One of the most disappointing things about the general election for me was how few people must have read Nick Cohen’s article ‘Why You Shouldn’t Vote For Jeremy Corbyn’ before entering polling booths on 8 June. Or perhaps they did read it and thought: up yours, mate. The more I think about it, the more I suspect it’s a case of the latter.
Mr Cohen, quoting from a Labour party member, listed the perfectly sensible reasons why sane people would not want Corbyn as prime minister. These included, but were not confined to: his support for the IRA and opposition to the Northern Ireland peace process; his admiration for the genocidal anti-Semites of Hamas; his infantile leftism in general; his appearances on Iran-backed Press TV; his readiness to negotiate with Argentina over the Falklands; his general incompetence… and so on, ad almost infinitum. And then, come election day, the public marched down to their local church or school and gave Corbyn’s Labour the biggest increase in its vote share since 1945. The opinion polls now put him well ahead — if they are to be believed (which I always doubt), and an election were to be held tomorrow, Labour would win. So what has been going on?
Of course, it was a staggeringly inept Conservative campaign for an election that wasn’t wanted by the populace — and Theresa May was revealed to be aloof, robotic and, worst of all, incompetent. It takes a leader of monumental ineptitude to make Jezza look capable — but look capable (and likeable) he did, by comparison. But either way, the stuff outlined by Nick Cohen simply did not play. Or maybe it did, except not in the way Nick intended.
In the two weeks before polling day, the press and broadcasters laid into Corbyn on a daily — nay, hourly — basis, on precisely the points that Nick outlined. And every time they did so, the Labour vote went up a point or two in the polls. It reminded me a little of the shrieking and odium poured over Nigel Farage during the 2015 election campaign, the denunciations from the great and the good. Every time he said something the establishment deemed as ‘racist’, the Ukip vote rose a little in the polls, until the party eventually harvested four million votes. As the 2015 election drew near, the newspapers and politicians ceased their attacks, having noticed that Ukip only benefited from them. But with Corbyn, the right and centre were still at it all the way up to election day.
Elections in Europe and the USA these past few years have been characterised by a profound and growing anti-establishment sentiment on the part of the electorate. And it can be an anti-establishmentarianism of left or right or even, as we saw with France, of the centre. What a growing proportion of voters want is ‘change’ and a good many will vote for change regardless of what sort of change is being offered. In the USA, the Corbynesque Bernie Sanders almost beat Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, and Clinton was herself eventually vanquished by the anti-establishment candidate of the right. In France the presidential run-off was between two self-proclaimed anti-establishment candidates. Italy is heading in a similar direction. Poland and Hungary are already there.
The Austrian presidential election was between a very left-wing Green and a very right-wing nationalist. Over here, the rise of Ukip and the Scottish Nationalists, the referendum on the European Union and the eventual support shown for Jeremy Corbyn all reveal that we are far from aloof from this hunger for what is sometimes called ‘populism’ but is actually simply a visceral desire to throw over the traces, to defenestrate the elite.
At times like this, then, it is inadvisable to appeal to the electorate with a bland promise of continuity: strong and stable government. And the more the anti-establishment candidate is attacked — whether it be by the liberal elite, in the case of Ukip, or by the ‘vested interests of the right-wing press’ in the case of Corbyn — the more the anti-establishment-inclined voters smell a rat. And the greater their determination to stick it to da man.
So Corbyn benefited by being a genuine ‘change’ candidate — a potent selling point which still pertains today and will probably pertain at the next election. The right may hope that civil war breaks out once again in his party, perhaps over Brexit, perhaps over Trident (which, contra to his manifesto pledge, Corbyn has now said he wishes to see abolished). They may pray that either Jezza, or the more sinister John McDonnell, says something spectacularly deranged which tests the patience of the latest converts. Neither is quite beyond the realms of possibility. But as to what the Tories actually do, rather than simply continue to limp along in a, uh, coalition of chaos, is another question. How to retain the support of those Tories — especially the AB voters who probably do want continuity and strong and stable government (which, of course, they are not getting) — while offering that ephemeral thing, change.
