Although May’s snap election came as a surprise, there’s a tense, edge-of-seat optimism seeping through the Labour
Party. NATHAN AKEHURST reports
IN the first week of the 2017 general election, there is everything to fear and everything to play for. On the morning of April 18 it became apparent that the Prime Minister was due to make a serious announcement on the steps of Downing Street at 11.15.
It knocked the Labour Party’s morning story — a raid on inheritance tax cuts to fund carers’ allowances — off the perch and replaced it with a slew of speculation, from war with North Korea to the death of the Queen.
Rumours of a snap election percolated through Westminster until they were confirmed just after 11.05.
The timing was slightly off, but not as much as the election, which Theresa May had previously pledged she would never call.
At the Labour leadership’s office in Norman Shaw South, there were fewer headless chickens than may have been expected.
“Everything happened too fast to waste time being surprised,” says a source.
“Harold Wilson said a week was a long time in politics — we all knew we had seven weeks to deliver the most exciting campaign this country has ever seen.”
Those at the eye of the storm had little time to worry, only to react. A statement was issued by 11.45, welcoming “the PM’s decision to give the British people the chance to vote for a government that will put the interests of the majority first.”
But further away, supporters were gloomier. Tears of frustration broke out among those neck-deep in coordinating one of the metro mayor election campaigns.
“We have 50 days to achieve what should have been a three-year project,” says Beth, an activist in South Yorkshire. “Even here in the heartland there’s a misunderstanding of Corbynism, because people have been taught to expect little and receive less and Labour promises seem too good to be true.”
Alex Nunns, author of The Candidate, which charts Jeremy Corbyn’s rise to the leadership, was worried.
“Seeing as Theresa May has a habit of going back on everything she says it shouldn’t have been a surprise, but it was. I think everyone on the left felt trepidation.”
The main question on everyone’s lips remain unanswered. Why now? To “crush the saboteurs,” shrieked the following day’s Daily Mail headline, echoing May’s lament that opposition parties were, well, opposing her Brexit strategy (or lack of one).
Gaining a popular mandate to define Brexit however she wants is presumably one of May’s principal motivations. But it is not the only one.
A poll over the previous weekend had a majority of respondents agreeing with Labour policies, including when the Labour/Corbyn brand was attached to them.
Signs of green shoots in the spring for Labour’s polling numbers will have urged Tory strategists to move while they were still nominally ahead.
Meanwhile, Buzzfeed’s Emily Dugan confirmed that we would know before the election if the Crown Prosecution Service were to press charges against the dozens of individuals — reportedly including key May advisers and sitting Tory MPs — being investigated over alleged election fraud in 2015.
It seems improbable that all of these factors were not involved in May’s decision (reportedly made during a windswept Snowdonia retreat. Corbyn, I am told, prefers the Highlands).
The sound of war drums sent Labour’s factionalists in two distinct directions. On one side, Corbynsceptics from Owen Smith through to London field organisers talked of the need for unity now the election was on.
On the other side, many who had spent months saying Corbyn was unelectable now had to come clean: electability wasn’t the question, they just didn’t want him in power.
Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland MP Tom Blenkinsop led a vanishingly small group of MPs in resigning their seats (joined by a few others standing down for non-political reasons).
Meanwhile the activist base was getting on its feet. Within three hours, 1,000 people had joined the Labour Party. Labour’s war chest was filling up with donations. Lara, a student doctor and London activist, was on the move.
“We need to gear up students and young people to campaign,” she said, “and making sure young people, who have been hit the hardest by the Tories yet are always underrepresented at the ballot box, are registered to vote.”
The international left was watching. Former Bernie Sanders campaign staffer Erika stood ready “to help launch a grassroots campaign” using pioneering skills developed over the summer.
“If there’s anything we’ve learned from the US and French primaries,” she added, “this is not the year to trust polls.”
The lack of regard for polling among ground campaigners is not a rejection of the use of data or science in political strategy.
It’s a healthy irreverence for the rules, a reminder that campaigns can make their own reality. On the other side of the English Channel, French insurgent Jean-Luc Melenchon was proving that very point with a shock polling surge on the back of a campaign including hologrammatic speeches and a platform game which includes an 8-bit rendering of the candidate shaking money out of IMF chief Christine Lagarde.
Over Wednesday and Thursday the campaigns began to launch in earnest. At the Anglican Church’s Westminster headquarters on Thursday morning Corbyn gave his first major campaign speech.
It was uncompromising. “I don’t play by their rules,” he told a crowd of supporters. “And if a Labour government is elected on June 8, then we won’t play by their rules either.”
His pitch was simple — the economy is rigged, you are being robbed and only Labour will do anything to take on the “gilded elite” and spread power, wealth and opportunity. The message will chime with people’s experiences — when in-work poverty is at record levels while corporation tax is cut year on year, it’s hard not to feel cheated.
While May aims to make this election a sort-of second Brexit referendum, Corbyn was insistent that “we’re the only ones talking about what the country should look like after Brexit.”
Corbyn handled the subsequent round of press questions in a cheerful but combative mood. Faced with accusations of being part of an Islington elite, he joked that “some people in Islington drink cappuccino every day, and I know many of them,” before outlining the desperate inequality plaguing both his borough and the country at large.
And on polling and popularity, he reminded viewers that his odds of being where he is now were originally 200 to 1. “People who want a better society are always vilified,” he added, referencing Labour’s founder Keir Hardie, “but we’re bigger, stronger and more determined than ever before.”
