The primary tool of psychological torture in modern Britain is no longer the recorder in a small child’s hands or the Rail Replacement Bus but John Curtice’s General Election exit poll. Thanks to the last three elections, all the main sides of modern politics – Labour, Corbynite Labour, Conservative, Remainer and Leaver – now know exactly what it is like to receive truly dire news while in a state of exhaustion.
The BBC’s editorial decision to deliver such body-blows by the merciless combination of a softly spoken presenter and gigantic numbers projected on the outside of New Broadcasting House doesn’t really help. I can’t have been the only person with a bit of a cold sweat just as the countdown clock finished, before the forecast was revealed. It was the feeling of glimpsing, at alarmingly close quarters, an inescapably heavy weight falling towards you, or possibly the sight of a cruise missile barreling down the street at 500 miles per hour – whether it hits you or it doesn’t is completely beyond your control.
Survive, and the good news you receive is further buoyed up by elation approaching a sense of having survived a near-death experience. Which is nice, obviously.
But if you do get struck by those hurtling numbers, the challenge of overcoming it – even starting to work out how to begin trying to overcome it – appears instantly vast, and is made all the more difficult by the sense of being simultaneously stunned and sick to your stomach. I can well believe the reports that in 2017 a CCHQ staffer threw up shortly after the exit poll was revealed; particularly for those who have spent sleep-deprived weeks in the maelstrom of a campaign, the idea all your efforts have ended in failure is stomach-churning.
This is the state that Labour currently finds itself trying to wrestle with. They’re firmly in the early stages of grief, but there are signs that any recovery process – psychological and organisational coming long before political recovery – is going to be more complicated than the traditional cycle.
Why? Because there are competing factions out to interpret the result in utterly conflicting ways. Some are out to protect Corbynism and the left, and therefore blame centrist splitters. Others have the same priority but specifically attack the shift towards Remain and a second referendum. Some particularly want to regain ground for the centre left, so target their criticism on the leader and his views. Yet more wish to shield the Remain agenda from any blame, and therefore attribute the defeat to poor leadership and economic ideology. There are even now those on the hard left who are trying to separate out Corbyn the man from Corbynism the worldview, apparently hoping to preserve the revolution longer even at the price of the leader.
All that is accompanied by a pretty vituperative tone and a sense that this is a settling of scores rather than a clearing of the air. Combine the calls for purges, sackings, strikes of Labour HQ staff, recantation of ideological errors and restatements of continued belief, and the whole picture seems set to become more complex and bitter before it gets any more clear or productive. Corbyn lingering on in the top job, like Lenin leaning over the shoulder of his own embalmers to say “you missed a bit” doesn’t really help.
That’s good news for the Government, in the sense that it gives them an opportunity to flesh out their agenda and get on with delivering on their promises. But in the longer term it cannot be healthy for our politics. A well-functioning democracy needs a decent, and functioning, opposition – something that looks a fair way off.