What Might have Been

I know it’s rather self indulgent, but I find virtual history – imagining what might have happened if a particular event had turned out differently – quite interesting. The left doesn’t like this approach, partly because it rightly sees history as being fashioned in the long term by impersonal forces rather tha events determined by particular individuals. Nevertheless, there are events which might credibly have gone a different way or not happened which might fruitfully be examined.

The most glaring recent example is the general election, which most commentators and MPs thought wouldn’t happen. The period leading up to the election, particularly its latter stages, saw Labour transformed, attracting a level of support which seemed unthinkable when the election was called but which it has sustained and to some extent exceeded since.

The election was called on Tuesday April 18th, to take place just over seven weeks later on Thursday June 8th. It was still over two weeks to the local government and mayoral elections which were due on Thursday May 4th covering most of the UK.

Nothing much happened before May 4th by way of general election campaigning, with attention on the local elections, and although Labour’s position in the polls improved slightly this would not necessarily have happened without the election having been called. There were probably two main reasons. Firstly, by calling an election for reasons that were clearly based on party advantage, and despite having said that she wouldn’t, May was reduced in the eyes of many from a person of principle with only the country’s interests her concern, to just another grubby, calculating politician. Secondly, by making it clear she would not participate in any TV debates she came across as both aloof and afraid to defend her policies before other party leaders.

So the polls, and the election results on May 4th could have been worse for Labour without this, but as it was they were pretty bad. Labour lost 380 seats, and lost Metro Mayorships in the West Midlands and the Tees valley which it should have won, while the Tories won 560 seats. The results in the previous elections in these seats in 2012 and 2013had been very good for Labour, reflecting a substantial poll lead, so the results were not unexpected, but they were bad, despite the projected vote being 27% for Labour and 38% for the Tories, a smaller lead than the polls had been forecasting.

There was little public criticism of Corbyn from within the Labour Party after these results, as the general election was only five weeks away, but most activists assumed that this would yield similar results, with possible losses of seats on a large scale. However, as we know, something extraordinary happened, and Labour began to climb in the polls, particularly following the release of the manifestos in mid May.

Labour’s very much caught the national mood , against austerity and for positive policies to rebuild the economy and social services. The Tory manifesto, was by contrast a disaster, featuring the ‘dementia tax’ which was withdrawn with May claiming it hadn’t been!

Corbyn seemed assured and statesmanlike, May nervous and lacking in confidence. The Tories, unbelievably, had not costed their manifesto, as Labour had their’s, so were in no position to criticise it. Labour benefited from all the publicity, as well as the huge social media interchange which precipitated a much higher turnout by younger people than anticipated.

But none of this would have happened if the election had not been called, including, probably, the terrorist attacks in Manchester and London. The Grenfell fire would have happened, although that was after the election and while it cast the Tories in a bad light it would probably not have made much difference to Labour’s overall standing. This may have risen slightly in the polls from the upper 20s to the low 30s, but would still have appeared poor, set against Miliband’s mid term scores and even Labour’s own pre referendum scores. Labour would have been demoralised after May 4th and little campaigning would have been likely over the summer.

There would have been a strong lobby for Corbyn to go, although a further leadership contest would have been unthinkable. Some on the left might have tried to engineer a deal to preserve an alternative  left  leadership that wasn’t Corbyn. All in all, Labour would not have been a happy ship. Things would have been much better for the Tories, with May continuing to be widely supported, although it would have become increasingly apparent to those close to her that she was somewhat out of her depth and inept as a communicator. But these would have been problems for another day.

So what can we conclude from this? There may be those who dispute what I have said, in which case I would be interested in their version of what might have happened, and why. Some might see it as seeking to undermine Corbyn, either by raising it at all or by implying that Labour’s standing now is the result of freak events and would not normally have happened.

Neither is the case. I am a Corbyn supporter, but I believe that this exercise can teach us lessons, while although the election was unusual the support that it gave to Labour was and remains genuine.

Yes, Labour benefited from the extreme incompetence of the Tories, and from both the switch of EU remainers and the retention of EU leavers, due to Labour’s somewhat ambiguous policies here, but it was the manifesto and the policies outlined therein that were crucial in mobilising large numbers of  younger voters. However, the  promotion and popularisation of policy had by and large not been carried out in the period following Corbyn’s resumption of the role of leader in September 2016, notwithstanding the difficulties that would have caused with the NPF, but it could and  should have been done and would probably have placed Labour in a much more favourable position than the one I describe after May 4th.

The key is dialogue, the widespread dissemination and debate about policy among members and the electorate generally, something to which the technical and financial barriers are fewer than ever before.

But we also need to ensure that this is ongoing and does not subside through long gaps between elections. The only demand of the Chartists never to be implemented, that for annual parliaments, comes to mind, although that might be a bit excessive, but if the USA can elect its representatives every two years then why can’t we? We should examine these things, anyway, and strive for a much greater focus, at all times, on political issues and policies, to Labour’s undoubted benefit.

Peter Rowlands, October 2017.

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