And what of Labour?
It is not necessary to hate Jeremy Corbyn to think that he needs to step down as leader of the Labour Party. He has given the job his best shot but it’s time for a new leader now. He has said as much and I can’t blame him for saying that he is not resigning today but will hang around while a new leader is chosen. A political public disembowelling of Jeremy Corbyn by the Labour Party is unlikely to be a useful or edifying way to make a new start.
I delivered a few hundred leaflets for my Labour candidate, Beth Miller, in the area around my home. There was one conversation I had, bit by bit, with someone delivering free newspapers while I pushed election leaflets through some of the same letterboxes. This man asked me what I was delivering and, unasked, told me that he couldn’t vote for Jeremy Corbyn. While stifling the urge to point out that he didn’t live in Islington North and it was too late to move to get a vote there, I did say that it was a fine local woman who was standing for Labour in this part of Northants but this seemed to be news to him but of no interest whatsoever. A few doors down the street I asked him what he thought of Boris Johnson and was told that he was a t***** too and not much better.
For this voter, and no doubt many others, it came down to a choice between two highly unpalatable leaders, nothing, it seemed, to do with the local candidates and very little to do with the policies of the parties.
Labour certainly had policies, and policies with which I largely agreed, although it was a bit difficult to discern where some of them had come from and how they could have been afforded. In previous general elections I have voted Labour (in this Conservative/Labour marginal) despite the party’s inadequate environmental policies but this time around the Labour offering on the environment was very good and well thought out. Certainly it was a hugely better prospectus than the Conservative offering. At this time of grave environmental concern, of Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion, the environment was hardly a factor in this election. Boris ducked a debate on climate change and suffered no consequences for that and Labour failed to make this a moral issue in the polling booth. Instead we were offered free broadband.
The Conservative offering overall was that they were going to do something for us, Get Brexit Done, whereas the Labour offering was too much like a packet of sweets that we were being given from which we could choose our favourites. Free gifts for the electorate does not make a government for the many which addresses the real issues of the future.
It is a missed opportunity but the real missed opportunity was in 2017 when Labour came so close to toppling the May government – that was the opportunity gifted by the Conservatives and not quite grasped by Labour. Against the Maybot Jeremy Corbyn looked very sensible and human, if not exciting. She was expected to be strong and stable whereas Corbyn was expected to fall off the stage through incompetence – the fact that she was so bad and he was not so bad was a combination never to be repeated. And the Conservative manifesto included toxic policies. This time Johnson was managed out of dangerous public appearances and the manifesto was largely devoid of anything but a three-word slogan and photos of a blonde Etonian. 2017 was close run thing, and I think the Labour campaign was pretty good then. The fact that it was a missed opportunity does not mean that it was a fumbled one, I think Labour did brilliantly to come so close two years ago but it was never going to get a better chance than that.
But Labour needs to sort out where it is going from now on. It’s a hard road back to being a party of government from here. We can rely on Brexit being a hard road and the gloss coming off this election result quite quickly, but voters’ buyer’s remorse has to last a long time for it still to be a factor at the next general election.
Labour’s problem is a lot more than getting a new leader – although that is a big challenge in itself – but it is in finding a position in modern politics. Hating the Tories is not a position. I do actually believe that we need biggish government to deal with today’s problems, and that we need international cooperation to deal with them too. Whether it be nature conservation or the NHS, and climate change or the economy, we aren’t going to get where we need to be through the selfish actions of businesses or a free market for good. You can’t deliver a care system which works for all without the state doing it through spending our taxes, and the same is true for regenerating wildlife in the countryside and reducing climate emissions. An important part of government is to take our money from us, fairly, and then spend it collectively better than we could individually to deliver things that benefit us all whether that be an army, an agricultural policy or new hospitals.
It’s not the easiest sell in a selfish society. It’s far easier to sell tax cuts. But delivering public goods is why we need government, and delivering the right public goods is why we need a Labour party that can win elections.
The way forward needs some thought, and tossing Jeremy Corbyn under a bus won’t deliver what is needed. He has to go, and he is going, but that is such a small step on the way forward that Labour should make the transition as kindly as possible if it wants to be the party that cares for all. Labour needs to spell out the role of government not the role of its leader, and it needs to look like a competent and kindly team.