Leader: What does Labour want?

With the Tories in disarray, Labour should be thriving. Instead, it is being sunk by a lack of leadership and ambition and its failures over anti-Semitism and Brexit.

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The Conservative leadership contest is defined by fantastical promises over Brexit and reckless pledges of lower taxes and higher spending. On 23 July, in the absence of a dramatic upset, the morally reprehensible Boris Johnson will be elected as the party’s new leader and will thus become prime minister. Many of those who know him well, including a significant number of Tory MPs, are appalled. Nicholas Soames, Winston Churchill’s grandson and a One Nation Tory, derides the former foreign secretary as “the light entertainment candidate”.

In these circumstances the Labour Party, as the official opposition, should be thriving. Instead, it is sinking. In recent polls, it has come in as low as 19 per cent, consigning it to third place. Jeremy Corbyn, meanwhile, has achieved the ignominious feat of having the lowest net approval rating for a leader of the opposition since records began (-58).

None of this was inevitable. At the 2017 general election, after a spirited campaign, Labour defied expectations by eliminating the Conservatives’ majority and achieving the largest increase in its share of the vote since 1945. Mr Corbyn was gifted a chance to reunite his divided party and form a government-in-waiting. The Conservatives, irretrievably divided over Brexit and discredited by austerity, had seldom seemed more vulnerable.

But rather than harrying the government, Labour has been absorbed by internal divisions over Brexit and, most distressingly, anti-Semitism. The farcical readmission – and then resuspension – of Chris Williamson MP (about which the Booker Prize-winning novelist Howard Jacobson writes hilariously in this week's Diary) is merely the latest instance of the party’s failure to address the prejudice within its ranks. Such is the scourge of anti-Semitism that the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, founded by the last Labour government, has launched a formal investigation into whether the party has “unlawfully discriminated against, harassed or victimised people because they are Jewish”.

At the 2017 general election, Labour’s ambiguous Brexit position was an asset. The party attracted the support of both Remainers and Leavers, who read into its positioning their preferred outcome. There was a principled as well as a political case for “constructive ambiguity”: the pressing need to reunite, rather than further divide, the country.

However, after Theresa May repeatedly failed to pass a Brexit deal, Labour was warned by its MPs and members that it needed to take a decisive stand. Having tried and failed to trigger a general election, Labour could have embraced the cause of a second referendum and made a powerful case for Remain. Opinion polls have repeatedly shown that this stance is favoured by an overwhelming majority of party members as well as a majority of voters.

The party’s constructive ambiguity over Brexit has become destructive. Rather than attracting Remainers and Leavers, it repels both. Labour celebrated its 2017 election performance but Mr Corbyn and his team should have responded with greater humility (after all, they won 262 seats: a net increase of four since Labour’s 2010 defeat). By complacently assuming that progressive voters had “nowhere else to go”, they opened the way for the revival of the Greens and the Liberal Democrats, and emboldened nationalists in Wales and Scotland.

It is not only on Brexit that Labour displays a lack of leadership and ambition. Though the Union is facing the gravest threat in its 312-year history, Mr Corbyn has nothing to say on the future relationship between England and Scotland. Nor, in an age of profound discontent with Westminster, has Labour embraced constitutional reform, which would include the introduction of proportional representation.

The problem is not, as civil servants have suggested, that Mr Corbyn is “too frail” to become prime minister. Rather he shows little sign of being prepared for power or, sometimes, even of desiring it. As a consequence, Labour drifts and, increasingly, barely resembles an opposition at all. 

This article appears in the 05 July 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Corbyn delusion