Jeremy Corbyn Labour’s campaign has altered the landscape of British politics. Photo: flickr, Kevin Walsh

Whatever happens on polling day, Labour’s campaign has altered the landscape of British politics  

We may not know what results the general election on 8 June will give us, but we do know the direction of travel. Polls have shown a clear pattern of Labour’s vote share rising, closing the gap between it and the Tories. The most recent polls have tended to put Labour in the mid-30s, with a YouGov poll putting the party as high as 38%. 

There have been reports of a drastic revising of forecasts by the Tories themselves. The party’s private predictions have gone from regarding a 200-seat majority as its best-case scenario in the first week of the campaign to now seeing an 80-seat majority as its best plausible outcome. Its worst-case scenario is now a hung parliament, something the Tories didn’t consider even an outside chance when Theresa May called the election several weeks ago (amid polling leads over Labour of around 20 points). 

The Tory vote share has fallen a little in the polls, but the main change has been the improved fortunes for Labour. As the campaign has progressed, this has polarised into being a sharp conflict between the two major parties. 

The long-term electoral trend of fragmentation has – in England and Wales, at any rate – been thrown into reverse, with polls typically giving a combined Tory and Labour vote share of around 80%. The strong polling for the Tories can be explained largely by the collapse in Ukip’s support, rather than representing any rightwards shift on the part of voters. 

Popular policies get a hearing 

This campaign has changed – and is still changing – British politics. As many of us on the left predicted, a major campaign has allowed Jeremy Corbyn to convey broadly left-wing ideas and policies to large numbers of people and therefore increase support for a left-led Labour Party. Given the opportunity to discover what Corbyn actually stands for, millions of people have been impressed. 

The certainty felt by Tory politicians – and echoed by legions of commentators and many MPs on Labour’s right wing – that the Tories would inevitably expand their Commons majority, perhaps notching up a spectacular landslide victory, has evaporated. It has been undermined by the dynamics of the campaign. 

Two key turning points stand out. The leaked Labour manifesto shifted focus towards discussion of policy, instead of tittle-tattle about process and personalities. Then the Tory manifesto exposed the paucity of political substance to May’s offer to the electorate, while generating a number of fresh controversies. 

Many of Corbyn’s policies have proved popular, cutting against the received wisdom that any shift to the left must inevitably be electorally damaging. The Tories have responded by trying to avoid discussing policies at all, instead pitching May as a presidential leader above the fray of normal party politics. But this has been undermined by the controversies over the funding of school meals, state pensions, and above all the provision of social care, with Tory plans being dubbed the Dementia Tax (a label that has stuck, irrespective of a bungled and humiliating U-turn by a supposedly ‘strong and stable’ prime minister).

May vs Corbyn

The gulf between May and Corbyn in personal approval ratings has narrowed dramatically. This partly reflects the fact that Corbyn has – despite enormous media hostility and trivialisation – had considerable success in shifting attention to the policy terrain, where Labour is strong. It’s also a consequence of his considerable strengths emerging into the light during this campaign. He is a seasoned and highly effective campaigner, public speaker and debater. 

The campaign has allowed the Labour leader’s virtues to come to the fore. Corbyn has engaged directly with voters. May has hidden from them. Corbyn has addressed big and enthusiastic public rallies. May has retreated to the comfort zone of closed, stage-managed events. Corbyn has talked honestly about what he stands for and what a Labour government will do. May has appeared shifty, stilted and evasive. 

May – exposed as underwhelming – has seen her long prime ministerial honeymoon come to an end. In last night’s televised encounter with Jeremy Paxman and a studio audience she appeared rather wooden, inflexible and uninspiring. The policy u-turns have unquestionably damaged her reputation as a strong leader and it has become painfully apparent why she has been so desperate to avoid head-to-head debating with Corbyn.  

A contest not a coronation 

Preventing a Tory majority next Thursday is a genuine possibility, though it remains more likely that the Tories will hold on to a sufficient lead to give them at least a slight majority. But if that happens, British politics will nonetheless be quite different on 9 June from when May unexpectedly called this election. Politics – Scotland aside – has crystallised around a conflict between the big two parties, with the Lib Dems failing to made any advances during the campaign, Ukip collapsing, and Green support falling away. 

It seems almost certain that Labour’s vote share will be an advance on the 30.4% notched up in 2015, perhaps significantly so. The media chatter about Ukip benefiting from disillusionment with Labour already seems a distant memory. The hype about the Lib Dems sweeping up Remain-voting Labour supporters now appears equally wrongheaded. 

Instead we have seen a combative and authentically oppositional Labour leadership, with a serious policy platform that represents a sharp break from over three decades of neoliberal orthodoxy, galvanising what looks like being a much higher Labour vote than pollsters and pundits predicted several weeks ago. 

The talk of a landslide has faded. Yet this was always meant to be an election not about ‘who governs Britain’, but about just how big a majority May can command on the Tory benches – and precisely how crushed a Corbyn-led Labour Party will be. It has turned into a real contest, not the anticipated coronation. Even if May is returned to Downing Street, her rule is going to be more open to contestation and challenge than Tory strategists (or disgruntled Blairites for that matter) had anticipated. 

The campaign has also given an airing to broadly left-wing policies that have been taboo for generations. These are now officially Labour policies, putting the left on the offensive and making it harder for Labour’s right wing to reverse the leftwards shift in Labour (which doesn’t mean they won’t try). The notion that such policies must inevitably be alienating to voters has been buried. If the Tories retain a majority, but Labour increases its vote share and prevents a landslide, Corbyn and the left will be in a stronger position than most commentators expected when this election was called. 

A path to victory 

But let’s allow the post-election speculation to wait a little longer. This is still winnable for Labour. The path to victory is difficult but it exists. There is potential for the polling gap to close still further in the last week or so of campaigning, if the policies can cut through. 

Corbyn’s performance on the televised Battle for Number Ten impressed even his critics, while there is a formidable ground operation of canvassing, stalls and leafleting. Non-party political efforts – such as the NUT’s outstanding No School Cuts website, the People’s Assembly’s #DontVoteTory billboard posters and the #VoteNHS roadshows – have also fed into the increased public focus on the major political issues where the Tories are vulnerable. 

A lot will depend on getting the vote out. The sharp rise in voter registration, especially among the young, is hopeful. It is one factor making this election unusually unpredictable and open. The Tories can be beaten. It’s all to play for. 

Alex Snowdon

Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.​ He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).

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