— Jeremy Corbyn (@jeremycorbyn) 2 October 2017
“Jeremy Corbyn will be our next prime minister”, said Labour deputy leader Tom Watson in a rousing speech at this year’s party conference in Brighton.
Watson, who was highly critical of Corbyn in the early days of his leadership and rumoured to be one of the architects of the failed coup attempt in back in June, was full of praise for the veteran Islington North MP, claiming that Corbyn’s offer of hope had triumphed over May’s campaign of fear in the June election.
But was this new found optimism an attempt by Watson to curry favour with his boss and the large new influx of party members, or were his sentiments about the party’s electoral prospects more sincere? I would suggest that the answer lies somewhere in the middle. Watson is a shrewd operator, and while he accepted that Corbyn had exceeded all expectations in the campaign, he will be under no illusions as to how much work remains to be done before Labour can reach the summit.
While it is true that Corbyn increased the party’s share of the vote more than any other leader in post-war history, our First Past the Post voting system means that we still have a Conservative Government. This begs the question: where are the additional votes needed to win going to come from? Every government-in-waiting in recent history has found a route to power by building a broad coalition of voters, including those who had traditionally voted for other parties. People may point to constituencies such as Kensington and say that Corbyn is already doing this, but the truth is that large swathes of the increased vote share came from areas that already voted Labour or had large student populations, such as Canterbury in the latter case and London in the former.
The atmosphere at this year’s conference, which had a reported 13,000 attendees, was one of hope and optimism and in stark contrast to the scenes at last year’s somewhat subdued event in Liverpool. However, one lingering dark cloud that hung over many fringe events was the issue of Brexit. Having the opportunity to listen to experts from many of the country’s leading industries really put into focus just how profound an impact the vote to leave EU will have on all of our lives. At a time when we are facing an acute housing crisis as well as a skills shortage, exiting the EU will make it even harder for construction firms to recruit the labour needed to build the homes we so desperately need.
The abysmal nature of the Conservative election campaign was another recurring theme. Maybot’s malfunctions were a source of joy for many Labour supporters up and down the country, highlighting just how woefully inadequate the Maidenhead MP is as a leader. But are the Conservatives likely to field such a bad candidate next time around? The story of 2oth century politics in the UK has been one of Conservative electoral dominance. Time Bale in The Conservative Party: From Thatcher to Cameron argues that the reason they have been so electorally successful is their ability to adapt and acclimatise to changing political environments. The Labour hierarchy must surely be aware that they are likely to face a much sterner test in 2022, should the current parliament go the distance.
So can Labour really win the next election? When asked by a young journalist about what was most likely to throw his party off course, former Conservative prime minister Harold Macmillan famously replied: “Events, dear boy, events”. Fast forward to 2017 and once again it will be events such as Brexit that will define May’s premiership. They say that 24 hours is a long time in politics; the next five years will feel like a lifetime. Ultimately it will be Labour’s ability to exploit the opportunities arising from events such as Brexit and the inevitable fallout that will follow, as well as its capacity to win the votes of Tories that will determine whether or not it can win the next election.
Words, Matthew Mathers @MattEm90