By Paul Donovan
The result of the General Election is still sending shock waves through the political system of the UK.
Nothing has been the same since that uncannily accurate exit poll came in at 10 pm on election night. From that point on, it was clear that PM Theresa May had badly misjudged the mood of the country when she called the election, having previously denied she would do such a thing.
The calculation seems to have been that the Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party was weak and divided. The opportunity was there to strike, secure a 100 plus majority and rule with impunity. How wrong that calculation was!
The most amazing factor of the entire election was the way in which Corbyn grew in stature as May declined. Corbyn was constantly out on the road, talking to the public, debating in the media. Meanwhile, May seemed to be hiding from the public. She refused to debate with the other leaders, while claiming she was strong and stable – the person most suited to deal with the EU.
The launching of the manifestos was another crucial point in the campaign. The Labour manifesto was first leaked, then officially launched a week later – a deft way to draw maximum publicity to the content. The manifesto, which promised more funding for the NHS, health and education, went down well with the public – a public that has grown tired of the politics of austerity for the many, while the few went along with business as usual, getting ever richer.
The manifesto, though portrayed by some as some sort of outlandish left document, was very measured in tone and fully costed. As the BBC’s assistant political editor Norman Smith noted, it would only put the UK on the same footing as the way other European countries are run.
The Conservative manifesto was another disaster. It came uncosted and seemed to target the very people who usually support the party, with its now infamous dementia tax coupled with a decision to end the triple lock on pensions and restrict winter fuel allowance for the elderly. Theresa May was backtracking on the dementia tax within days of the manifesto launch.
The question of the EU exit process, the alleged reason the election was called, proved another strong area for Labour. A well nuanced position saw the party promising not to leave the EU without a deal. The position appealed to both Remainers and Leavers.
The election campaign was punctuated with terror atrocities in Manchester and London. However, even these attacks seemed to work against the Tories.
What appeared as the perfect opportunity to at last look like a ‘strong and stable’ leader turned into another disaster, as police cuts – particularly in Manchester – that the Police Federation had warned against were trumpeted across the media.
The result of the election was largely due to a very good Labour campaign led by Corbyn, against a truly appalling effort from the Conservatives.
Corbyn’s honesty appealed, especially to young people, who came out in their droves to vote Labour. The commitment of the young was brought home to me by my next door neighbour, whose son made a special trip back from York University for the day to vote in east London.
Labour also managed to mobilise the thousands of activists who have joined the party since Corbyn became leader. They were out on the streets. The organisation Momentum played an important role here. The energy and idealistic enthusiasm of many of the younger people knocking on doors and attending rallies was infectious.
Corbyn’s Labour also managed to overcome an almost universally hostile media. He continued to make the grown-up arguments, while there was intense activity on social media to try to circumvent the negative coverage in the mainstream papers such as The Sun and Daily Mail. The strategy seemed to work. The result should cause questions in editorial offices across the land – the message, to get out more and maybe talk to your kids.
One of the more amusing elements of the success post-election was to hear those in the Labour Party who have spent so much time over the past 18 months denigrating Corbyn, now having to praise him. As ever Peter Mandelson attempted another spin masterclass, talking in the third person of those who had under-rated Corbyn, while failing to knowledge himself to have been foremost among his detractors. Meanwhile, the same media commentators who told us that Corbyn had no chance now pen pieces explaining why he won. Penance indeed.
The future now looks bright for Corbyn and Labour. Re-energised, the party can look forward to another General Election in the not too distant future. If the momentum can be kept up and divisions in the party avoided, Labour should win next time. The one proviso must be that the Conservatives, with a new leader, surely cannot perform so badly again.
Corbyn needs to keep going: his energy for a man of 68 is truly extraordinary. I have known Corbyn for more than 20 years, often dealing with him on miscarriage of justice cases such as the East Ham Two and the Bridgewater Four. We have also worked together on Irish issues, where his valiant efforts together with those of the likes of Ken Livingstone and John McDonnell helped pave the way for the peace process.
It is ironic that having attacked Corbyn relentlessly for his role in talking to Sinn Fein that the Tory Party now seeks to get into bed with the Democratic Unionist Party – a party with past close links to Loyalist paramilitaries.
Corbyn has always been a man of principle, committed to peace. He has been on the right side of history on most of the major issues of the past 30 years – from Ireland to his opposition to the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, as well as the military interventions in Libya and Syria.
Corbyn has certainly done better in the role than even I expected. Never regarded as a leader, he has grown into the job and stood by his principles when being pilloried from all sides. Fortunately for us all, he has remained standing with his message of hope resonating with people across the generations.
Though an atheist, Corbyn has made common cause with the Church on many justice and peace issues over the years. He has worked closely with the Church from the miscarriage of justice cases like the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four to peace initiatives.
Surprisingly, there has never been a meeting between Corbyn and Cardinal Vincent Nichols, since the Islington MP became leader of the Labour Party in September 2015. The two men would no doubt have much common ground, especially in the area of the Church’s social justice teachings. So let’s hope that meeting gets sorted out soon, before the next General Election is called.
The Labour leader has certainly gone from zero to hero in the space of seven short weeks. The challenge now is to keep the pressure on the Government, as Brexit negotiations open. As for the man himself, he will probably be reflecting on the aptness of something his former mentor the late Tony Benn said: “First they ignore you, then they say you’re mad, then dangerous, then there’s a pause and then you can’t find anyone who disagrees with you.”
Picture: A smiling Jeremy Corbyn leaves Labour Party HQ in triumphant mood after his party’s better than expected performance in the General Election. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Images.