Last night’s exit poll brought with it genuine shock and horror to those within the Labour Party. Throughout this campaign, the leadership and its vocal outriders have been focusing on the tightening polls and the seeming energy of the grassroots campaign.
The exit poll brought this crashing down to earth and immediately they went into crisis-management mode. To manage the fallout from its worst loss in nearly a century, the official Labour briefing that was quick to be aired was that they are the victims of a unique event – swept aside by the power of Brexit alone.
One by one, those loyal to the Corbyn project, from John McDonnell to Jon Lansman and Ken Livingstone appeared on air to defend their approach to the election and explain how their policies had been popular with the British public.
They were all desperate to face down the central charge that was put to them by each interviewer: was Corbyn the problem?
While more detailed autopsies of the campaign will follow in the coming days, clear themes are emerging. The first is Corbyn himself – both the individual as a leader that inspire confidence from non-Labour voters, and the strain of Labour he represents which plays well in London and with younger voters but fails to connect with some of the party’s traditional heartlands.
The second is the prosecution of the campaign. Ask yourself – what was the Labour Party’s slogan in this campaign? Then ask yourself what was the Conservative Party’s? One gave a clear message (Get Brexit done), the other hardly existed.
While recriminations will rage for days to come, what happens next with the leadership of the party is the real story to focus on.
At the start of the campaign, Corbyn said that he would step down if he lost. As the campaign went on, he backtracked on this promise. Speaking at the Islington North declaration last night he promised not to lead Labour into another General Election but also said he would stay on as leader during a ‘process of reflection’ before deciding his next steps.
His outriders in the studios had been prepped to say that after 2010 and 2015, leaders had been too quick to step down following an election loss, and what was needed was a period of stability and reflection.
This is not about preserving Corbyn in post in perpetuity. It is about preserving the Corbyn project. The left-wing has maintained a strong grip on the key functions of the Party and it will not want to let go following this electoral setback.
The key will be identifying the anointed successor. Key names to watch are Rebecca Long-Bailey and Angela Rayner. Laura Pidcock would have been in the mix, but she failed to secure her seat last night, limiting the pool of people to pick from. While Richard Burgon will be in the group looking to continue the project, he is unlikely to carry enough senior supporters to be considered a true contender.
To maintain this grip they will first have to see off any moderate leadership challenge. From the more moderate wings of the Party, Keir Starmer, Jess Phillips and Yvette Cooper have all shown early signs of positioning to make a run.
Whoever emerges as the new leader of the Party will have a significant challenge in putting together a voting coalition that can straddle the liberal metropolitan core of the modern Labour party and its traditional working-class base. But even pulling off this trick won’t be enough to return the Party to power – it will also need to reach other swing voters that it has simply ignored under the Corbyn project.
If the membership approached this issue as a rational entity, it would choose a leader who could plausibly reach across this divide. Sadly, the Labour Party membership is in a very different place to the rest of the country.