Corbyn’s loss, I wrote last month, is “all but inevitable”. “The only thing that is in question is the scale of the defeat.” Well, I still suspect that he will lose but the result is very much in question. How did we get from confident predictions of Labour’s demise to hurried, panicky analyses of its resurgence? Much as I am entertained by the humilation of “Labour moderates”, who, weeks ago, were insisting that Corbyn should resign and be replaced, I have to ask myself: how did I get this wrong? Here are lessons I have drawn from the campaign.
1. No one really likes Brexit.
I thought enthusiasm for leaving the EU would empower the Conservatives, and split Labour between its Leave and Remain advocates. As it is, I think the bloom has left the rose of Brexit. The process is difficult. The advantages are unclear. People wanted to insult EU bureaucrats but now the deed is done they are (correctly) less enthusiastic.
2. The Conservatives cannot do populism.
The campaign to leave the EU, with Nigel Farage at its centre, was populist. There were dire warnings and big promises. I thought the Conservatives would ride this wave but they have not. They have, in fact, run a profoundly elitist campaign: arguing that only May can be trusted to lead the Brexit negotiations. This makes Brexit sound dangerous and complicated. It is, of course, but emphasising this means their campaign has been more negative than affirmative, and, I think, has left voters depressed and uninspired.
3. The Conservatives are an incompetent elite.
I thought the Conservatives were nothing if not ruthlessly, aggressively effective. After they had held and lost a referendum it should have been obvious that this was wrong. They are, in fact, in disarray; as strong and stable as a bloated drunk. Their one nation conservativism – while admirable, in some respects – is embyronic, and lacks an ideological base. They seem to have no idea what to do about Brexit. They are filled with incompetent careerists. They have so little confidence in themselves that they decided to promote themselves as the party of Theresa May. What an enormous blunder that turned out to be.
4. Theresa May is a bad leader.
Ms May’s abilities as a Prime Minister have not been seen extensively for fair evaluation. Her abilities as a candidate, though, are miserable. I thought she could project a measured, sober sort of confidence but she has been wooden, evasive and insincere. That she was popular, for a few brief opinion polls, was largely because voters had not been exposed to her and not found anything to especially dislike.
5. Negative campaigning is hard.
I thought the Conservatives would roast Jeremy Corbyn. He is, as I wrote, a man with “economically illiterate leftism and contemptible sympathy for IRA and Islamic extremists“. Well, it has turned out that campaigning is far more difficult than I had guessed.
First, it is more difficult if one is in rather than out of power; as it looks like bullying and as one’s criticism of potential errors exposes one to more serious charges of actual errors. Who could blame a voter for not being convinced by Conservative claims that the Labour Party is soft on terrorism when the Manchester bomber was allowed to swan out of the country to a Libyan training camp and then swan back in without the slightest inconvenience?
Second, voters are often indifferent to things that outrage those of us who are actually interested in politics. Historical things. Foreign things. Internet things. Corbyn sympathised with the IRA? A lot of voters are too young to even remember the IRA. They knew Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness as amiable Irish statesmen. Corbyn sympathised with Hamas? Who are Hamas? Is that the savoury dip? Corbyn fans are mean on Twitter? Boo hoo. Grow up. No one cares.
6. The Labour Party is not wholly inept.
I thought that given enough rope Corbyn would hang himself but he has measurably improved as a politician. His responses to accusations of IRA support showed formidable improvements in those essential abilities to lie and avoid inconvenient questions. He has a made a bold, consistent affirmative case for himself, which, even if it depends on the existence of a magical money tree, inspires young voters who want something to believe in. He has downplayed those aspects of his beliefs – like Republicanism and mass immigration – that would alienate socially conservative voters. He has better advisers than we might have guessed.
Without enthusiasm, I hope the Conservatives win. If they do, however, they will have run perhaps the worst victorious election campaign in history.