When the election was called it was thought to be 1983 all over again. To be mildly contrarian I started thinking: maybe it could be more like 1987. I think I’d hang on to that thought. It turns out to be a relevant comparison because Labour were judged then, as now, to have had the better campaign, despite losing.
Labour have benefited from the fact that this is a campaign, rather than the usual quiet attrition in which infighting goes on. Maybe various MPs who don’t like the leadership have had to stop focusing on attacking it while they defend their own seats. Jeremy Corbyn has come out fighting and surpassed everyone’s expectations – partly because campaigning seems to be what he likes best. So maybe he needs to be permanently campaigning. If politics was nothing but an election campaign, he would always seem good at it.
It strikes me that though Labour has lost numerous elections since 1983, Jeremy Corbyn has never personally lost one – including his two leadership campaigns. I wonder if that contributes to his confidence. Despite being apparently on the side of politics most condemned to failure, he has not really experienced failure, till today (when Labour will fail to win the election). I have to wonder, now, how he will take defeat, in the early hours of this morning.
The crowds that Corbyn has attracted have been tremendous – as for instance to Gateshead at the start of this final week. John Prescott tweeted: ‘We never pulled crowds like this in 1997’. This is a good time to remark: Prescott’s support of the Labour cause has been moving and inspiring – this from the man who served Tony Blair as loyal deputy for over a decade. But where, even as Labour climbed in polls, were the rest of the Labour Party? The MPs? Defending their own seats: a good excuse, maybe a good reason. But MPs have always done that while also campaigning nationally. A lot of well-known MPs – Jess Phillips, Heidi Alexander, Chuka Umunna et al – have not stood up with the Labour cause as a whole, but acted as though they were fighting purely local campaigns. In some cases this might be necessary for their electoral survival. But I don’t think that excuse is good enough for them all. I think they had a chance to come out for the Labour Party when it mattered, and they didn’t. And the same goes double for those who no longer have constituencies to defend. Neil Kinnock, Gordon Brown, Tessa Jowell, Margaret Hodge. Where were you when the party needed you?
This increases my appreciation of the all-too-small team that has stood with, and indeed comprised, the national campaign. People on the left of the party as I understand it: Rebecca Long-Bailey, Angela Rayner. (Clive Lewis seems no longer to be part of such a gang. I make do with pictures of him campaigning at my old university.) But also: Emily Thornberry, Sir Keir Starmer, Barry Gardiner: people who rallied to the cause and worked for the party when it was needed. Barry Gardiner: a man who was never a Blairite, is not now a Corbynite, is simply a Labour MP who works for a Labour victory. So many Labour supporters have found a new hero in this soft-spoken pugilist.
The last night before polling day, Jeremy Corbyn addressed a rally in the Union Chapel, from the same stage where I once saw Harriet Wheeler sing. He said: You should never be ashamed to admit that you like poetry, and recited:
Rise, like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number!
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you:
Ye are many—they are few.
The Con party will win the most MPs. It seems to me that they will take between 20 and 50 from Labour (so, down to 180-210 for Labour). Yet it is still not quite clear what would count as satisfactory victory for them. If they ended up with just a handful more MPs than they started with – then that would be a kind of failure, after going through all this with a landslide in mind. There could yet be, amid the postmortem Andrew Neil interviews, questions asked about whether May has won enough to justify the whole process.
The election debate that Corbyn attended was enjoyable because only two of the politicians were right-wing, against five progressive parties. But at the same time it was unrepresentative, as the Con party will win over half the seats on its own. The number of progressive voices at an event like that is oddly, and unfortunately, out of whack to the number of progressive votes (or the number of progressive MPs, which is of course a different issue again).
Is the total of nationalist MPs elected in Northern Ireland going to be the highest proportion ever? The very fact that NI is so distinct from the UK, constantly said to have almost no relation to the election most of us have been talking about, contributes afresh to a feeling, for me, that NI doesn’t belong in the UK. It is an anomaly; its democratic processes are only tenuously connected to those in Britain. I know this has long been the case but the impression feels stronger now.
