There is a lot of discussion in the media about why Labour did so well in this election. Journalists and commentators are trying to bridge the gap between their expectation of Conservative landslide victory and the reality of Labour’s strong performance. Their analyses though, must take into account that today’s Britain is not as they had perceived it, and in order to understand the result they need to reconnect to country beyond commentariat.
I have been working on the ground with political campaigners since last June. In the first instance, by setting-up a grassroots channel called Momentum TV that captured the activity, opinions and campaigns of Jeremy Corbyn supporters. In the second instance, by touring the country with variety show called ‘Stand Up For Labour’, which enabled me to interview people actively involved in local Labour Party branches across the country; from Carlisle to rural Cornwall, North Wales to suburban Nottinghamshire, Stoke to seaside towns on the North East coast. These films are available to view on a Facebook page called ‘Brit Rocks’. Having spoken to these people, I have a few observations that might be helpful in piecing together what happened in this election and will, in my view, continue to go on.
What I see happening is manifold. On the one hand, Corbyn speaks to Labour Party supporters who left the party after the Iraq invasion. I put myself in this category. Like many others, I became unable to engage with mainstream politics because the party I wanted to vote for had ignored our protests and taken us into conflict. Corbyn was one of the figureheads of the anti-war movement and we remember that keenly. We want a foreign policy shift towards diplomacy and away from military solutions, even if it risks weakening our relationship with the United States. We see hope for this shift in Corbyn.
Secondly, Corbyn appeals to the working class. This certainly does not include everyone. But the numbers are significant and I believe, will rise. In traditional Labour heartlands where the Brexit vote was strong, Labour Party members have been working hard to defeat UKIP’s politics of blame by arguing instead for investment to restructure their economies, which they do not feel has happened, in some place since the 1980s. The politics of hope plays a strong role here. Labour Party members talk about gaining back confidence and fighting for the future. Alongside this, Corbyn focused on making Brexit work for Britain rather than contesting the result. This is making an impact and, I believe, influenced the recent vote as evidenced by the near even split of UKIP voters to Labour.
The lack of investment following the closure of heavy industry is also the cause, many believe, of generational poverty that exists in these areas, in some cases with as many as three generations in a family dependent on state benefits. For these people, the austerity cuts have been extremely painful, and I am not sure the Conservative Party fully understood this. Many had given up hope that life would get better. However, Corbyn has been at the forefront of the anti-austerity movement since the beginning, and people see him as someone who could reverse the exponential rise in food and clothing banks, which are now a fact of life for many in this country.
There are some who fluctuate from employment to unemployment and many of these people work on zero hours contracts. For them, Corbyn offers a return to unionised work-forces. Many union members have re-joined Labour Party because of Corbyn, and they are often its most active organisers. There is a great deal of contention about the role of unions in Britain, but many people believe they are a force for good. The re-engagement of union members with the Labour Party has, I believe, played a role in Labour’s increased voter turnout.
The Labour Party manifesto includes a commitment to invest in jobs for the future. One of the ways set out for achieving this is through the establishment of a National Investment Bank, modeled on the German system. Through its network of local branches, this bank will provide access to business loans at reasonable rates. This has caught the imagination of the entrepreneurial and the ambitious, as well as of those who want job security and self-respect in the workplace. I accept there many be a great deal of tension between the above two factors but perhaps less so when they are presented, as they are, as part of a profound re-structuring of the economy here in Britain.
Another factor in this is the widespread discontent around the privatisation of the NHS and other public services. Although Theresa May hoped to run this election on a Brexit ticket, for many it was about the NHS. I see a clash of ideologies here, that many feel they have not seen played out in parliamentary debates for a while. Instead, there is the perception – rightly or wrongly – that a consensus existed between the two main parties that the public sector, by its very nature, is inefficient. However, there is a counter-argument to this, particularly in the case of the NHS, and Corbyn makes it. This is not a throw-back to the 1970s. It is an argument that many people believe has yet to be won by those advocating the introduction of market forces into the public sector. Many people are looking to Corbyn to make the case in Parliament and that influenced the way they voted and, in some cases, in their decision to cast a vote at all
Much has been ascribed to the impact of the youth vote. This is real, and there are many factors involved. Tuition fees is obviously one, and Labour’s commitment to abolish them appeals to young people from all backgrounds. However the young vote was galvanised hugely by the scores of register to vote events that happened throughout the country, leading over two million to people to register, half of them under twenty-five. At the events I attended, young people expressed regret for not casting a ballot in the EU referendum as Brexit showed that every vote counts. At the same time, Corbyn’s team were able to reach young people through social media, which they have become masterful in using as it has often been the only way they could get messages out. Simultaneously, Momentum has been developing a series of apps for canvassing that are firmly rooted in the online world where young people spend much of their lives.
The role of artists can not be underestimated in this election either, and their input has also impacted on the youth vote. Corbyn became cool and, by extension, Labour did too. Musicians, graphic designers, visual artists, video artists, filmmakers and actors have all served to create a tipping point. Suddenly politics had become an exciting movement and thousands of young people wanted to be part of it.
But perhaps the most significant factor in this election for me has been the phenomenal voter turnout. Where Labour has won the seat, or significantly increased its share of the vote, it is likely to be because Labour Party members have undertaken the hard slog of knocking on doors and explaining what Labour stands for. Again and again I have heard the same thing, which is that the Labour Party strategy locally has been to connect with people on a human level, listen to what they have to say and tell them about the policies set out in the Labour Party manifesto.
Whereas before there was resignation and hopelessness, now people have faith in their ability to influence the future. Having been told by the Conservative Party, previous Labour leaders, and the media that they must accept Britain as it is, Jeremy Corbyn has offered them a choice and they have responded. By engaging or, in my case, re-engaging with the democratic process comes renewed confidence. Young people are part of this, but I believe it is a lot more widespread. I also envisage it continuing as we try to figure out what happens next for Britain.