David Cameron – the British Conservative party prime minister who triggered the EU referendum – was buoyant following the release of the results of last week’s election. He told reporters that the Conservatives had proven they had the ‘people’s trust’. However, Conservatives might be wrong to celebrate this latest result as a victory: instead, they should be celebrating Labour’s defeat. That party, founded in 1900, has suffered its worst electoral loss in not one, but several generations, including the colossal loss of many Labour ‘strongholds’ in the North, counties that had once been styled the ‘Red Wall’ of Labour. The question is: why?
Polls taken during the run-up to the vote provide some answers. They show that voters were moved to vote not for the love of the Conservative party, but by an intense dislike of Corbyn. Words like “ditherer” appeared in descriptions of him: someone unsure of themselves and unwilling to commit. His vacillating attitude to Brexit and his own withdrawn nature – in contrast to Johnson’s affable buffoonery – are suspected to have alienated supporters.
There was also an intense materialism to his campaign. Whereas the Conservatives were offering Brexit – interpreted by supporters to mean freedom and sovereignty – Labour marketed themselves with ‘free microwaves’. It had the appearance more of bribes than generous economic reforms.
This isn’t the first time these criticisms have been heard. When he became party leader in 2015, it was routine for politicians and media figures across the political spectrum to poke fun at his supposed lack of charisma and media savvy – but Corbyn seemed to have proved them wrong. Labour party membership surged: from 193,754 in 2014 to 388,103 by the end of 2015. He withstood multiple leadership challenges, and then snatched away the Conservative majority during the last snap election. After that, he had credibility as a competent – if reserved – leader.
There remained grumblers, however. Party members, some of whom left, argued that the support was coming from a vocal but electorally insignificant group. For example, data leaked by the Guardian described Corbyn supporters as disproportionately ‘high-status city dwellers’ – a far cry from the working-class voters it was supposed to serve.
Indeed, Labour has seen a gradual shift in where its support comes from in the last few decades. In 1974, Labour enjoyed a 23-point lead among skilled working-class voters (C2), but by 2010 the Conservatives had overtaken them in this demo to lead by eight points. By contrast, among graduates, Labour-led Conservatives by 17 points in 2017, up two points from the previous election.
Corbyn seems to have overseen the moment at which point that change has become electorally significant. However, it may be his politics – rather than his personality – to blame. His consistent criticism of British military action over the years, for instance, is bound to have armed him during an election where many felt the sovereignty of the UK was on-the-line. During the election campaign, his support for leading members of the IRA – a militant pro-Irish unification group, which engineered many terrorist attacks – was a common taking point. There are many still living who remember that period or actively served British forces against the IRA. At a time when British nationalism is a thing keenly felt by a large number of people, Corbyn’s history severely curtailed his appeal.
Meanwhile, the people left to support him were those younger people were not alive or else very young during these periods. Corbyn’s connection to them won’t be as visceral to them as for those who lived through those events.
While much of this was also discussed in the run-up to the 2017 election, it was Corbyn’s leftwards swing that tipped the scales. Corbyn could be no longer given the benefit of the doubt of having anything other than quite a radical program for the transformation of the country. Social media analyses found these messages amplified far more than they had before.
Corbyn attempted to tap into an older, pre-Blair Labour. However, unlike that Labour movement, which had the passionate support of the British working class: Corbyn found himself supported by a smaller coalition of the university-educated and city-dwellers. It was one that, it is now clear, stood little chance of swinging the election.
The British left has taken an extraordinary battering and now has to find itself again – or face many more years of powerlessness.