Jeremy Corbyn has no convincing Labour version of diagnosing the malaise Brexit has wrought in its stead, Lewis Goodall writes.
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In 2017 there was a place I realised I knew something about the election that others didn’t.
You wouldn’t think, looking at the Cue Club, West Heath, a snooker hall not far away from where I grew up in Birmingham, that it’d be an obvious place for revelation.
But when I went there, in the middle of that fevered few weeks of the campaign of that year, I knew that the polls weren’t right; I knew that the national political conversation was wrong headed; I knew Labour were heading to a far more creditable performance than was commonly assumed.
There it was obvious that Conservative overtures to this bit of the Midlands working class, were failing, or at least, not succeeding enough.
Old loyalties, congenital Labourism, was re-establishing itself. Most of all, the Tory attempt to link the party with any kind of Brexit reversal had manifestly failed.
I remember speaking to one man who had been a Labour voter, migrated to UKIP and was returning; I asked him what he thought of the Theresa May argument that you could only guarantee Brexit if you voted Conservative.
I expected fuzzy approval, but instead he was entirely cold. “Why should I? You can vote how you like. We’re leaving anyway.”
The 2017 election thus rested on a conceit which barely registered with the voters on whom it relied. 2019 feels different. This time, when I returned to the Cue Club, Conservative framing was ubiquitous.
Labour has become associated with attempts to block or reverse our leaving the EU. Ian, a man who describes himself as a socialist, said he just couldn’t back the party this time, as much as he approved of Jeremy Corbyn’s platform: “Who do they represent? Not me. Not us.”
Chantelle, a mother of three, whom I remember telling me two years ago that she would back Labour “because they have the best policies for me and my family”, said she didn’t know what to think now.
Most worryingly for the party, she couldn’t even really say why. She said she saw so much online, heard from “other mums in the playground” about Mr Corbyn; “they’re all saying ‘Jeremy Corbyn this, Jeremy Corbyn that’, you just don’t know what to think”.
As with the Brexit question, the importance of the turning of time is underestimated; in 2017 the Brexit process had barely begun, Article 50 only just triggered, for many it did not occur that parliament would try and stop something they had only just voted to initiate; likewise Mr Corbyn was still relatively unknown among the general public.
His personal ratings inched close to that of Mrs May’s. Thus the two primary pillars of the 2017 Conservative campaign were built on the weakest foundations. Today they are carrying greater weight.
On both, years worth of occluded campaigning, largely unnoticed by those in Westminster, has transformed views about Labour and its leader. Talk to any working class voter for long enough and you’ll hear a fragment of something they’ve seen on Facebook, an echo of a whisper about something connected with the IRA or terrorism, or desire to disband the army or some such.
Story after story, sometimes fake tweets, or some tales about Mr Corbyn’s past.
This slow marinade helps explain why views around him are so impacted, why his personal ratings have remained stubbornly low. The invective is profound; They can’t even tell you why they hate him, so they just do.
That doesn’t mean that these voters are backing the Tories, for many still a step too far. There isn’t that much transference. Most just won’t vote at all, which is probably all the Conservatives need.
It’s more than that though; whatever Remainers say about the referendum being only advisory, or long ago, it misses the point of the pain which the impression of its dismissal has created. Rightly or wrongly, class politics suffuses the interpretation of the election result.
Again and again you hear “they don’t pay attention, our vote counts for nothing”. It causes incomprehension. For certain types of voter, the Brexit process has thus reaffirmed and cemented old doubts about politics.
In their minds, it has proven that change is not possible, that democracy doesn’t work, that its practitioners aren’t interested in making it work for anyone but themselves. We hear a lot about the supposed anger of certain places.
There’s some of that but at least as abundant is pure confusion and incomprehension. One of the reasons there are so many undecideds in this election, why things are so unpredictable, is that voters have lost so much trust.
They don’t, they can’t rely on any politicians in the way they used to help them make sense of the world. For certain Leave voters, they look at politics and see a gaping space where they thought would be political cause and effect.
In that space, it has been filled with slogans like “Get Brexit Done” and worse. For Labour Leavers in particular, a Brexit infused narrative from the right has replaced and reordered the way they interpret politics, where the left used to be.
It is perhaps Mr Corbyn’s greatest failure as leader that he provided no left wing alternative, no convincing Labour version of diagnosing the constitutional and political malaise Brexit has wrought in its stead. If Labour loses these voters at this election, who knows, perhaps forever, that is one of the main reasons why.
Beyond this election though, the doubt about the ability for politics to affect change has a more invidious effect for Labour. If Brexit has proved to them that political change is impossible that must by definition affect the party which is promising most change of all, will affect Mr Corbyn because he is offering nothing less than transformation.
When you put these policies to people who would on paper benefit most, they screw up their faces, spit them back. It is as if they don’t wish to be fooled. That they’ve been fooled once already.
Some, though not all, choose Mr Johnson and his limited vision, promising little, instead. So caustic are they, so low their opinion of politics, it’s almost a sense they’d rather get little and know what it is they get.
There is no love for Mr Johnson. They think he is a knave. But they think all politicians are. Some, not all, in places like the Cue Club seem to be concluding better the knave you know.