Interlude: Farron, Young
On the 2nd May, early in the campaign, with my father I meet Tim Farron at Lewes Station. On a sunny morning he stands at the far end of the platform, towards the chalk cliffs, with just three other people: local MP, grey-haired woman; TF’s very young aide; maybe some kind of journo – but I’m not sure it’s an interview, I think the local party is just seeing TF off after his support. We approach. I wish I could get a good picture. (TF would probably let me get a picture with him if I asked.) He in bright deep blue suit, open-necked white shirt; must reckon this colour scheme best with his quite red skin, blonde hair. They come by, seeking to get further up the platform, passing maybe a party veteran who encourages them. My father greets Farron as a public figure, saying he’s a Labour voter who’ll vote LD here. He stops and talks to us: his associate and aide nearby. The conversation includes:
- How is this campaign going? 1,000 majority to overturn. I’d guess she can do it then. TF says if Labour and Green vote for us that’s 15%.
- Is it Lewes pro-LD and countryside not? Yes, to some extent … the woman says Lewes supports the revolutionary tradition of Tom Paine. Farron talks of Seaford as pro-Brexit and elderly. I didn’t know there was a UKIP vote in Sussex: yes says TF, adding that people weren’t necessarily voting UKIP for Brexit, Europe wasn’t an issue at last election, they’ve made it one – it was a plague on both your houses.
- TF asks where I am: SE London. Where? Lewisham East. He can’t remember the MP Heidi Alexander. Oh, yes, I know her, he says politely.
- So you’re confident? TF cautiously: … I’m not sure confident is the word … Optimistic? Yes.
- Talk of the PM’s boring soundbite persona; TF seems to echo that it’s boring, talks of being 2 weeks in to election, 5 weeks to go. He is about to talk of the implications of people thinking it’s a foregone conclusion – getting into second-guessing and speculation from a partisan stance – when he’s told that some other people on the platform want to meet him. I say wish you all the best here.
TF is fit, quite tall and solid, open, personable, not hiding from the public as TM is. Able to speak volubly, fluently at a moment’s notice; able to be polite and reasonable and give no offence. I’m impressed. On the train he takes a discreet backward-facing seat with his young aide beside, and quietly reads from a yellow ring binder to Victoria; answering his phone once briskly and giving nothing away; talking just a little about things coming up. He walks into Victoria, undisturbed by the dozens of travellers around him.
Farron made a good impression on me. Why hasn’t that happened with the rest of the public? Why haven’t the Liberal Democrats surged, for instance among liberal people who think Labour is too far left or among pro-EU people? I can’t tell. I don’t blame Farron: in truth I think he’s been terrific every time I’ve heard him, never mind his admiration for Prefab Sprout.
The Last Battle
I am struck daily by the courage and dedication of people who have campaigned online and in the media for Labour. Eight hours from the close of the polls, I pay a last tribute to a familiar pair.
I was always irritated by Owen Jones. I still see how he’s irritating. But I also think that he is correct about 95% of things politically, and is politically pragmatic and media-savvy without compromising on principles. That must be an achievement. I admire his relentless campaigning, chivvying, nudging people young and old to vote and to get involved. I also his relentless harrying and chipping away at the enemy, however opportunistic – like the day he retweeted Donald Trump’s attack on Sadiq Khan repeatedly and demanded a response from Theresa May, so he could then complain about the lack of a response. That may have been the same day he called May a threat to national security. He has given his time day after day to the cause. However irritating he can sometimes be, we are fortunate to have him.
I have never found someone so simultaneously preposterous and heroic as Paul Mason. His public expressions of optimism sound delusional. He treats a local council election like landing on Sword Beach. Yet he is a gallant sanguine (as in surgingly full-blooded) voice of labour history, radicalism, boldness, nobility, bringing all these things into our present, in a way that inspires me more than just about any public voice in the world today.