His skill was in not denying the difficulty of the situation, or attempting to provide a long-winded account, but instead deftly turning his underdog status into an advantage.
Meanwhile May launched her campaign in Bolton by chopper before refusing to take questions and being sworn at by a cabbie.
The contrast between May and Corbyn’s launches has made many in the inner circle buoyant.
“May launched her campaign by helicoptering into a private club,” says a source, “while we kicked off with a promise to rip up the Westminster rule book and hand wealth and power back to the majority.”
As the afternoon went on, Labour battled to find candidates even after party headquarters railroaded through strict selection rules to expedite the process.
This was also dogged by a press story claiming that Corbyn was trying to install his son in a safe seat.
The story had no basis in fact, and was put out before Corbyn’s office had issued a denial. It was a small reminder of the kind of obstacles Labour’s campaign will face over the coming weeks.
4It’s not just the press. Labour is having to fight for an expansive programme in the context of a diet campaign.
Fraser Nelson at the Spectator points out that David Cameron’s 625 pledges figure “has been repeated by those around May recently, with some disdain. Their point: that this time, the number of pledges could be closer to 62. Or, even better, six.”
May will rely on the benefit of incumbency to talk about hard Brexit and little else, duck press conferences and TV debates and deliver a manifesto light on substance. Labour’s rebuttal staff may find themselves with little to actually rebut.
Other obstacles are more logistical. Existing legislation has insufficient provision for snap elections, which could mean parties having to count election expenditure from June 2016 — and include almost any political spending.
Labour must relocate from its offices on the parliamentary estate to the Southside party headquarters on Victoria Street, while narrative, policy and messages are pieced together.
The infrastructure of a vast national campaign is still being KwikFitted at the time of writing. Yet what welds it together are people — people who are beginning to see tantalising morsels of hope.
“It’s not a foregone conclusion,” says Beth in Yorkshire. “People can be convinced they deserve better.”
“If we can run a campaign that addresses the genuine concerns of people up and down this country, there is no reason we cannot win,” adds pro-Corbyn writer Liam Young. 7
The last couple of years have seen leaps and bounds in Labour’s campaign technology, particularly in Labour leadership campaigns.
Harnessing the vigour and energy that saw Corbyn elected twice were a new canvassing app, a barrage of video content made quickly but with high production values, more sensitive use of social media advertising and a range of other developments.
“It felt like politics was finally catching up with what everyone else does,” said one member of leadership campaign staff.
There are hopes that the innovation in both technology and policy from last summer can be repurposed to fight the Tories.
But if Corbyn walks into 10 Downing Street on June 8, it will not be an app that won it. It will be a people-powered campaign.
Labour is also able to reach more people than ever before. In the Stoke by-election where Ukip’s Paul Nuttall was seen off, every door in the constituency was knocked on one Sunday.
There’s real potential that party broadcasts and leaflets could be backed up by mass face-to-face contact, which when effective — according to US studies — can shift the overall result by up to a critical 5 per cent.
The fight that local party assemblages now face is tailoring Corbyn’s Britain to the streets they are campaigning on.
The policy architecture — affordable homes, a national investment bank, a national education service — is expansive and fluid enough to be interpreted on the ground into concrete ways a Labour government would make people’s lives different.
Telling these tales of two cities (or towns, or villages) — one under five more years of the same and one after five years of transformation — will be essential in convincing people to overcome any scepticism they may have.
It is not enough for Labour to unite the left. If won, this election will be won on turning Tory votes around. Yet this is not as hard as it may seem: people do not fit neatly into ideological camps. In fact, every bit of polling we have tells us that the average Brit holds a dizzying mix of left, right and centrist positions.
Our positions are universally popular and now the fight is on to convince people we can achieve them and that voting for them matters. That, in Corbyn’s words, “you don’t have to take what you’re given.”
Each conversation and each vote won will matter more than ever. In seats like Morley and Outwood, Bolton West, Croydon Central and Derby North the Tories sit on majorities ranging from a few hundred to just a few dozen votes.
In 2015 the Tories were the main beneficiaries of a plummeting Lib Dem vote in many such seats — something that, post-Brexit, may have changed.
The Tories’ overall majority in Parliament remains wafer thin — though Labour would need to win nearly 100 seats for outright control, a handful could be enough to dislodge an already brittle May administration from Whitehall.
A jumpy Tory source told the Sun: “We only need to lose six seats and no one party would hold a majority.”
Corbyn begins the last day of the first week at a school in Cardiff North. In the last six years class sizes and exam pressure have gone up, teacher recruitment gone down, funding gone down, corruption scandals have plagued flagship Tory academies and there is a £6.7 billion shortfall in school building funding.
With the aid of Angela Rayner, an education spokeswoman who left school at 16 and had a non-traditional career, he hopes to make the Tories’ school record a dividing line.
Time will tell whether this, and other efforts, will be enough. But spend 10 minutes with Team Corbyn and you will feel the energy, the electricity, the dangerous sparks of hope around the room. They are daring to dream big in a political landscape where anything is now possible.
As bookies slashed the odds on a Corbyn victory, a party insider echoed the mood of cautious, tense, edge-of-seat optimism seeping through the party.
“We know we’re the underdogs. But anyone saying they know the result is talking nonsense.