“I shall make her a new medicine, one that is so strong and so fierce and so fantastic it will either cure her completely or blow off the top of her head!” So thinks nine-year-old George in Roald Dahl’s George’s Marvellous Medicine, after he is left alone by his parents with his vile, abusive grandmother. Ordered to administer her medicine, he concocts his own fantastical potion from household liquids and farmyard products, causing his grandmother to grow to extraordinary height.
This story came to mind when considering the remarkable success of Jeremy Corbyn in the 2017 general election. I was one of many who quit the Labour Party at the prospect of his continued leadership, so I hope my use of “success” there will not seem part of the widely-derided cult of Corbyn. It would be churlish for Corbynsceptics like me to deny that his was a significant achievement: not merely that he defied expectations on the possibility of him expanding Labour’s seat tally or vote share, but that he ran a campaign marked largely by unity in his party and energy amongst precisely the voters he had indicated he would bring to Labour.
How was this done? A significant factor is that the campaign and the manifesto that underpinned it was not the Hard Left shopping list many, including me, had believed would emerge from a Corbyn leadership. This was a deliberate decision. The moderate wing of Labour had indicated it would follow the advice of John Golding, lynchpin of the anti-Bennite recapture of Labour’s internal committees in the 1980s, who he permitted the 1983 manifesto (which he thought absurd) to stand on the grounds it was better to lose on their programme than on his. Thus Corbyn could have had any manifesto he chose. Instead, as I noted about the education section on its publication, it hummed with “ambiguous radicalism”; certain aspects would not have looked out of place in a New Labour manifesto. I had thought many hard-core Corbynites would be disappointed, but his credibility with them was clearly sufficient to not merely excuse it, but actually to exalt it, whilst also permitting Corbynsceptics to run on the manifesto and not against it. Jeremy made his marvellous medicine, and his votes–and standing within the party—undoubtedly grew as a result.
Clearly it has not been sufficient to put Labour into office. Aside from a grand bargain with the Conservatives themselves, there is no Parliamentary mathematics that can make Labour part of a governing coalition with a majority. The accidental Third Way represented by the manifesto has turned a whole new set of seats across the south into marginal , suggesting there is still further this incarnation of Labour could take them.
However, although the avoidance by Labour high command of a neo-Marxist “suicide note” manifesto was clearly intentional, it was not precisely calibrated. The jumble of committees and compromises that went into birthing the Labour manifesto did not have a firm directing hand. Reconstructing the medicine may well prove difficult, as Dahl’s George himself found: his final attempt to recreate his first astonishing achievement resulted in his grandmother withering away to nothing.
It is clearly worthwhile for both major parties to attempt to understand Labour’s recent success: Labour to recreate it in future elections, and the Tories to forestall Labour’s advance and to reclaim enough of this territory to stabilise their government. Education is a crucial front in this war. It would be easy to assert that Labour’s offer on education amounted to little more than bribing people with their own money: enhanced funding for schools (building on a cunning and ferocious if not entirely candid campaign from the teaching unions) and abolition of undergraduate fees. But both policies, and the much-publicised commitment to expand free school meals to all Primary pupils, touched a nerve in the public. Whether Labour had the money or not, these priorities spoke to the lived experience of people up and down the country, schools impacted by cuts and young people fretting about debt.
The Tories are not alien to this space: the creed of May when she entered Downing Street was that she would seek to ameliorate the difficulties of life for ordinary, hard-working people. She was right to focus on the ‘just about managing’ identified in a seminal paper by Policy Exchange – but the civil service’s determination to define this grouping solely by income stymied effective manifestation of the May agenda:how people feel about their socio-economic position is obviously influenced by their pay-packets, but it goes far beyond this into their experiences of public services, their expectations about the future, their sense of political fairness.
Take the arguments over free school meals (FSM). Originally a humane measure to ensure children from poorer homes received some additional nourishment during the school day, FSM has mutated into the defining issue of educational politics. The results of “FSM children” are now used to judge schools and universities and hold them accountable in a way that means their interests have been placed front and centre. Often, FSM has been treated as a proxy for “the working class” who deserve some help from government. But FSM is a limited measure of poverty: only 15% of pupils are eligible for it throughout their school lives, whilst 60% of people consider themselves “working class”. Many in that just about managing group feel they aren’t getting the support government has promised people like them, because they don’t fit into a convenient economic box.
However, Labour’s unintentional Corbynite-Blairism may have pointed the way forward: universalism has been unpopular for some time on both sides of the political divide, as it is both costly and insufficiently focussed on the most deprived. But if one wishes to target a group who definitely exist but who are not immediately identifiable from government statistics, universalism is a potential answer. The provision of free school meals to all Primary pupils can thus be the sort of economic and social support for the ‘just about managing’ families, howsoever defined, that Labour have accidentally discovered and the Conservatives are still searching for. A free lunch is a tangible and obvious impact of government action. Of course, money will need to be recouped elsewhere, but Labour’s 2017 success suggested that there was a greater appetite for this than had previously been believed.
Or take tuition fees: the generation of student activists to which I belonged campaigned against fees on the basis they would prevent working class kids going to university, but after their introduction more went, not less. Many of us reasoned that these students had discovered tuition fee loans were the cheapest money they’d ever borrow and acted accordingly. But as fees have risen it is clear that many universities provide nowhere near the value for money required for young people to be happy to accept what is essentially an additional slice of income tax for much or all of their working lives, yet many still see university as an essential rite of passage. Something needs to be done about the quality of university education, the mechanisms used to pay for it and the viable alternatives to it. Either party could move on this agenda.
Overcoming the present stalemate for either party will be difficult, but thinking carefully about the recipe of Jeremy’s marvellous medicine is surely a requirement for either side to triumph.