- Jeremy Corbyn wins biggest increase in Labour’s vote since Clement Attlee.
- Surge in youth voters forces a hung parliament.
- Corbyn’s critics admit they underestimated his leadership.
- The result has called into question many previous assumptions about the Labour leader.
LONDON — As the results came in on Friday morning, some of Jeremy Corbyn’s biggest critics within the Labour party lined up to admit that they had got their assessment of his leadership wrong.
Harriet Harman, whose decision not to oppose the Conservatives’ welfare cap while she was interim Labour leader was partly responsible for Corbyn’s first leadership victory, told party activists she had “overestimated Theresa May and underestimated Jeremy Corbyn.”
At the same election count in Southwark, another leading critic of Corbyn, Neil Coyle, told me he had been impressed by Corbyn’s “cool, calm, and collected” performance during the campaign. “I underestimated the enthusiasm Jeremy Corbyn has generated among young people,” he added later.
Labour MP Owen Smith, who led a failed challenge to Corbyn’s leadership last year, also admitted that he had been proven wrong.
“I was clearly wrong in feeling that Jeremy wouldn’t be able to do this well,” Smith said. “And I think he’s proved me wrong and lots of people wrong and I take my hat off [to him]. I don’t know what Jeremy’s got but if we could bottle it and drink it, we’d all be doing very well.”
There was good reason for their contrition. Although Labour didn’t make enough gains to form a government, it was their best performance in terms of vote share since the height of the Blair era and the biggest increase in their vote at one election since Clement Attlee in 1945.
So why did Corbyn’s opponents get their assessment of him so wrong? Here are five lessons that Corbyn’s biggest critics need to learn.
1. The power of the press is waning.
Jeremy Corbyn is not the first Labour politician to receive a hostile press but the level of venom he received in this election was at the extreme end. Over the course of the campaign he was branded a terrorist sympathiser, an extremist, and a traitor.
So confident was Britain’s best-selling newspaper, the Sun, of his imminent downfall, that their final front page of the campaign pictured him quite literally in a rubbish bin.
It didn’t work. Far from consigning him to the dustbin of history, Corbyn’s personal ratings and his party’s poll ratings increased continuously throughout the campaign. At best, the press campaign against him made little difference, at worst it actively drove voters into his arms.
2. Social media does matter
There was much talk about 2010 and 2015 being ‘the first social media elections,’ but in reality, the impact of Facebook, Twitter and other platforms on these contests was limited.
This election was quite different, however. The Conservatives spent huge amounts on blanketing Facebook with under-the-radar anti-Corbyn videos and posters. Yet it was Labour, under Corbyn, which really used social media to its full.
One poll conducted in advance of election day found that 44% of voters had seen Labour’s campaign messages on social media, ahead of the Conservatives on 40%. Labour voters were the most likely to rely on social media for their information, with one-in-five supporters of the party saying they now get most of their information about political parties from social media. By contrast just 10% of people planning to vote Conservative use social media as their main source of information.
Labour voters were the most likely to rely on social media for their information. One-in-five supporters of the party saying they now get most of their information about political parties from social media. By contrast just 10% of people planning to vote Conservative use social media as their main source of information.
Many commentators, including myself, were sceptical of the power of social media to swing public opinion, with the assumption that it merely acted as an “echo chamber” for Labour supporters to convince themselves of their own views. However, the apparent surge in young people turning up to vote Labour across the country led to some incredible results, particularly in university towns like Canterbury, which turned red for the first time in its history.
It now seems beyond doubt that this drive was inspired, at least in part, by social media. The influence of social media will surely now only continue to grow in future elections.
3. Radical policies are popular
Labour’s success under Tony Blair convinced a generation of politicians that the only way to succeed was to ditch ‘left-wing’ policies in favour of a process of triangulation with the Conservative party. While Labour’s three election wins does suggest that such centrism can be effective, it is clearly not the only path to success.
In this election Labour released a manifesto that was unashamedly radical, promising everything from the nationalisation of key industries to free adult education. The result was a huge surge in Labour support which ultimately led to Theresa May losing her parliamentary majority.
Coyle, who had previously been one of Corbyn’s staunchest critics, told me that Labour’s manifesto, and its radical approach to tackling the housing crisis and inequality, had been key to Labour’s gains in this election. If Labour has previously been wary of being bold on policy, it no longer will be.
4. There’s no evidence Labour would do better under a different leader
Like other sceptics of Corbyn’s leadership, I have long assumed that the party would be doing much better under an alternative leader. Of course, it is impossible to prove either way, but after this election result, Corbyn’s critics need to accept that there is simply no available evidence to suggest that Labour’s position would be improved by a new leader.
Polling commissioned by Business Insider shortly before the surge in Corbyn’s ratings found that he was actually a bigger vote winner for the party than if it were led by Tony Blair, Ed Miliband, Yvette Cooper, or Sadiq Khan. Subsequent polling by YouGov for the Times found that Labour would actually go backwards if it were led by Cooper or Chuka Umunna.
Labour’s success in this election depended on turning out large numbers of young voters, consolidating support from the Lib Dems and Greens and moving ahead in Scotland. There’s little reason to believe that any of the alternative Labour leadership candidates we have seen in the past two years would have been able to replicate this.
5. You can’t ignore the young
For decades now British politics has been dominated by the demands and influence of older voters. Pensioner benefits have been protected while the opportunities for young people to educate themselves without accruing huge debts and own their own homes, have been steadily eroded.
This was seen as inevitable by some commentators due to the fact that young people were far less likely to vote. As a result, young voters were all but ignored by the major parties, leading to their turnout continuing to decline.
Corbyn’s leadership has actively sought to motivate these young voters, despite heavy scepticism about its effectiveness from commentators. Indeed when some pre-election polls suggested that young people were much more likely to vote in this election, the findings were roundly dismissed by most academics and pundits.
While we’ve yet to get solid data on youth turnout in this general election, it’s pretty clear from what we have so far, that in towns and cities with high youth and university populations, Labour’s support has surged.
Corbyn’s promise of free university tuition appears to have been one big driver of support for Labour and a big factor in Theresa May’s failure to win a majority. Whatever happens in future general elections it’s now clear that neither party will be able to ignore young voters again.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Business Insider.
Jeremy Corbyn has just increased Labour’s share of the vote more than any other leader in any other election since Attlee in 1945 pic.twitter.com/CwcHzHZ04q
— Fraser Nelson (@FraserNelson) June 9, 2017
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