Leader: Labour needs to become more of a fighting force in its own right

It's easy to look at the current political situation and see Conservatives on the march, Labour yielding under pressure - but is that really the case?

A wind tends to run through the media’s coverage of politics. A collective view is formed that everything is going right for one party and wrong for its opponents. News is reported selectively to fit that thesis. Currently the wind is at David Cameron’s back. Why? Traces of economic recovery are visible, the Tories have taken a break from infighting and headline-grabbing incompetence, Labour’s lead in the opinion polls has narrowed.
 
Meanwhile, Ed Miliband spent the weeks before parliament’s summer recess tied up in a debate about his relationship with the trade unions which is necessary, but introspective.
 
By contrast, the Conservatives are advertising themselves as being ready for battle. That is certainly the spin successfully put on their recruitment of Jim Messina, Barack Obama’s former election strategist. The signing of a big hitter from the US Democratic Party was depicted as a coup for Mr Cameron. It also served as a reminder that Mr Miliband has yet to appoint a replacement for Tom Watson, his campaign co-ordinator who resigned in June amid the controversy over allegations of candidate selection-fixing.
 
Mr Cameron, meanwhile, has been employing the services of the Australian Lynton Crosby, his campaign consultant, who is credited in part with restoring discipline and fighting spirit to the Conservative benches.
 
So, it is easy to build an account of Conservatives on the march and Labour yielding under pressure. Yet how reliable is that analysis? The crucial piece of evidence on which the story hangs is the shift in opinion polls. Although there is plenty of variety between the different surveys, a trend has emerged that shows Labour drifting away from the doubledigit advantage it once boasted. The question is whether that indicates irresistible Conservative momentum and an inevitable Miliband decline.
 
A longer view suggests not necessarily. The periods in which Labour has pushed ahead have coincided with a patch of egregiously inept government – the “omnishambles” Budget of 2012, which led to panic in the Conservative ranks and a Ukip surge in by-elections and council ballots. The underlying picture has barely shifted in three years. Labour’s core vote is bolstered by disgruntled former Liberal Democrats, giving Mr Miliband a slight advantage over the Conservatives, who appear able to call reliably on the support of roughly a third of the electorate, but rarely more.
 
British politics has been stuck in the same rut since the 2010 general election: there are not enough people who trust Labour to run the economy and too many people with a visceral dislike of the Conservatives for either side to win a majority. Ukip and the Liberal Democrats cloud the picture but the blue-red contest is fairly stable and immune to the wild swings of the media weathervane.
 
It is convenient to pretend that the frenzied cycle expressed by rolling television news, and accelerated by Twitter, feeds directly into parties’ popularity. This is the political equivalent of the dubious hypothesis that financial markets, in which millions of trades are made every second, give prices for assets that accurately reflect those assets’ value. In reality, there is much meaningless noise, making it harder to discern a clear signal of what is happening. Most of the country has no interest in the daily obsessions of the Westminster village. London SW1 is surely the most atypical postcode in the country; as such, it is not a safe vantage point from which to read the national mood.
 
The good news for Mr Miliband is that reports of a summer of Labour discontent need not portend disaster. The bad news is that his party’s support seems more closely pegged to fluctuations in Tory discipline than to any campaign strategy that he has devised. A sustained Conservative civil war before polling day in 2015 is possible but not guaranteed. Before then, Labour needs to become more of a fighting force in its own right.
The good news for Mr Miliband is that reports of a summer of Labour discontent need not portend disaster. Photograph: Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 12 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What if JFK had lived?

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Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.