Two answers, one obvious and the other less so, spring to mind. The first is to put in a new leader as soon as that can be practicably effected. The most attractive possibility, even if she doesn’t yet have a seat, is the Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson. But as you will see, that would militate against my second point. David Davis, with his libertarian tendencies, might just do the trick, sort of. But the second point is that they need to tack to the right, not the left. Especially on the issue of immigration. Why?
The two most interesting sectors of the population who voted on 8 June are the ABs and the skilled working class, the C2s. Both groups went for the Conservatives by about 7 or 8 per cent — but those figures conceal more than they reveal. The inclination to support Labour is rising, and rising quite rapidly, among the ABs. It was probably this group’s migration towards Labour that — every bit as much as the over-talked youth vote — gave Labour several seats in London and in our university towns and cities. It is hard to reverse that trend, even if it is true that many high-earners voted Labour while praying to the Lord Jesus Christ that they wouldn’t win. (I have only anecdotal evidence for that, but quite a lot of anecdotal evidence. Voting Labour as a kind of conspicuous consumption, virtue signalling.)
The C2s, though, are becoming more Tory with every election that passes — the people who were once crucial to Tony Blair’s Labour party. They, like the semi-skilled and unskilled workers, tend to be nationalistic or at least patriotic, socially comparatively conservative, very opposed to immigration and not terribly big fans of political correctness.
This is where there is a vast reservoir of votes that can be won by the Tories. It is true that in the bottom two social classes, there was a majority for Labour this time around. But the general trend is in the other direction, towards greater support for the Tories. And these people have voted Ukip in large numbers before now. They did not vote Conservative partly because for some — a dwindling number — it is still an anathema to do so, partly because if immigration was a major issue, why would they vote for a party which has let more people in than even Labour? And for a Prime Minister who was singularly useless at controlling immigration when she was Home Secretary?
The likelihood, of course, is that the Conservatives will do the precise opposite and tack to the left. This would be the consequence of a stronger hand for the Remainers within the party now, and the misplaced assumption that because a very left-wing party did well at the last election, it follows that the Conservatives must ape either its tone or some of its content. If they do that, they may win back a handful of those AB voters, but not much else. It is further down our social pyramid that the party needs to look.
Labour voters are a bizarre coalition, which is one reason why pollsters and commentators, most of ’em, got this last election so wrong. It is comprised of the young, who approve of free tuition fees and all manner of wholly fatuous identity politics. Then there are the people who are paid by the taxpayer — public sector workers and the terminally unemployed, plus the ever-growing number of immigrants. There is the working class of the north and the Midlands, who are in fact supremely biddable to Tory overtures but who voted Labour this time because they could see no gain in voting Tory; only hardship, continued immigration, and the erroneous fear that they would have their houses taken away when they went doolally.
And there is the metro-liberal elite which votes Labour because it likes to feel good about itself and, in any case, has a few accountancy options ready if Labour actually wins. This comprises a considerable number of people, and I think the Tories can forget about winning back public sector workers, immigrants, the young and the growing numbers of AB voters who support Labour. But in the middle and towards the bottom of that pyramid there is a huge number of votes, if they could somehow be persuaded that the Tories too represented ‘change’.
Imagine a Tory party which reduced immigration and deported murderous asylum seekers who had been convicted by our courts? A party which was genuinely tough on crime (it is the poorest of us who suffer from the depredations of crime the most). A party that stuck up for Christians, because we are a Christian country. A party which hammered welfare fraud and tax fraud and made no apology for doing so? A party which scrapped university tuition fees — but which also cut the number of places by about 50 per cent, minimum, and introduced more apprenticeships, vocational training and the like. That stuff would strike a chord with what we used to call Middle England.
Not terribly likely, is it? In which case, look forward to Corbyn as prime minister — something I suggested was eminently possible two years ago and which is now looking slightly more probable than not.