agree with me. But if you’re wondering what the Corbyn supporters are feeling this weekend, this is your answer. That there are outrageous and longstanding injustices in this country, that we came agonisingly close to being able to remedy. And that these people will be ignored, now, by a Tory government that will take the view that the strong will do what they can while the weak suffer what they must. Toryism has victims, always. It’s for their sake that we’ll carry on.
Labour faces yet another internal battle. The left is a wounded animal, and the centre of the party will smell blood. The way to win back those communities that we have lost is not to abandon the very policies that will improve their lives, it’s to win back their trust that we are able to deliver. I’m also sad that we were still not able to persuade 32% of the electorate to even bother voting. Our politics in future will need to be co-written with these communities if the left is ever to be truly a force for change.
Britain is now facing a rare period of political stability. Like the rest of the country, I will be watching Johnson very closely. If he plays the hand he has well, and without the hubris that sunk his predecessors, it will be hard for people who think like me to win back the support of some of Labour’s core voters.
But if he squanders this opportunity, we’ll be waiting with a renewed vigour to make the case that another Britain is possible.