Abi Wilkinson: Yes Labour is celebrating - because winning feels possible
Optimism at Labour conference is not evidence that the left has taken its foot of the pedal.
It would be churlish to begrudge the Labour left seizing the opportunity for a proper celebration. Though it’s true the party did not, strictly speaking, actually win the election, but it did come pretty damn well close. The polls suggest that if an election was called tomorrow, it would be Jeremy Corbyn who ended up in number 10. Just a few months ago, that possibility was considered self-evidently absurd by both the Conservatives and internal critics. Even many of those who wanted him to succeed (myself very much included) had all but given up hope.
To dismiss the jubilance on display at the party’s recent conference as hubris is to misunderstand what’s going on. The MPs who claimed, at fringe events and on the main conference stage, that they believe Labour will win the next election were not, on the whole, complacent about what such a victory might require. Nor were any of the smiling, energetic young activists I met at Momentum’s The World Transformed parties and panel discussions naive about the challenge the party faces.
These are individuals who’ve spent the past couple of years campaigning and persuading, as the majority of the mainstream media and parts of their own party screamed that they were idiots, wreckers and dangerous hardliners. They’re people who were determined enough to drag themselves out door-knocking even when the polling gap appeared uncloseable. They built apps, organised car pools and slept on sofas to ensure that key marginals were flooded with volunteers. Many of them donated their time and skills to outmatch Tory efforts on a fraction of the budget.
See Momentum’s brilliant Facebook videos, for example, which reached far more people than the Conservatives’ vicious attack ads even though the latter cost millions and Momentum only spent two grand.
Of course, it’s not only Momentum who worked their arses off to turn things around – it was heartening to see members from all parts of the party grafting side by side – but they were very much part of the effort. It’s ridiculous to dismiss these people as naive about the reality of politics. They’re not celebrating because they think the next election is already in the bag. They’re celebrating because winning feels possible.
Enthusiasm is one of the most important resources Labour has. A party pursuing an agenda of increased tax and redistribution, regulation and nationalisation is never going to have a cosy relationship with media barons and big business in general (though it’s worth noting that the corporate lobbyists who stayed away from last year’s conference came flooding back this time) but it can reach people in other ways. Keeping activists’ spirits up ensures they’ll keep doing the work that’s necessary to maximise the likelihood of a Labour win.
Maybe it’s possible the current mood could tip over into slack triumphalism, but I’ve seen little sign of it yet. Many of the conference fringe events I attended involved smart discussions about what the party’s strategy going forward should consist of. Is it realistic to think that youth turnout could be increased further? Are the Tories capable of coming up with a decent answer to
the housing crisis, and if they do so how will that impact our vote? What can we do to win over pensioners? What about self-employed tradespeople, a demographic we performed comparatively poorly with?
Cat Smith’s suggestion that demographics are on Labour’s side – because individuals turning 18 are statistically likely to be leftwing, whereas Tory voters are mainly pensioners – was greeted with derision, but I was sat on that same panel and it wasn’t the only thing she said. She also spoke about how the last general election had been the hardest campaign of her life. This sort of optimism isn’t evidence the left has taken its foot of the pedal – it’s simply rallying its troops for the fight.
Picture credit: Press Association