Underneath the high drama of Shadow Cabinet resignations, Article 50 and the proposed DonaldTrump state visit, Labour’s future will be determined by a far more mundane fixture. Oppositions do not lose seats in by-elections to a governing party – at least not since 1982 in Mitcham and Morden, when the Conservatives won at the height of the Labour/Social Democratic Party split. In a week’s time Copeland and Stoke will go to the polls, and there is a reasonable chance that Labour could lose both – with UKIP and the Tories effectively in alliance.
You can tell the importance of these by-elections by the effort that is being thrown at them. Anecdotally, a large number of left-wing activists in London have headed north. Momentum has mobilised, and even set up an interactive carpool website to boost attendance. The left’s activists are right to throw everything they have at the contests. But we must at least contemplate the possibility of losing and what that could mean – for Labour’s prospects and for the Corbyn project. The Labour right certainly are.
If Labour loses the by-elections, it will be because its narrative on the NHS, local services and inequality has been eclipsed by the grand narrative that is dominating public life – Brexit. And if that happens, it will exacerbate Labour’s own divisions on the subject of immigration and Article 50, which only this week pushed key allies such as Clive Lewis and Rachael Maskell to resign from the Shadow Cabinet.
Would-be Corbyn rival Owen Smith was wise to run on a platform of holding a second referendum last summer. His hope was to split the Corbyn coalition and peel away some of its younger, less ideological adherents. Smith was too right-wing for that job, so he failed, and in the process hardened much of left’s base. But the latent divisions are still there. A historically Eurosceptic core leads a project whose activists and supporters tend to be younger, pro-European and pro-immigration.
Now that the decision to trigger Article 50 has been made, those divisions should be dissipating. But in fact they run deeper, and along lines much closer than the left would like to admit to the wider national divides over identity, nation and globalisation. One side wants economic radicalism; the other wants to give ground on immigration. The leadership’s ambiguous turn on free movement was driven by this process. It could be the same for every aspect of Brexit. A defeat in either by-election – especially a defeat to Ukip in Stoke – would send a shock of panic through Labour’s strategic spine and re-open a series of wounds.
What holds the left together is a prevailing discipline – not the kind of discipline that comes from on high, but a focus derived from a sense of history, and an understanding of how improbable and precious this moment is. There is the prospect of advancing the cause of socialism in a manner unparalleled in living memory. One can ultimately overlook disagreements on even major issues as long the project as a whole is capable of victory. Corbyn’s Labour can survive any number of bad headlines. It can even survive being 16 points down in the polls. What it cannot tolerate is demoralisation.
The reality is that defeat in Copeland or Stoke would belong to the whole Labour Party. The contests were brought about by resignations of centrist MPs who left to take high-flying jobs. The candidates in both seats are not from the left, despite that side of the party doing much of the heavy lifting on the campaign trail. The deeper fissures and crises – on Brexit, immigration, and so on – are not problems of the left but of every wing of the party. Deep down and in private, Labour centrists are pessimistic about electoral victory under any leader of any political stripe. But if the ship goes down with the left at the helm, these facts will seem a long way away.
There is still a way out for the Corbyn project. Indeed, its radical social and economic programme may well be the only way out that the Labour party has. With an NHS crisis still simmering and the Prime Minister publicly courting the Trump administration, there will be no shortage of flashpoints for the left to exploit. To really turn the tide, the left must be sober in its analysis. The prospect of victory must be backed up with real electoral success. Either way, Stoke and Copeland may prove to be a watershed.