Labour, the West Ham United of politics

The party that eschews the long ball.

As another less than stellar week for the Labour leadership draws to a close, it seems to me that the Labour Party has become -- and I mean this as a compliment -- the West Ham United of British politics, and this will be the saving (at least until the electorate get a say) of Ed Miliband.

The Tory Party, by contrast, act like the trigger happy Premier League Chairman for whom only continuous success is an acceptable norm. Look at the grumbles from inside the party at David Cameron requiring a coalition to get into government. It's like they won the FA Cup but the impatient man at the top thinks the league is the only prize worth having. No wonder William Hague described his party as acting like "an absolute monarchy moderated by regicide".

Not so the Labour Party where in the fine traditions of the Hammers winning appears to be rather less important to the members than playing in the right way. And good on them for it

Much has been written about Labour's reluctance to ditch its leaders, no matter how unelectable they might appear to anyone standing back from the fray far enough to see the woods from the trees (which is 83 per cent of the UK population according to a recent YouGov poll). This is often put down to cowardice, often from the likely heir apparent who knows that the assassin wielding the knife seldom ends up on the throne.

But actually, I think it's more to do with principle.

Looking at it through the other end of the telescope, the name of the most electorally successful PM in Labour's history was booed and heckled when Ed Miliband dropped the "Blair" word into his speech at the last Labour Party conference.

Sure, most Labour members can cite a long list of achievements during the Blair years of which they are rightly proud. But at the end of the day, they still think Blair was more concerned with winning in itself than with winning in the right way. As Matthew d'Ancona described it in the London Evening Standard earlier this week:

One of Tony Blair's many strengths as he plotted Labour's return to office as Opposition leader between 1994 and 1997 was an unshakeable awareness that the electorate's anxieties must be addressed before any progress can be made. This remained at the heart of his politics until -- almost literally -- they carted him out of Downing Street.

This is a view of leadership I suspect many Labour Party members would recognise, but would be reluctant to endorse. They see Blair as adopting the long ball strategy that might win a few matches but isn't playing the game as it was first intended. And unless you're playing politics with the ball on the ground and with passing at a premium, you'll never have their admiration.

Whatever his foibles and weaknesses, Ed is undoubtedly playing by their rules. Just like West Ham, who have had just 14 managers in their 116 year history, Labour doesn't change the man at the top if he's playing the Beautiful Game, whatever the results on the field may be.

And I have total respect for Labour for doing that. Though they might want to remember that West Ham no longer play in the Premier League. Or that, under their current manager, have given up playing the Beautiful Game in an effort to get back there.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.