‘LABOUR Won Local Elections – Front Bench Reshuffled By Mistake’ almost seems to be the subtext of Martin Kettle’s recent article in the Guardian. Entitled ‘That wasn’t quite the resounding Conservative election victory it seemed’, Kettle tries to advance a theory that these elections were ‘unique’ in some way and as such, Labour’s prospects are not as bad as they appear. He seems to be in a minority of one in this respect. Tony Blair has a long article in the New Statesman that suggests that Labour’s time is up unless the party is rebuilt from the ground up, saying ‘the Labour Party won’t revive simply by a change of leader. It needs total deconstruction and reconstruction. Nothing less will do’.
Blair has a point. Under Corbyn, the party’s membership increased and shifted so sharply to the left that it no longer represents any mainstream strand of popular opinion. While its cheerleaders plaintively repeat that its policies were popular, there is a difference between popularity and electability; people might like railway renationalisation in a warm and fuzzy way, but it is not enough for them to change their votes. There is also the issue that the sampling methods Labour used to gauge public opinion appear self-serving and were therefore just plain wrong.
However there is another factor that Kettle and his like seem to be ignoring. Politics is returning to normal after a Brexit-induced interlude of five years.
Cast your mind back to 2015. Labour had a meltdown in the polls as it was assailed by UKIP south of the border and the SNP to the north. While Ed Miliband did see an increase in Labour’s vote in percentage terms, the socialist Maginot Line, or Red Wall as it has since become known, was outflanked Guderian-like by David Cameron as the Conservatives cannibalised the seats of their erstwhile coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, to create their majority. Anti-Conservative voters in those seats seem to have been voting tactically and sought to punish the incumbent for collaboration, thus letting the Conservative candidate in through the middle. Two General Elections later and the Liberal Democrats have not been forgiven. There was also the issue that the Conservatives stood on a platform of an in-out EU referendum, something Labour explicitly rejected.
There was another factor at play in Labour’s demise in 2015, which was the rise in support for the Green Party. For example, Ed Balls lost his seat to the Conservative Andrea Jenkyns by just 422 votes, a majority that was one-third of the votes cast for the Green Party at 1,264. Multi-party politics was at play in the 2015 General Election. The 2017 General Election in England and Wales reverted to the two-party politics of the 1980s and prior. In 2015, the Green Party of England and Wales fielded 538 candidates, while in 2017 and 2019 it put forward only 472, perhaps because the party’s war-chest had not accumulated enough money to field more.
Anyone who voted Green was not only voting against the Conservatives, but also Labour. In the last two General Elections the policies of Corbyn’s Labour and the Greens were so close on so many issues that a Green voter could vote tactically. The Greens did not stand in Jenkyns’s seat of Morley and Outwood in 2017, but she derived benefit from an increase in turnout to see her majority rise almost fivefold to 2,104. When the Greens returned in 2019 the combination of Corbyn’s toxicity, Labour’s dubious manifesto promises, and Brexit saw her majority increase by yet another factor of five to over 11,000. The Green vote of 1,107 was less than that of 2015.
The local elections indicate that the straight fight is coming to an end and multi-party politics is returning. This is hurting Labour in England more than the Conservatives. Now that Sir Keir Starmer is tacitly repudiating Corbynism, Green voters have no reason to lend Labour their support and have gained council seats. There is also the fact that Greta Thunberg has in effect been providing the Greens free party political broadcasts on news channels for the last year. At the same time, Brexit means that the UKIP/Brexit/Reform Party chameleon will no longer be eating into the Conservative support significantly. Labour has not made an explicit break with its Corbynite past to encourage moderate voters to switch allegiances, especially when Labour activists still use ‘centrist’ as a term of abuse.
While some Corbynist MPs have been exiled to the back benches, and Corbyn himself has been suspended from the Parliamentary Labour Party pending the outcome of a court case, voters do not recognise that Labour has changed enough to make it safe to vote for, validating Blair’s thesis. They also have yet to be sufficiently tired of the Conservatives holding power even after more than a decade, and, despite the government’s controversial responses to the pandemic, this has not yet been seen as equivalent to the power cuts of 1973/4, the Poll Tax riots of 1990, or Black Wednesday in 1992 to cause a collapse in widespread support.
The resumption of the fragmentation of the anti-Conservative vote on the left in England, and the near-banishment of Labour from Scotland, has led to a resumption of calls for Labour to support electoral reform. Labour’s supporters now seem to believe the party will regain power in Westminster only if a system of proportional representation is introduced. This is a sign of desperation, wanting to change the rules to ensure a win after a never-ending losing streak. All Labour has to do is to present leaders, candidates, and policies that appeal to more voters, something they are currently unable to do. Labour has also gone very quiet over the anti-Semitism of its membership. There are toddlers who can walk and talk who were not even conceived when NEC member Pete Willsman was suspended for making anti-Semitic remarks.
There are calls for Labour to form a ‘Popular Front’ progressive alliance, something Clement Attlee resisted when it was last proposed in the late 1930s. As an aside, Popular Front governments were elected at that time in both France and Spain. In France the policies left the country unprepared for war with Germany. In Spain, Popular Front policies led to an army mutiny, civil war, and a fascist dictatorship for almost four decades. A modern version of the Popular Front would suggest Sir Keir getting into bed with the Annoying Person, a vision I apologise for sharing with you. This also demonstrates why it would be toxic for the Labour Party. Standing aside in Scotland, where Labour only has one seat to defend anyway, would cast Labour as the ‘SNP South of the Border’.
So the good news seems to be that after the dislocating interlude of our political class agonising over Brexit, British politics is returning to a form of pre-EU referendum normality, if not also pre-UKIP normality. That may not be such good news for the Labour Party. And as for the writers of the Guardian, and those who read the paper with sincerity, they are just never happy no matter what the news is.