It was a good night for Jeremy Corbyn. Those of us who had believed he was unelectable and would never become prime minister have been proved to be … well, right, as it happens. He hasn’t been elected as prime minister.
Nonetheless, it was still a good night for him. He may not have won the war in the country, but he won the battle inside the Labour Party; he proved that an Old Labour leadership was no more unpopular than the last knockings of New Labour under Gordon Brown.
For the Labour Party itself, though, it was a poor result. To have scored a third general election defeat in a row is not an impressive boast. Up against the worst government campaign in living memory, the party was still 58 seats behind the Conservatives. After the 2010 election, it was 48 seats behind.
The task, admittedly, was daunting. And Corbyn can claim to have done what Neil Kinnock did: he’s put Labour within striking distance of victory next time. The difference, of course, is that Kinnock’s achievement was to save the party from extinction; Corbyn’s is that he didn’t drive it to extinction himself. Even so, it’s in a fair position for the next election.
And along the way, he has refashioned Labour on traditional lines, and has inspired supporters – both the idealistic young and the despairing old – by restoring some of the socialist rhetoric of the past. Even if the main slogan (‘for the many, not the few’) was a prime piece of Blajorism.
Above all, he has shown himself to be a very able campaigner. This is what he’s specialized in for his entire political career, and he – and his immediate team – know how to organize a public rally.
But it’s worth repeating: he still hasn’t demonstrated that he’s electable as a prime minister. For him to do that, to go one step further than Kinnock, to be seen as an office-holder rather than just a campaigner – and if Labour is again to be a party of government – two things are required.
First, the lessons of the election need to be learned. Early indications on the vote suggest that, as expected, the young voted overwhelmingly for Labour and the old opted for the Tories. The real battleground was for the 35-54 year-olds, and they seem to have broken evenly between the two parties.
At the start of the campaign, Corbyn played badly with this age group, but he won over a significant number – we suspect – in two key areas: the abolition of tuition fees, and the protection of pensioners. For those worried about their children going to university and about their ageing parents, Labour’s pitch was attractive. These issues compensated for Corbyn’s less pleasing positions on defence and security.
In other words, the appeal to the middle-aged middle class was what made the difference and allowed for seats to be won in England.
The second thing that needs to change if Labour is to win the next election is that the parliamentary party needs to unite around its elected leader. The gains that were made yesterday were achieved with a virtually anonymous front-bench that is not notably stocked with talent. To get any further, and to avoid a fourth successive defeat, there needs to be more strength on display. If there were to be an election for the shadow cabinet and big figures such as Ed Miliband, Yvette Cooper, Chuka Umunna and Hilary Benn joined up, then the future could look positive.
That, however, would require Corbyn to promote those who tried to force him out of office last year and to demote those who stood by him in his hour of need. And that would go against the grain; the Left respects loyalty within its own ranks, while it’s seldom willing to relinquish its grudges. But the vote yesterday has given Corbyn sufficient authority that he could be the ringmaster in a bigger tent.
In short, his opponents need to apologize, and he needs to accept their apology gracefully.
And still there is the massive question of the succession. Corbyn has won the right to stay on as leader while there remains a strong possibility of another election in the near future. But he’s 68 years old and it’s time for future contenders for the leadership to establish a presence in the public mind.
Corbyn might yet make it to Downing Street. But right now his position is simply that he’s the eleventh Labour leader since the Second World War, and the eighth who’s failed to win a general election.