Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Of course the next election is Labour's to lose. Why wouldn't it be?

My article saying “Peak Corbyn” was yet to come attracted some interesting responses, which I've pondered here.

The Conservatives won re-election after recession in 1981, 1991 and after a slowdown that threatened, but never fully developed into a technical recession in 2011.

I wrote last week why I don’t buy the idea that the 2017 election represented the upper limit for Labour in general or Jeremy Corbyn in particular.  There were a lot of responses, some of which I thought were worth responding to in greater length.

People voted for Jeremy Corbyn because they thought he couldn’t win

The difficulty here is that while it is true that a lot of Labour MPs, including ones we would notionally think of as Corbynite loyalists, campaigned telling their constituents that Labour couldn’t possibly win and not to worry about a Corbyn-led government, there isn’t any evidence that Labour voters bought this. The British Electoral Study found that there was no significant chunk of “vote Labour because Corbyn can’t win”, and, of course, Labour and Corbyn’s poll rating has remained healthy since the election.

(This is one of the perils of scoreboard punditry: we look at the bigger vote shares of the big two parties and the stagnant share of the Liberal Democrats and it looks as if no votes changed hands – actually, a lot of Labour voters who were worried about a Corbyn-led government went to the Liberal Democrats or the Conservatives, but Labour hoovered up more than enough votes to replace those voters from Ukip, the Conservatives and people who previously hadn’t voted before.)

We also shouldn’t forget that people are less changeable than they think.

Labour only did well because of tactical voting and first-past-the-post

Will first-past-the-post still be the electoral system in place at the next election? Unfortunately, yes. So Labour will still be able to squeeze the Greens, Liberal Democrats and SNP as the only party that is big enough to stop the Conservatives.

Labour only did so well because the Conservative campaign was so bad

As I wrote in the original piece, there is a lot in this argument. And it wasn’t just the Conservative campaign, either. The Liberal Democrats suffered a great deal because their election campaign became a seminar on the nature of sin, which meant they never got to talk about any of their issues.

You’d assume that the next Tory campaign won’t be so woeful, if nothing else because short of promising to test Trident on randomly-chosen Midlands towns, you could hardly devise a campaign that was better engineered to erode the Conservative parliamentary majority.

But one of the things that we’ve forgotten because of what a hash Theresa May made of calling the election is that there were very good reasons for the government to go the country early – that the economy looks pre-recessional is one, and the difficulty of navigating Brexit with a small majority is another. Those problems haven’t gone away.

Think of it like this: if at the last election, a competent Conservative campaign was all that was needed to win a majority then, yes, changing the person in charge matters a great deal. But what if by the next election they need an exceptional one? That might happen. But equally, it might not.

The future is hard to predict

This is true. No one could reasonably have been expected to predict that Birmingham City would win the League Cup in 2011 or that Leicester would win the Premier League in 2016. However, what you can say is that, given their greater spending in the transfer market and their superior playing team, defeated finalists Arsenal ought to have beaten Birmingham in 2011 and Manchester City ought to have done better than fourth place in 2016.

It’s not a prediction to say “given that the government will have been in power for 12 years by the time of the next election, given that we are overdue a recession and that Brexit will result in at least some losers economically, Labour should be the favourites at the next election”. When we talk about the disastrous Conservative campaign, we are, implicitly, making a judgement about the relative ease of the task of winning the 2017 election. 

It is possible that the Conservatives will win the next election. It’s just hard to construct a data-driven argument that they should expect to, that’s all.

People will take Jeremy Corbyn more seriously next time

Will they? If that were true, Sajid Javid’s housing reforms would be criticised for not going far enough, when instead they are largely being attacked by safe-seat Conservative MPs for being too bold. If that were true, even the most diehard of Conservative Brexiteers would be sounding more open-minded about a long and gentle transition from the European Union instead of making demands of May that force a quick and drastic exit. If that were true, people wouldn’t still scoff quite so openly at the idea that the next election's is Corbyn to lose.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

Show Hide image

Jeremy Corbyn supporters should stop excusing Labour’s anti-immigration drift

The Labour leader is a passionate defender of migrants’ rights – Brexit shouldn’t distract the new left movement from that.

