Saturday, 20 May 2017

Two rays of hope for Labour in the electoral post-apocalypse

Even for these unusual times, we might note that this is a highly unusual election.

First, it is a snap election, the first in over four decades. Labour is even more woefully unprepared than it would have been in 2020.

Second, it has local elections in the middle of the short campaign, for which there is no recent precedent (in 2001, when the general election was in June, the locals were too). It gives a highly unusual pre-poll to the general election.

Third, it has had the critical-for-Europe-and-the-world, French election in the middle of the short campaign as well. We’ll come on to that.

A recap of the glaringly obvious: It is difficult to see those local election results as anything but disastrous. Vote-share down to an appalling 27%. Governing party up rather than down in mid-term. In Scotland, SNP seats swinging away from them going to the Tories, not Labour.

The general election prognosis, then: the Tory lead likely to be between 12% and whatever that lead is currently polling (currently around 18%), as I have argued here. Around 16% gap would be a conservative estimate, which would give a Tory majority of 100. But taking YouGov’s regional polls – which one would expect to be more accurate – and extrapolating using the Electoral Calculus predictor, you can see the possibility of it being well over 200 seats.

If all this were not enough, Corbyn this week selected Stalin apologist, Andrew Murray, from the Stop the War Coalition, to lead Labour’s campaign. Imagine the reaction if the Tories appointed joined up a Nazi apologist from the BNP and then appointed them campaign chief. As one Labour insider commented to HuffPo’s Paul Waugh, Murray is to Corbyn as Steve Bannon is to Trump. An unapologetic extremist.

It is clear, then, that all eyes are on the election after the election. The Labour leadership. It is notable that some of Labour’s few recent success stories – Burnham in Manchester, Khan in London – are visibly distancing themselves from Corbyn, as they foresee that any connection to him is tomorrow’s political poison.

Is it bad form to be discussing the aftermath of the party’s inevitable defeat in the middle of the short campaign? Probably. But these are not normal times: no MP, apart from perhaps one or two inside Corbyn’s Kool-Aid-drinking inner circle, seriously believes that Labour can win. They are going through the motions, as is their duty.

But there are two small glints of silver in the cloud currently covering the party.

The first is that it is clear that days of the hard left’s tenure at the highest echelons of the Labour Party are numbered. The question is how long it takes to dislodge them (and the dislodging of their acolytes further down the tree is likely to take a much longer time, if the party’s experience with Militant is anything to go by). Critically, whether they hang on long enough to deal the party a mortal blow in the meantime, meaning that the only way forward is through some new political grouping.

The possibilities are as follows.

One: Corbyn bows out.
He takes it on the chin, accepts responsibility for the defeat and acquiesces. This, while under normal political conditions being the most likely option for a leader, seems the least likely. And it is because of the parliamentary arithmetic. As the good John Rentoul points out, it would be almost impossible for a hard-left successor to garner the nominations necessary to qualify. Result: win for common sense, unless of course the party is reduced to so few MPs that the proportion of Corbynites is high enough to nominate after all. In which case the party is toast.

Sadly, the fact that it would likely spell conclusive defeat for the hard left makes it the least likely. It seems unlikely that, no matter how tired the man himself might be, the group around him would accept their immolation as a political force and could therefore press him to stay in one way or another. In short, he is the only one who can get them onto a leadership shortlist.

Two: Corbyn stands and loses. And we end up back at point one, albeit with a more conclusive defeat for the hard left, because it is seen to be defeated in a democratic vote.

Three: Corbyn clings on without a vote. Theoretically possible but it would make Labour utterly dysfunctional, with the remaining PLP in open revolt. There would undoubtedly be a challenger at some point, if only to get an attack in before the McDonnell amendment changed the leadership election rules and locked the hard left into the mainstream. Not sustainable, although more damaging to the party with each month that passed.

Four: Corbyn stands and wins. This is certainly possible. It has been established that as leader he can stand in a leadership battle, whatever. And he still has a significant following among members, many of whom seem oblivious to Labour’s existential crisis. But this option is disastrous for Labour. The public would not forgive us a renewed Corbyn mandate. And even many of his fans would find it difficult to justify continued support after an electoral meltdown.

All in all, it looks highly likely that Corbyn will either jump or be pushed, and that someone relatively sensible will be able to take over. Good.

And now the second ray of hope. Emmanuel Macron, in the middle of the campaign, has become French president from nowhere. It seems that, contrary to current received wisdom, Europeans have not turned against centrist pro-Europeans at all; rather, they have turned against traditional parties.

This is good news in itself for the Labour succession: a sensible centrist could potentially recover electorally relatively quickly, provided he or she were ruthless enough to clean up the party firmly and rapidly. But furthermore, in the unhappy event that the party turned out to have been fatally damaged by the Corbynite incursion – which is certainly not impossible – it shows that the founding of a new, centre-left party could have traction in these turbulent times.

In the event that it came to that, all of us would have to examine our consciences to see if our desire to help the many, not the few, outweighed our sentimental attachment to our membership cards.



This post first published at Labour Uncut

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