Two days before the election I wrote a column for the Guardian arguing that despite the received wisdom, the campaign of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party had shown that it was electable. I thought I’d been careful. I didn’t argue Labour would win, only that its chances could not be dismissed. Drawing on two month’s reporting in Harrow and a month in Muncie, Indiana, for last year’s elections in the United States, my point was that “electability” is not a science: the attributes that candidates and programmes need in order to win change with the times and our current times are volatile. I gave the full range of polling evidence—from Labour taking a drubbing, to a hung parliament. “It seems, from reporting and the polls,” I wrote, “that even if Labour doesn’t win under Corbyn, it is a viable electoral force.”
The next day, Paul Waugh, the Huffington Post’s Political Editor, not known as one of the lobby’s more sectarian members, wrote: “There is real anger at pieces like Gary Younge’s in the Guardian.” In a blog entitled, “Surge Me, Gov” Waugh quotes “centrist” and “senior” Labour sources mis-representing my article as a prediction of a Corbyn win, while insisting “There is no surge!” and predicting a Tory majority of 80-plus. The day after that, the Tory majority was cut to minus eight as Labour soared by 10 points to touch over 40 per cent.
I am not a clairvoyant. I had no special knowledge. I would not have guessed at that result myself. Waugh’s source(s) could have been right. The distinction between myself and him and his sources is that I believed this result to be possible. That belief was not plucked from the sky. It was not faith-based. I am not a “believer”; I’m a journalist. Rather, evidence had to be brushed out of the way before the potential of the eventual result could be so casually dismissed.
The fast-established excuse of journalists has been that nobody saw this result coming. That is not true. The range of polls before election day ranged from a one-point Tory lead up to 13 points, from a hung parliament right through to a landslide. There was other conflicting evidence, too. Yes, Labour had made a terrible showing in May’s local elections, and before that in by-elections at Stoke and Copeland. But a week before the election, one in five voters was still saying they might switch, which—to me—indicated extreme volatility.
In any case this reckoning is too narrowly tailored. The issue is not that they did not call the election properly—very few did, including those involved—but that they have spent the last two years either dismissing or lampooning one of the most interesting periods in recent political history, rather than trying to understand it.
At moments like this, journalists are far more effective being descriptive than predictive. But what has struck me in the two turbulent political years since I’ve returned from America is the absolute certainty with which many of them dismissed the possibility of Labour doing anything other than collapsing.
After one journalist lectured me on why Corbyn could never be prime minister (which—to be clear—I realise he still isn’t) I responded: “You might be right. If four years ago you’d called Corbyn as Labour leader… Britain out of the European Union and Donald Trump as the Republican nominee [everyone ‘knew’ he couldn’t win the presidency at this time] I’ll take your word for it. Otherwise I think we need a bit more humility.”
There are two main reasons why many journalists were wrong-footed. The first was a chronic lack of curiosity. This, I believe, to be the most egregious professional malpractice.
The issue here is not whether they supported Corbyn or even Labour but the brazen certainty with which so many dismissed him and his supporters, and the credulity with which they treated his detractors.
While covering the US elections last year, I interviewed a group of Republicans at a time when pundits were still talking about Hillary Clinton winning a landslide. “More than 50m people are likely to vote for Trump, even if he goes down in flames,” I wrote. “It would be unhelpful to generalise about all of them… Something is happening here and it behooves people to try to understand it, whether or not they like it.”
I am sympathetic to Corbyn’s agenda; I loathe Trump. But from journalists covering Corbyn I would merely ask the same. It doesn’t matter if you don’t support his leadership, but it does become a problem if you don’t take any interest in where it came from or what it might mean.
From the beginning many cast his supporters as swivel-eyed Trots and naïve students. The party members that had emphatically elected him twice over were not to be taken seriously. They were out of touch.
Just one visit to any Corbyn rally during the leadership campaigns revealed how achingly normal his base is. Many were life-long Labour members who were tired of being taken for granted and felt a course correction was due. They had families and workmates. I thought: they must represent something. This was not a cult of personality or a perverse putsch. “If someone better came along,” Anna Wallbank, a primary school teacher, in Chelmsford told me, “I’d vote for them.” Journalists should retire the word “Corbynista.” It actively obstructs understanding. There may be a small core of zealots; they may be the ones you meet on Twitter. But they are not how this happened.
The second great failure of journalism was the failure to expand the gaze from Corbyn, the individual, to broader forces and places. Left challenges had, after all, been erupting across the west. Bernie Sanders, Syrzia, Melenchon, Podemos, the Green-Left coalitions in Portugal and Holland are all indications that electorates are realigning. That didn’t make this inevitable in Britain, but it made it a possibility. A possibility some wilfully ignored.
Waugh, whom I cite not as an exemplar but because his citation of me illustrates the point, finished his blog posting with a warning. “Nick Clegg says Labour MPs should be ‘brave’ and ‘Leave Labour behind’ after a general election defeat. Let’s see how many voters leave them behind tomorrow.”
As I write, Clegg is unemployed and a new poll gives Labour a six point lead over the Conservatives. That, for now, is one possibility among many. As journalists we should be open to them all.