So this is what winning feels like. The Tories still took more seats, but it feels like a red rout. And indeed, if common sense would suggest we should judge success relative to what is possible, Jeremy Corbyn and Labour have shattered expectations.
Corbyn had won the Labour leadership by arguing that the old bag of Blairite tricks, could no longer work. Labour, he argued, had to be more than an electoral machine if it was to survive. To be viable in the future, it had to reach out to social movements, especially the movements of the young. In his leadership victory speech in 2015, he defended those:
…written off as a non-political generation who are relatively not interested, hence the relatively low turnout and low levels of registration of young people in the last general election. They weren’t. They are a very political generation that were turned off by the way in which politics was being conducted, and not attracted or not interested in it. We have to and must change that.
Labour went into this snap election with a triumphalist Tory press exhorting the crushing of saboteurs. The broadcasters were taking their lead from a Lynton Crosby-fuelled tabloid frenzy over Corbyn’s supposed Provo ‘links’, every insinuating question and accusation flung at Corbyn coming directly from the pages of the Telegraph and the Sun.
20 points behind in the polls, with a combined Tory-Ukip majority since 2015 likely to be turned into a giant Conservative lead, Labour was particularly vulnerable in the angry rustbelts. These were ‘heartlands’ where the turnout of the Labour vote had eroded for two decades, and the populist right had emerged in the vacuum as an energising force, giving fresh life to local conservatism. Dozens of seats across the West Midlands, the North, and even Wales looked susceptible to the revolt of older, white, and less educated male voters.
To add to these problems, much of the parliamentary party didn’t want to win the election. For two years, they had run a sabotage operation, beginning with the pseudo-controversy mill fuelled by negative briefings and culminating in a failed coup attempt. At the outset of the snap election, a string of MPs had resigned at the last moment in order to load the party with extra problems in a short electoral period. John Woodcock MP urged people not to vote for a Corbyn-led Labour party. Many local MPs, such as Enfield North’s Joan Ryan, openly campaigned on the basis that Corbyn had no hope of winning. Corbyn’s personal popularity was exactly as you would expect it to be after such a feeding frenzy.
And yet, refusing to be intimidated, the Labour leadership ran a confident, aggressive, and mostly left-wing campaign. It refused to run with a pale imitation of Tory flag-waving, as would have been the preference of Tom Watson and his confederates. Its manifesto went far to the left of the accepted mainstream – nationalising key utilities, reversing anti-union laws, building council houses, free education, ending NHS privatisation, and abolishing the bedroom tax and punitive welfare sanctions. And it was popular.
Corbyn, baited about his support for Irish republicanism, and urged to “condemn the IRA,” politely insisted that all the murder in Northern Ireland had been wrong, including that of the loyalists and the British state. After the Manchester massacre, he made a dignified speech criticising the ‘war on terror’ which called down the usual chorus of abominations while winning the argument with the public. Baited on immigration, Labour did not defend ‘free movement’, but nor did it run scared. There was no ‘Controls on Immigration’ gimmickry, and by and large the focus was on workers’ rights, including those of migrant workers. Corbyn’s personal qualities, particularly his calm good humour in the face of relentless attack, came through particularly well in the campaign.
Labour took on the blue beast, that many-headed-hydra, and slayed it. It shut up the countersubversive roar of the reactionary press, with the polite revenge of electoral success. Corbyn mobilised almost 13m votes, around 40% of the total. By exciting voters, Labour raised the turnout, which among 18-24 year olds was estimated to be 72%. It also increased its support among over-65s, with a chunk of northern Ukip voters opting to vote for a Labour party that actually looked like the Labour party.
Again and again, as the seats came in, it was the same line: this seat, which Labour has just taken with a huge majority, is the sort of seat you would expect Labour to win if it was winning the election. Canterbury turned something other than blue for the first time since the Great War. Kensington, still recounting, may been swallowed in a vengeful blood-red wave across London as its forgotten working class constituents take revenge on an atrocious Tory MP. Portsmouth, a Tory-Liberal marginal, went Labour, as the party showed surprising strength across the south and south-west.
Perhaps even more important, the ‘Ukip effect’ was mostly drowned in the red tide. There were some local manifestations of it, for example in Stoke and Mansfield, where elderly, angry white racists came out for the Tories. But Bury North was the sort of seat you would expect to succumb to a combined Tory-Ukip vote, and Labour took it with an increased majority. The West Midlands was expected to fall to the Tories, with at least a dozen seats vulnerable. In the end, Labour defended even that most marginal of seats, Birmingham Edgbaston. Labour candidate Preet Gill took over from the outgoing Blairite Gisela Stuart, and claimed the seat with a 10% swing.
Labour won back seats in Scotland including the hugely significant Glasgow North East, while also soaring to mountainous majorities in former marginals. Rupa Huq, Rosena Allin-Khan and Tulip Siddiq all held onto their London seats with generous majorities, thanks in large part to the work of Momentum activists. Labour’s two biggest Tory hate figures, Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott, romped home with massive majorities. Abbott’s 35,000 majority is a joyful riposte to acres of misogynoir spite in the press.
Had anything like this scenario been described at the start of the election, it would have been a delirious fantasy. It is not just that Theresa May lost her majority, after expecting a landslide. It is not just that Labour triumphed by turning out exactly those voters Corbyn said they should appeal to. It is that the Lynton Crosby machine is dead. It is that the tabloids have lost their intimidating power. It is that Labour’s Blairites and the coup-plotters are now decisively finished. It is that the core axiom of neoliberalism, There Is No Alternative, has been rubbished.
It is that we woke up in a different country – one we didn’t know existed.