The general election result shows many underestimated the popularity of Corbyn’s policies. But where Labour goes now is up to us to define, writes LIZ DAVIES
WHAT a difference a year makes. This time last year, Jeremy Corbyn had just won his second leadership contest by a landslide.
A majority of Labour Party members were ecstatic. And we began to see the Corbyn-inspired new politics in the Labour Party at The World Transformed: a four-day fringe event displaying energy, creativity and radical politics.
But those qualities weren’t replicated in the conference hall itself. Most of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), whose revolt in June 2016 had brought about the second leadership contest, was sulking.
Some conference delegates were from the left, and were fighting for socialist policies on the floor of conference. Others joined the PLP in a grim silence and voted through rule changes which resulted in a majority against Corbyn on the national executive committee.
Throughout the winter, Corbyn and his leadership team faced a hostile media, feeding off gossip and disaffection from the PLP, and its own rightwing distaste for socialist policies.
Corbyn steadfastly came through it, but it began to feel as though the combined forces of the media (particularly those parts proclaiming themselves to be liberal and progressive such as the Guardian), the Tories and the right wing of the Labour Party would succeed in establishing the narrative that socialist policies would never appeal to the electorate. It didn’t seem to be a level playing field.
However, Labour Party membership kept rising. Something was happening. And we began to reap the benefits in the Stoke by-election. The Stoke and Copeland by-elections were deliberately timed, by the resignations of Tristram Hunt and Jamie Reid, to inflict maximum damage on Corbyn’s leadership.
After the failures of the parliamentary coup, and the leadership contest, the next strategy seemed to be to subject Corbyn to constant elections in the hope that the Labour Party would do so badly that at some point Corbyn would fall on his sword.
We entered the by-elections with the received wisdom being that we were doomed to lose. But something happened which defied that wisdom: so that Labour retained Stoke, even if we lost Copeland. Troops turned up. Literally thousands of Labour Party members made their way to the two parliamentary seats.
With the result that, certainly in Stoke, almost every door was knocked on, every house was leafleted and Labour had a very visible presence in the high street. Contacting people, and being seen to be campaigning, makes a difference.
Then Theresa May announced the general election, calculating that the Tories were bound to turn their 20 per cent lead over Labour into parliamentary seats.
The Tories underestimated Corbyn as a person, the determination of Labour Party members inspired by his politics, and the hunger of the electorate for an alternative to austerity.
After my initial panic at hearing the announcement, I thought: “Bring it on.” The general election campaign played to all of Corbyn’s strengths: his energy and enthusiasm for campaigning, his likeability which is apparent whenever he meets people, his honesty and straight talking and the appeal of socialist politics.
The manifesto set out a real, costed and practical programme for an anti-austerity, redistributive government. If we had won, a Labour government would now be embarking on taking the railways back into public ownership, reversing welfare benefit cuts, funding social care and working towards a national care service, setting up a serious programme of council housebuilding and abolishing tuition fees. We would be negotiating Brexit based on the principles of internationalism, solidarity and anti-racism.
And we had a secret weapon: our troops again. Labour Party members poured into marginal seats. Our presence on the streets and doorsteps showed that we were fighting to win; that we weren’t just playing the Tories’ game and preparing for inevitable defeat.
During those seven weeks, Labour Party members became more and more visible, and more and more cheerful. We were picking up positive responses on the doorstep.
Then, five weeks before the general election, there was the extraordinary phenomenon of crowds greeting our leader like a pop star. His appearance as warm-up act for the Libertines, playing at Tranmere Rovers ground, was the most eye-catching, but it began three weeks earlier, on a Monday afternoon in Leamington Spa when hundreds unexpectedly turned up to greet him outside the town hall.
The road was blocked and passengers were leaning out of buses, cheering and taking photographs. Something was happening, and May and the Tories did not know what it was.
The general election result showed that radical politics can be popular. We won seats we were expected to lose, and gained seats in areas that have never had a Labour MP: Kensington, Canterbury. Tory safe seats such as Chingford and Chipping Barnet are now marginals.
Yes, we still lost. And the country is poorer for it, held to ransom by the deal between the Tories and the DUP, facing a hard Brexit, low wages and Boris Johnson’s vision of Britain being a low-tax, low-regulation casino economy.
Foodbanks are now effectively part of the welfare state: filling in because benefits aren’t sufficient to feed claimants.
What now? We know that we have to be on constant general election alert. We should not return to the psephologists’ old technique of analysing sections of the electorate as though each section is homogeneous, has identical concerns and votes identically.
Labour can appeal to someone whom election analysts classify as “white working class” as much as we can appeal to anyone else: through our determined redistributive, internationalist, social justice and human rights politics.
I write this just before Labour Party Conference meets in Brighton, so cannot comment on how the conference is developing. We do know that the NEC wants to extend members’ representation: a welcome move. And that the atmosphere is likely to be very different from a year ago. More conference delegates support the leadership’s policies. Those who are politically opposed can no longer argue that Labour under Corbyn is unelectable.
We can go further. The review of the party’s decision-making structures could result in more transparency, accountability and a flatter structure that puts policies in the hands of Labour Party members.
And I believe that Labour Party members support unilateral nuclear disarmament. I’d like to see that debated by members, and hope that the arguments in favour of peace and disarmament would win the day in a democratic process, and then feature in our next manifesto.
Britain desperately needs a Labour government, with Corbyn as Prime Minister. So that the lives of all of us who have been affected by austerity can be turned around, and we can start to build a more equal, peaceful and just society.
Liz Davies is a member of Hackney North and Stoke Newington Labour Party and vice-president of the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers. She writes this column in a personal capacity.