Naked Politics Blogger
Labour might not have won the General Election, but the Tories definitely lost it. Commentators have since been busy unpacking why that was, with many rapidly trying to rewrite and erase their past claims that Labour was a lost cause under the unelectable Jeremy Corbyn. Theresa May’s catastrophic campaign, riddled with a confused media strategy and a counterproductive manifesto, notwithstanding, few would argue that the main driver of Labour’s surprise success was down to their remarkable and unprecedented campaign.
What made Labour’s General Election campaign so unique was that it sought to overturn much of the received wisdom on the rules of electoral politics. Young people aren’t worth the time of politicians and electioneering because, come crunch time, they won’t come out and vote. Social media is a meaningless campaigning tool because people are trapped in echo chambers and can’t preach beyond the converted. Elections are won and lost on the front pages of tabloid newspapers. Successful campaigns are those that are fought from the famed yet elusive centre-ground. On each of these counts and so many more, Corbyn’s Labour has proven that these and other rules of the game can be bent, and others can be broken.
Turnout among under 25s was at over 55% last Thursday, the highest since the 1990s, and roughly two thirds of under 25s voted Labour. This wasn’t accidental. Labour’s manifesto was filled with pledges aimed at the interests of younger voters, from abolishing tuition fees to reversing housing benefit cuts to the under 21s. Backing this up with a thought through youth engagement strategy which saw “Grime for Corbyn”, both Kerrang! Magazine and NME printing front page endorsements and alternative media platforms which backed Labour seeing a surge in readership prior to the election. Internet ranking tool Alexa currently places Corbyn fanatics The Canary as the 260th most viewed website in the UK, with the majority of its traffic coming through Facebook. For once, a political party spoke to a generation, and they rewarded them in kind.
But Labour’s success wasn’t solely or even largely down to young people. Labour won more votes than the Conservatives in all age groups under 50. London’s MCs and memes on social media didn’t win those voters round.
Part of this can be put down to the platform which Labour stood on. For the first time in decades, there was clear blue water between the two major political parties and the electorate were given a distinct choice. While there’s no doubt that both Gordon Brown’s and Ed Miliband’s leadership pulled the party away from Blairism and the least worst, not-quite-as-bad-as-the-other-lot method political positioning, it was Corbyn that offered a picture of a radically different and alternative society. That in itself inspired many to get out and vote against the Government.
But alone it wouldn’t have been enough to run the Tories so close, to gain dozens of seats and win some absolutely eye-watering constituency majorities. A manifesto in of itself is meaningless without an effective mechanism of communicating it to people, but Labour had just that.
Thousands of people up and down the country came out to knock on doors, many for the very first time. Motivated, mobilised and enthused by rallies with crowds that spread far into the distance, this army of volunteers were the mouthpieces of Jeremy Corbyn on doorsteps from Battersea to Derby, bringing campaign messages straight to voters, rather than relying on the character assassins of the print media and the dramatists of the broadcasters to relay it for them.
True, these have been the bread and butter of elections for time immemorial, but what made this different was firstly, as above, the scale of the operation, but also the use of innovative techniques and of institutions outside of formal Party structures. The often criticised Momentum was responsible for agitating countless canvassers and developing the “My Nearest Marginal” platform to direct volunteers to where they would be most useful for more easily than past attempts. Unions also poured resources into the effort – I received 5 texts and more than a dozen e-mails from Unite in the last two weeks of the campaign. Applying modern techniques and technologies to traditional campaigning methods was the perfect recipe for maximising the impacts of the pavement pounding.
When looking at any of these in isolation, it’d would be hard to understand how Corbyn overcame a 24 point Tory lead to starve their rivals of a majority. But when viewed holistically, the pieces of the puzzle start to fit together. After all, it was a blending of different quantities of these elements, among others, that saw the incendiary, but ultimately unsuccessful, primary campaign of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump’s ascendancy to the Presidency. Labour’s campaign brought the most powerful elements of the most unexpected rises in contemporary US politics to British shores, and executed them to see the Party’s receive the second highest vote share in almost half a century.
In light of that, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour may well have changed the game for election campaigns for good. We’re unlikely to see political parties neglect to address the needs and concerns of young people in future elections, and we’re likely to see bespoke strategies targeting this demographic. We’re unlikely to see social media and the digital world dismissed as unimportant and we’re likely to see this intensified with more extensive use of people’s personal data. We’re unlikely to see a return to the politics of third wayism and triangulation, and we’re likely to see more distinct and brave policy platforms.
Much of this is better for politics and for a healthier democracy, but it won’t quite be the same again.