When Theresa May stepped out onto Downing Street yesterday to announce a general election in just 50 days’ time, it’s safe to say very few people were excited. Conservative MPs, promised by their leader no election until 2020, have no interest in once again hitting the campaign trail. Labour MPs are alarmed at polling that sees the party lagging 20 points behind, while the electorate are growing tired of vote after vote in such close succession.
True, the Lib Dems might well be chomping at the bit to get voters to the polls once again, but with just nine seats in the House of Commons, they’ve little if anything to lose. It’s safe to say that nobody really wanted another election.
But as the media circus settles on Whitehall, and party machines begin to grind themselves into gear, it’s vital to remember that this election is still a chance to kick out our (still unelected) Prime Minister; to utilise the cogs of democracy and to have our voices heard.
Of course Theresa May is lying when she says this election isn’t about political manoeuvring – it’s opportunistic in the extreme – but it’s also an opportunity for Labour, and one that’s desperately needed.
For too long the shift that’s taken place in Labour in the past two years has been framed around Jeremy Corbyn and his leadership, both by a media obsessed with his personality and by chunks of the membership who seem at times to have forgotten there’s more to progressive politics than just one man. There’s been coup after coup, briefings and backstabbing in abundance, but little talk of how under Labour this country could be transformed into a fairer, more progressive place to live. The Corbyn project is not about Corbyn: it’s about putting truly progressive policies onto the map, and this election gives Labour that chance.
Over the next few weeks, members at every level – from the woman who joined this morning to the longest serving MP – will have to put their differences aside. Finally, for the first time since 2015, Labour can fight together for a party and a chance to form a government, not endlessly swipe inwardly at each other.
Because underneath the uncertainty, this election is offering voters something that for so long has been missing from British politics: two distinct, radical choices on the ballot. The Conservatives are offering a hardline Brexit, a return to Empire 2.0, a politics of the past tinged in xenophobia and isolationism. Labour, on the other hand, has an exciting and progressive policy platform: free school meals for all primary school children; a £10 minimum wage; access to the single market; a popular commitment to renationalising the railways. While the Tories repeat their mantra of a red, white and blue Brexit that “means Brexit”, Labour have bold and exciting plans.
It would be naive to walk blindly into this election saying Labour is set for a surefire victory, but in a volatile political climate the party must have a chance. Just look at the rapid rise of Mélenchon across the Channel to see how, in the face of right-wing populism, the left can have its moment.
Undoubtedly Labour is going into this general election as the underdog; Corbyn’s office found out about the vote no earlier than you or I.
But if Labour has a chance of winning this election it’ll be by putting bitter differences aside and focusing on what a Labour government could offer; Corbyn’s critics continuing to hound him helps no one. When John Woodcock made a video yesterday about how much he dislikes the Labour leader, he was cutting off his nose to spite his face. And it’s time for him to settle down.
Those who’ve long disliked Corbyn and what he stands for can rightly argue he was a rampant critic of past Labour governments in the chambers of the House; he opposed the Iraq invasion, tuition fees and PFI. But come election time he will be out on the campaign trail, faithful to the party he loves. It's a lead all of Labour's 500,000 members must now follow.
When I interviewed Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell as veteran backbenchers in April 2015, just weeks before the last general election, I asked if they thought Miliband was the best man for the job. Outspoken critics of the then Labour leader’s policies, I was hoping they’d call him Blairite scum and demand his head on a plate.
“He is the leader, it's not going to change,” Corbyn replied, sighing. “Frankly it's not a terribly relevant question.”
As soon as he answered John McDonnell swooped in, quickly guiding us back to the big policy issues they were fighting for. It’s a lesson in discipline that the likes of John Woodcock should remember: that when it comes to general elections, there’s no space for internal sniping and point-scoring. “Jeremy was a rebel” just won’t wash any more.