A shock to the system: how Corbyn changed the rules of British politics
Everyone thought the election was a foregone conclusion. They had no idea what was really going on.
By Gary Younge
Jun 16 2017
When the clock struck 10 last Thursday night, there was a moment of collective disorientation. With each tolling of the bell, the solid political ground we had been standing on was shaken by tectonic shifts below. On television, the anchors sounded unconvinced by the news they were announcing: according to the exit poll, the Tories had lost their majority and Labour had gained seats. “Boy, oh boy, oh boy,” David Dimbleby said on the BBC, “are we going to be hung, drawn and quartered if this is all wrong!”
For weeks the polls had told us this was highly unlikely: most were predicting a Tory victory somewhere between comfortable and landslide. And for two years before that, journalists and pundits had told us it was not possible; the only logical conclusion for a Labour party led by Jeremy Corbyn was a ruinous election defeat. This was not simply a partisan view, but one broadly shared across the entire spectrum of mainstream politics.
Three days before the vote, the party activist blog Labour Uncut quoted one campaigner who had just returned from the North East predicting a “nuclear winter for Labour”. The day before, a senior member of Corbyn’s team told me that he assumed the Tories would achieve a double-digit majority. The narrow possibility of a hung parliament was out there – but there were far more guesses of a triple-digit wipeout.
The campaign itself had its surprising moments: leaked manifestos, sudden U-turns, fields of wheat and absolute boys, and a No 1 record branding the prime minister a liar. But the outcome was never in doubt.
Twelve months earlier, during the EU referendum campaign, the political class had profoundly misjudged the national mood, and plunged the country into chaos. This election was supposed to provide a correction.
Then came those bells, and the unravelling of all our assumptions in real time. There is a distinction between witnessing something one is told is unlikely to happen and something one is told cannot happen. The former is a surprise, a challenge to our understanding of how things work. But the latter is a shock, and it forces us to reckon with the question of whether things are working at all. As the results came in overnight, with huge swings to Labour in seats that the Conservatives had targeted, and gains in places where Labour was not supposed to be competitive, each new upset seemed to rewrite the rules by which we understood electoral politics operated. By dawn, the whole rulebook had been shredded. Throughout the night, panels of pundits who had told us with great confidence that this could never happen were telling us with equal certainty what would happen next.
Electorally, the night was confusing. As the votes were being counted, nobody had a clue how the night was going to pan out. Fifty-two seats were returned with majorities below 1,000 votes, including eleven with majorities of less than 100. On those narrow threads hung our future. And now the counting is done, we’re still not sure.
Politically, the result was much clearer. The party that came second had emerged resurgent, while the party that came first was humiliated. Theresa May’s days as party leader are numbered, while Jeremy Corbyn’s position has been unexpectedly secured. The day after the election, May returned from Buckingham Palace to Downing Street and announced that she would do a deal with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party. “What the country needs more than ever is certainty … Now let’s get to work,” she said, as if the idea to stop work and have an election had belonged to someone other than herself. She sacked her advisers. Meanwhile, the Tories have rallied around her as though nothing had happened. But it had. We all saw it. It wasn’t pretty.
I spent election night in Harrow West, the constituency in north-west London I’d been covering throughout the campaign. It’s a seat that had always been Conservative until 1997, when Labour overturned a Tory majority of 17,800 for a narrow win. Twenty years and four elections later, Labour was still clinging on, with a slender majority of 2,208. It was No 19 on the Tories’ target list. “With the exception of 2001, it’s always been closely fought,” the local MP, Gareth Thomas, told me last month. “I try to focus on the basics of being a good constituency MP. I think that has a lot to do with it. But I think we have been lucky. And my luck may be about to run out.”
Nothing was being left to chance. Throughout the month, I followed Labourcanvassers as they knocked on doors, held rallies in parks and campaigned against education cuts.