Seven weeks ago, the task facing Jeremy Corbyn was a lot simpler – to survive politically. The assumption was that Labour would be crushed in the general election and the extent of that defeat would determine whether Corbyn could hold onto internal power within a much depleted party.
Corbyn’s own contribution – in terms of personal campaigning and the way he was able to mobilise new cohorts of voters for Labour, particularly the young – means a far bigger, more meaningful prize is on offer, a Labour government. The routes to one remain steep and rocky, but there are now realistic routes, whereas any leader elected in 2015 would have been hard-pressed to map a route back to power.
If his performance in the Commons and at the PLP yesterday is anything to go by, relative success in increasing Labour’s parliamentary strength by a bit and its vote share by a lot has emboldened Corbyn and given him the aura of leadership.
And now he has followers – a PLP that was desperate to survive and thought he was an impediment to that has survived and grown and now senses that they can contribute to returning Labour to power, and that one of the main ways they can contribute is through unity.
The unity of success is a necessarily fragile and dependent on continued success and competent leadership, but it’s a better state of mind for a party than the disunity engendered by impending rout.
That doesn’t mean there will be uniformity or that genuine policy disagreements will disappear. Most Labour MPs come from a different historic Labour tradition to Corbyn, particularly on foreign and security policy, and they will have policy red lines they will defend. But he has earned the right to pursue his general approach – let’s call it anti-austerity though I would argue every Labour leader has been anti-austerity – as it has brought electoral dividends. It just happens that it chimes with the gut instincts of the entire party – the most ardent Blairite came into politics to increase and improve not cut public services and indeed that’s what we did in government from 1997 to 2010.
There is literally zero appetite for internal conflict resuming among Corbyn’s erstwhile Labour opponents. That doesn’t mean there won’t be battles over internal selections or elections or votes at conference, it means that they won’t be conducted as proxy referendums on the leadership. Conflict would only resume if it was provoked by partisan rule changes, deselection threats or the crossing of a handful of policy red lines such as the nuclear deterrent. With the possibility of a second general election, it is no one’s interest for disunity to mar the current momentum.
Corbyn now has the luxury of strategic choices.
He can go for “one more heave” – a repeat of this year’s successful messaging and strategy but with campaigning resources – organisers, spending and activists – redeployed to win back traditionally Labour seats in the central helt of Scotland, and the more diverse Tory-held marginals in England and Wales, primarily through further, targeted increases in turnout and an even deeper tactical voting squeeze on the Lib Dems and Greens.
Or he can take the view that getting from 40 per to 42 per cent and from 262 seats to over 326 is a different and more difficult task than his already considerable achievement last Thursday, as it requires flipping voters direct from both the SNP and the Tories. The swing last week from Con to Lab was 2 per cent and this is required again to surpass the Tories on vote share, and a net gain of at least 64 seats is needed, double what was achieved. He might judge that there aren’t enough further non-voters, Greens and Lib Dems in the right seats (given that our vote is inefficiently distributed as we pile up 60 per cent to even 80 per cent vote shares in many London and university town seats, whilst missing many marginals narrowly).
Perhaps the next sets of voters we need to add to win power require either a targeted policy offer to particularly tickle them into affection for Labour – a middle England version of the tuition fees offer to students. Perhaps they need some reassurance and compromise in the areas where they are sceptical about Labour: leadership, taxation, immigration, national security. These are not people that are inherently anti-Labour, many of them are previous Labour voters. They are a mixture of classic upper working class and lower middle class swing voters in new towns, suburbs and medium-sized towns, who have always decided election outcomes, and white working class voters in the UK’s “rust belt” – the post-industrial Midlands and North, who have drifted from being part of Labour’s core vote to Ukip and then Tory because of concerns about the personal economic impact of free movement from the EU.
Given Corbyn’s style as a left populist, his desire to reenergise Labour’s working class core vote, and the willingness he quietly already showed to appeal to these voters by, dare I call it, triangulation over Brexit and free movement, I don’t think he has to move that far outside his comfort zone to reassure them and appeal to them. But it is still involves more politically difficult choices, perhaps taking the party membership to places it and Jeremy himself don’t feel entirely comfortable in, than relying on “one more heave”.
Which of these two approaches he takes – and the second is an addition to the first, not an alternative to it – is up to him. He has earned the right and the heavy responsibility of deciding what strategic approach is required to get Labour into power, and himself into 10 Downing Street. Only four Labour leaders have ever won a general election, will Corbyn’s decisions make him the fifth?