It is to Jeremy Corbyn’s great credit that he has faced down, once again, the usual chorus of demands for him to resign—following Labour’s defeat in the Copeland by-election. Most of those making such demands are the Blairites who lost the last two general elections as a result of their proto-Tory policies. They created the situation Labour finds itself in today.
They are the same people who have campaigned against him relentlessly since he was first elected, and who have been very happy to see Labour’s opinion poll ratings drop as a result. That has been one of the objects of the exercise.
Just before polling day, both Blair and Mandelson emerged to denounce Corbyn for shambolic leadership, and for not backing a second referendum on Brexit. Since then, David Miliband has hinted that he might be prepared to return to Britain to save the party from the left and lead it back towards the Blairite right. This time they seem to have accepted that another leadership challenge is not a credible step, but they are continuing to do everything they can to damage Corbyn–and with him the Labour Party as a whole.
Dave Prentis waded in to the debate to say that Copeland is a dire warning for the party. He doesn’t put all the blame on Corbyn but argues that Labour is still no closer to Downing Street than it was five months ago. Given that UNISON supported Corbyn in both leadership elections, this is a significant intervention.
Indeed both the Copeland and Stoke Central by-elections were deliberately created by the resignations of Blairites—Tristram Hunt in Stoke and Jamie Read in Copeland—precisely in order to create by-elections in extremely difficult conditions and embarrass Corbyn. Hunt moved on to a plum museum job confirming his place in the metropolitan elite. He was probably wise to do so. He had the honour of being the MP with the lowest proportion of his constituents’ votes in Westminster and Labour’s vote in Stoke-on-Trent Central has been in long term decline: 12,220 voted Labour in 2015, down from 25,897 in 1992. In the late 1990s Labour controlled every council seat in Stoke; today it controls only 21 out of 44. The party’s problems there pre-date Jeremy Corbyn.
The result was a dangerous mix of circumstances. Corbyn was not only saddled with low poll-ratings created by the antics of the rightwing, and by-elections in two difficult constituencies, but he faced the first electoral test under the overarching influence of Brexit: a factor that threw all previous electoral calculations and expectations out of the window and gave the Tories a pull on both Labour and UKIP Brexit voters.
In any case, Copeland, despite what the media have been parroting, cannot be described as a Labour heartland, while in Stoke Labour faced the challenge of UKIP. Added to all this was the fact that both constituencies had recorded high votes for Brexit in the referendum, contrary to the stance of Labour.
Theresa May, moreover, had already been strengthened by the Brexit vote by the time these elections were called. As soon as she was installed as Tory leader, she repositioned the party sharply to the right—sweeping aside six years of Cameronism. More specifically she Ukipised it—by adopting the main thrust of their policies including big curbs on immigration—and declared that ‘Brexit means Brexit’, a slogan aimed at the Brexit vote that had remained fully intact. In this way, she set course for exactly the hard Brexit model that most Brexit voters strongly support; because they think that anything less would involve compromises on immigration. This radical reshaping of the Tory Party represents a huge shift to the right in British politics.
This has given May what has been (and remains) effectively a post-Brexit honeymoon period—with a Brexit electoral bonus attached. She has yet had to face any of the problems of implementation of Brexit (although there is a steady trickle of reports of British residents being removed from the country abruptly). Since then she has been in a position to win a general election, whenever she might decide to go for one. (This is why it never made sense for Labour to call for a general election as it did last autumn because Labour could not have won it.)
It was very important that Labour held Stoke, and the heavy defeat of UKIP should not be underestimated. Farage was right about the crucial nature of Stoke for them. In fact UKIP has big problems. They are not only leaderless but May has firmly embraced not only their agenda but their reason for existence. They already losing people who are joining (or rejoining) the Tory Party. They have quickly shifted to the right under pressure from Farage, claiming that May is soft on immigration, but that might not be enough to stop the rot. This does not mean that they will not reemerge if the May Brexit project founders. At the moment they are an ongoing but diminished threat.
It is of course theoretically possible, that May’s Brexit plans will sail through smoothly, that there will be no divisions reemerging in the Tory Party, or amongst Brexit voters, as the harsh reality of Brexit and the alternatives available hit home—but it seems extremely unlikely. May’s popularity could continue (theoretically) until 2020 allowing her to win a general election irrespective of what Labour might do, but, again, it seems unlikely given the number of problems she is facing.
The reason that Corbyn remains unacceptable to the ruling elites (and why they invest so much in destroying him) is that whilst he is not in a position to win an election at the moment, as leader of the main opposition party, he has broken the consensus in Parliament on austerity. No one knows what the future holds in such a volatile period in British, European and world politics. If Corbyn can seize the moment when it comes, anything can happen.
Preparing for a general election, however, means learning the harsh lessons of these two by-elections: that Brexit changes everything and is not going to go away any time soon. ‘More of the same’ will not be enough. There little evidence that Corbyn and those around him, are exploring the political dynamics that are determining – and likely to continue to determine – electoral contests under these conditions.
It remains crucial, however, that Labour develops a radical programme of social issues— defend the NHS, oppose all austerity, re-nationalise rail and the public services, tax the rich, free the unions, drive up wages and the standard of living etc. This needs to be accompanied by a radical programme of democratic reform; abolition of the House of Lords, votes for young people and most importantly PR for Westminster – all of which would be significant vote winners for Labour. But now even this is not enough.
Today such a programme has to go alongside something substantial on Brexit, otherwise Labour will continue to lose Labour Brexit voters to the Tories and Labour Remain voters to the Liberal Democrats and the Greens. This means, unless something dramatic changes, acceptance that Britain is going to leave the EU, but total opposition to the hard Brexit that May is pursuing. It means laying bare the kind of alternative that she is developing in term of Britain as a low paid, deregulated, environmentally disastrous, bargain basement economy off the North shore of Europe—with an open invitation to the most exploitative employers on the planet.
It also means loudly advocating an alternative Brexit, one based on remaining in the single market, retaining the free movement of peoples, the retention/defence of environmental protection and extension of workers’ rights. It also means giving a full guarantee to EU citizens already here or yet to come and that rights of residency will be protected.
An approach of this kind would be an incentive for Brexit voters to stay with Labour, and it would be a clear basis on which to make inroads into the Tories as the struggle over which kind of Brexit hots up towards the end of this year.
Labour also has to rethink its unionist position on Scotland, where the independence issue defines politics. That means denouncing the scandalous intervention by Sadiq Khan, arguing that “nationalism can be as divisive as bigotry and racism” which has provoked a great deal of resentment both in Scotland and in Wales. It means recognising that Labour’s past complacency and taking working class voters for granted often on a tribal basis has its deepest roots in Britain and the former industrial heartlands of South Wales. And Labour will continue to be punished in elections as voters suffer from cuts in local services being implemented by Labour controlled authorities.
Given the continued failure to do this, it is not difficult to see why Labour are at 14% in the polls in Scotland—10% behind the Tories and 35% behind the SNP. There are issues on which it’s fine to criticise the SNP government in Holyrood—but they remain to the left of many Labour politicians, and have a better record on anti-austerity than the majority of Labour councils in England.
Labour can’t win a general election outright without winning back its Scottish voters – something it needs to address. A more likely outcome if Tory divisions unravel is an anti-austerity Labour-led government which may which may need parliamentary support from the SNP, Plaid and Greens on a range of issues. But while not ideal, such a government would have the potential to turn around the ravages wreaked on working class communities throughout Britain not only by Tory governments or the coalition government, but by their New Labour predecessors.