Something strange is happening on the British left – a kind of deliberate collective amnesia. During the EU referendum, the overwhelming majority of the left backed Remain.

Contrary to a common myth, both Jeremy Corbyn and the movement behind him put their weight into a campaign that argued forcefully for internationalism, migrants’ rights and regulatory protections.

And yet now, as Labour’s policy on Brexit hardens, swathes of the left appear to be embracing Lexit, and a set of arguments which they would have laughed off stage barely a year ago.

The example of free movement is glaring and obvious, but worth rehashing. When Labour went into the 2017 general election promising to end free movement with the EU, it did so with a wider election campaign whose tone was more pro-migrant than any before it.

Nonetheless, the policy itself, along with restricting migrants’ access to public funds, stood in a long tradition of Labour triangulating to the right on immigration for electorally calculated reasons. When Ed Miliband promised “tough controls on immigration”, the left rightly attacked him.  

The result of this contradiction is that those on the left who want to agree unequivocally with the leadership must find left-wing reasons for doing so. And so, activists who have spent years declaring their solidarity with migrants and calling for a borderless world can now be found contemplating ways for the biggest expansion of border controls in recent British history – which is what the end of free movement would mean – to seem progressive, or like an opportunity.

The idea that giving ground to migrant-bashing narratives or being harsher on Poles might make life easier for non-EU migrants was rightly dismissed by most left-wing activists during the referendum.

Now, some are going quiet or altering course.

On the Single Market, too, neo-Lexit is making a comeback. Having argued passionately in favour of membership, both the Labour leadership and a wider layer of its supporters now argue – to some extent or another – that only by leaving the Single Market could Labour implement a manifesto.

This is simply wrong: there is very little in Labour’s manifesto that does not have an already-existing precedent in continental Europe. In fact, the levers of the EU are a key tool for clamping down on the power of big capital.

In recent speeches, Corbyn has spoken about the Posted Workers’ Directive – but this accounts for about 0.17 per cent of the workforce, and is about to be radically reformed by the European Parliament.

The dangers of this position are serious. If Labour’s leadership takes the path of least resistance on immigration policy and international integration, and its support base rationalises these compromises uncritically, then the logic of the Brexit vote – its borders, its affirmation of anti-migrant narratives, its rising nationalist sentiment – will be mainlined into Labour Party policy.

Socialism in One Country and a return to the nation state cannot work for the left, but they are being championed by the neo-Lexiteers. In one widely shared blogpost on Novara Media, one commentator even goes as far as alluding to Britain’s Road to Socialism – the official programme of the orthodox Communist Party.

The muted and supportive reaction of Labour’s left to the leadership’s compromises on migration and Brexit owes much to the inept positioning of the Labour right. Centrists may gain personal profile and factional capital when the weaponising the issue, but the consequences have been dire.

Around 80 per cent of Labour members still want a second referendum, and making himself the “stop Brexit” candidate could in a parallel universe have been Owen Smith’s path to victory in the second leadership election.

But it meant that in the summer of 2016, when the mass base of Corbynism hardened its factional resolve, it did so under siege not just from rebelling MPs, but from the “Remoaners” as well.

At every juncture, the strategy of the centrist Labour and media establishment has made Brexit more likely. Every time a veteran of the New Labour era – many of whom have appalling records on, for instance, migrants’ rights – tells Labour members to fight Brexit, party members run a mile.

If Tony Blair’s messiah complex was accurate, he would have saved us all a long time ago – by shutting up and going away. The atmosphere of subterfuge and siege from MPs and the liberal press has, by necessity, created a culture of loyalty and intellectual conformity on the left.

But with its position in the party unassailable, and a radical Labour government within touching distance of Downing Street, the last thing the Labour leadership now needs is a wave of Corbynite loyalty-hipsters hailing its every word.

As the history of every attempt to form a radical government shows, what we desperately need is a movement with its own internal democratic life, and an activist army that can push its leaders as well as deliver leaflets for them.

Lexit is no more possible now than it was during the EU referendum, and the support base of the Labour left and the wider party is overwhelmingly in favour of free movement and EU membership.

Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott are passionate, principled advocates for migrants’ rights and internationalism. By showing leadership, Labour can once again change what is electorally possible.