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

Saturday, 6 May 2017

IMPORTANT: disastrous poll, but the general election will be worse

Take no joy in the utter failure of Corbyn as a leader, as the vast majority of political commentators have always predicted. The only crumb of comfort that Labour can really take from yesterday was winning two metro mayor posts and coming within a whisker of a third.

But the local election results are truly disastrous in two ways. 

One, as the New Statesman's George Eaton pointed out, because if the general election had the same voteshare of 27%, it would be the lowest for Labour since the end of the First World War.

Two, because of the following maths.

The poll lead of the Tories in the election is currently 11%. In the last pre-election poll (May 4th, YouGov), it was 19%. Why the huge difference?

Because in the locals, there is generally turnout of, say, 25-30%. In the general, it is usually, say, 55-70%. Of the order of double the turnout. 

If there is asymmetry between the likelihood of one party's voters staying at home and another's, this accounts for inaccuracies in the ability of the local elections poll to truly reflect national voteshare (as measured by that last YouGov poll). After all, it's just half of the voters who will vote in June, so it's hardly representative. Not to mention, of course, the fact that not all parts of the country have local elections, again, not fully representative.

But the chilling thought for Labour is, the June poll is likely to be a much more accurate reflection of the national opinion polls (assuming that they are broadly accurate). That is, the Tories' poll lead is likely to be much closer to 19% than to 11%.

Labour has actually got off extremely lightly in these local elections, compared to what opinion polls said should have happened.

It seems unlikely that this luck will hold in the general election. A 19% poll lead there could perhaps even push it below the 1918 result of 21%.

In short: this is bad, but we ain't seen nothin' yet.

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Election 1997 20th anniversary: some thoughts

Yesterday was the 20th anniversary of the Labour landslide. I blogged this little piece for Labour Uncut on what it was like.

The day was sunny, and my little Triumph Herald – referred to somewhat unkindly by my Tory opponent, David Curry, as “that old jalopy” – trundled its way across the Yorkshire Dales, blaring out D-Ream’s “Things Can Only Get Better” from a speaker strapped across its roof for the day by my friend Richard’s dad.

The campaign strategy in Skipton and Ripon, the Tory heartland constituency where I went to school, had been simple. Make any kind of noise at all to show them you’re alive, and people would come out for you who didn’t usually even realise there was a Labour candidate standing. Good people came out to help us. People who simply saw Labour as a force for good and would come out and leaflet with us in Ingleton, Settle or Skipton in the rain.

That sunny day, though, there was change in the air. Indeed, you felt that by merely repeating “Britain Deserves Better”, the campaign slogan, endlessly through the PA system, you were somehow personally willing the end of 18 years of Tory government, something that had become almost impossible to conceive.

The Tories had not only messed up the economy through its antics in the ERM, the forerunner to the Euro; they had given us the Poll Tax which taxed you regressively for having the temerity to vote; and the hated Section 28, which essentially institutionalised the idea that gay people were bad.

They had it coming. But the only reason for their longevity then, as now, had been the fundamental uselessness of Labour as an opposition over a long period. We needed only to get our act together, and they crumbled.

That evening, after three solid weeks of morning-till-night campaigning, I remember collapsing into an armchair, thinking that the exit polls were really looking pretty good. There was no Portillo moment for me: I woke up the next morning to attend my own count around lunchtime, the fact of not winning myself massively outweighed by the shining, stunning achievement of the first Labour government of my voting life.

We never going to win, of course, although 12,171 good-hearted Labour supporters helped us make a good dent. We didn’t care. Labour was in and, as Wordsworth wrote of the French Revolution, bliss was it in that dawn to be alive.

This was a very gentle, English kind of revolution, though. And for a brief moment a nation, which had spent a great deal of its recent past gazing nostalgically at its own navel, had become a little more tolerant, open and kind.

This piece first published at Labour Uncut
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