There is no starker illustration of Labour’s divide than the two polls released this week. The first, by ComRes, found that the party trailed 15 points behind the Conservatives in the country (27 per cent to 42). The second, by YouGov, found that 66 per cent of Labour members thought Jeremy Corbyn was “doing well”, rising to 86 per cent among those who voted for him.
To put the first set of figures into perspective, Labour lost in May by just six points (30.4 per cent to the Tories’ 36.9). In November 2010, the autumn after Ed Miliband took over as party leader, Labour was polling three points ahead of the Conservatives with ICM (40-37) and three behind with YouGov (38-41). So Labour is further behind the Tories than it was at this period in the last election cycle – and, instead of the hoped-for Corbyn Bounce, there has been a Corbyn Dip. If repeated at the ballot box in 2020, the ComRes results would translate to a Tory majority of more than 90 seats – and that’s before you factor in boundary changes. (If Sadiq Khan doesn’t win the London mayoralty in May, he might have to start looking for another career: his Tooting seat looks like it will be absorbed into Chuka Umunna’s Streatham constituency.)
In light of the election result this year, it’s easy to dismiss polls as little better than a scrying glass or a freshly disembowelled sheep for predicting the future. It’s a fair point – how many of us know what we’re going to have for lunch tomorrow, let alone how we’d vote in 2020? – but they are still a snapshot of public opinion. And last time, yes, the polls were wrong . . . in Labour’s favour. You can’t begrudge Jeremy Corbyn’s critics their nervousness.
Accentuate the positive
Still, the second poll is more interesting, isn’t it? I put a call out on Twitter for anyone who had voted for Corbyn in the leadership election to tell me a) what they felt were his best moments and b) if the polls worried them. “Most of the criticism seems orchestrated by the right-wing press and seized on by careerist rivals,” was one reply. “I think his biggest obstacle has been his own party – which is a symptom of how far to the right Labour has moved,” was another.
Those two themes – the restive Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) and the biased mainstream media – came up again and again, along with the idea that it would take more than eight weeks to change 30 years of centre-left consensus in the party. There weren’t as many suggestions for positive moments, although a few people mentioned the new approach to Prime Minister’s Questions (which I also like), tax credits (which I would say was the Labour lords’ victory) and cooler relations with the Saudis (thanks also go to Michael Gove for that one).
Let’s make it work
The responses left me conflicted. I agree that much of the press has been howlingly unfair: Corbyn did bow at the Cenotaph, he didn’t steal sandwiches from war veterans and he was perfectly entitled to take a holiday after his election and therefore miss the first opportunity to join the Privy Council. And, yes, Labour MPs have made no secret of their disgruntlement at not getting the candidate they wanted: from outright attacks in the press to theatrical shouting in PLP meetings designed to be overheard by the journalists outside.
But I still keep coming back to that Aneurin Bevan quote: “The language of priorities is the religion of socialism.” Or, more crudely: “Is this the hill you want to die on?” The new Labour leadership has been marked by a series of avoidable errors or pointless symbolic controversies, in which discretion would definitely have been the better part of valour.
The leadership has also treated some of the “let’s make it work” faction of MPs badly. Maria Eagle, the shadow defence secretary, knowingly signed up for a difficult job in chairing the party’s defence review: mediating between a leadership set on unilateral disarmament and a PLP largely in favour of renewing Trident. Nonetheless, she buckled down and got on with it – at least until she found out (on Twitter, no less) that Ken Livingstone had been made co-convenor. Even then, she emitted only a small squeak of protest. In the circumstances, I think she was admirably restrained.
Strangely quiet – for now
It’s interesting to note the dogs that didn’t bark: the many centrist MPs who haven’t publicly agitated against their leader, such as Shabana Mahmood, who stepped down from the shadow cabinet when Corbyn took over, or Stella Creasy, who wasn’t offered a full shadow cabinet post despite coming second in the deputy race. Caroline Flint, another deputy contender, was on the BBC’s Sunday Politics show last weekend gamely batting away suggestions that it had been a bad week. Attacks on “the PLP” for not being supportive enough are like carpet-bombing; they hit as many innocents as fighters. And clearly, with Corbyn’s internal approval ratings so high, many MPs have decided there’s no point going over the top.
In weeks like this, I wish that I had the ability to switch off and didn’t find myself reading angry blogs about Labour on my phone at 11.30pm. I need a quiet place in my life and I think I might have found it. Wellcome Collection (which doesn’t believe in definite articles) in Euston, London, has a new exhibition, devoted to Buddhist ideas of the body and mind. The centrepiece is a set of murals from the Lukhang temple in Tibet, a secret holy place built for the fifth Dalai Lama in the 17th century. The murals were intended to be seen only by the reigning Dalai Lama – although the current one, who was exiled in 1959, has seen them just in photographs. Now you can, too: the American photographer Thomas Laird has captured a series of high-resolution images of the murals, which are shown, on light boxes, in a darkened room. Yes, you’re still staring at a screen, but what a beautiful one.
This article appears in the 25 Nov 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State