The Costs of Complacency

With Labour’s mixed showing in this May’s elections, Antony Tucker argues that major changes are needed to revive the party’s electability.

Nationwide council, assembly, parliamentary and mayoral polls have resulted in a mixed but disappointing showing in Jeremy Corbyn’s first major electoral test as Labour leader. (Image: BBC/Getty Images

Nationwide council, assembly, parliamentary and mayoral polls have resulted in a mixed but disappointing showing in Jeremy Corbyn’s first major electoral test as Labour leader. (Image: BBC/Getty Images)

With the results of the council, Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly, Police and Crime Commissioner and mayoral elections now coming in, it is clear that Labour have not stopped the rot coming from last year’s defeat in the polls. Whilst the worst predictions have proven unjustified, the fall back into unclear policies and an absence of strong leadership have resulted in no improvement in the party’s position.

The toll of losses is deeply concerning: no opposition has ever lost seats in its first council polls and then won the next general election.  With dozens of council seats lost, Carwyn Jones’s administration in Wales hanging on by a thread and the Conservatives surpassing Labour to become Scotland’s second party, the only real positive is the victory of Sadiq Khan over Zac Goldsmith for the London mayoralty. Even this win serves to highlight how London-centric Labour has become under Miliband and Corbyn, shedding provincial votes and seats at an alarming rate.

The toll of council seat losses may not seem surprising to many; after all, these were last contested in 2012, at the coalition’s low ebb. But the brutal truth is even that high water mark did not deliver Miliband victory in 2015. By losing so many of these seats, the electorate have judged the new leadership and direction of the Labour Party as even less competent, even less relevant. This, in a year that witnessed Cameron’s administration riven with infighting over the EU, scandalous revelations over tax avoidance, an all-out strike by junior doctors, the collapse of the steel industry, another “Omnishambles” budget, a u-turn on disability payments and an incompetent response to mass flooding. Often treated as a protest vote, council elections are for the opposition to lose – faced by such a poor government, that is exactly how it appears.

Sadiq Khan’s victory in the London mayoral race bucked the trend nationwide for Labour, representing a true success for moderate, inclusive politics. (Image: Press Association)

Sadiq Khan’s victory in the London mayoral race bucked the trend nationwide for Labour, representing a true success for moderate, inclusive politics. (Image: Press Association)

The news from Wales and Scotland is not encouraging either. Long perceived as more left-wing than England, the SNP’s near wipeout of the unionist parties in May 2015 spurred demands north of the border for a major recovery in Labour’s fortunes. The argument was that by adopting far-left policies, such as nuclear unilateralism, Scotland could be taken back from the SNP.  Instead, the nationalists are still in power in the Scottish Parliament, making another independence referendum possible, whilst Labour’s once dominant position in opposition has been replaced by Ruth Davidson’s Conservatives. In Wales too, a continuance of the Labour government under Carwyn Jones will require pacts and deals to keep a minority administration afloat. First rate regional politicians have been let down by an ill-organised and ill-led national party, which would rather adopt policies that seem convenient to a north London-based elite than actually listen to ordinary people.

Even Sadiq Khan’s victory in London cannot be taken as a vote of confidence in the Labour Party’s new direction under the auspices of the far left. Despite his nomination of Corbyn for leader, Khan is an unashamedly moderate figure who was faced by a weak, divisive and haughty figure in the person of Zac Goldsmith, whose total lack of a common touch or understanding of Londoners’ concerns was rightfully rewarded with failure. But winning in London will not answer Labour’s problems – we cannot unify our divided nation in the name of fairness and equality if our appeal is limited to one section of the country. Nonetheless, all Londoners can rejoice in Goldsmith’s defeat, having a run a campaign so intolerant it came in for criticism from his own side.

So, is this the end for Corbyn? In a word, no – nor should it be. Whatever your opinion of his leadership, wherever you lay the blame for Labour’s continued decline, no one should lose the leadership after eight months having not faced a general election. Corbyn and his far left ideas are still popular amongst many Labour members, if not the voters as a whole. However, if an incoming Tory leader calls a general election within the next year (not impossible despite the Fixed Term Parliament Act), then the result of that contest may prove decisive in deciding Corbyn’s survival. Any challenge now would be disastrous, both for those who launched it and for party unity, risking an SDP-style split that would deny the left power for a generation.

Nonetheless, it is now undeniable that Labour’s leadership problem has not been resolved with Miliband’s replacement, with even two of the MPs who nominated Corbyn now publically admitting their regrets. The weak and flatfooted response to the anti-Semitism of Livingstone and Shah (amongst many others), an incoherent message and an inability to attract swing voters have all held the party back; frustrating for members, certainly, but terrible for Britain, as an incompetent and savage Conservative government is free to erode all that is great about Britain. Our NHS, welfare state and economic future are all being sacrificed for the gain of a few – with no effective opposition, this will not abate any time soon.

What next then? Change is needed, for sure, including a more diverse shadow cabinet. Instead of fighting battles from within our comfort zone, Labour has to go into harm’s way and win over the electorate on the issues that the public themselves see as key: an answer to fears over immigration, a convincing voice for economic stability and a new vision for education are all lacking from Corbyn’s platform. Equally, the presentation of the party must step up and win over both the press and the people to Labour’s message. A focus on the negative impact of Conservative government on the poorest is compassionate but does not solve Labour’s issues of sectionalism and limited appeal and has patently failed to win over the voters.

We cannot risk appearing aloof to the inconvenient truths of mass popularity in favour of pursuing sacred cows. Predicting no net loss of council seats, for example, led the party to irrationally ignore the warning signs of a public lack of confidence in Labour’s top people and current course. This attitude of distance and of stubbornness has led Labour astray, into pious opposition rather than the government we so desperately need. Significant and comprehensive changes to much of Labour’s programme and presentation are necessary if Cameron’s government is to fear Labour as they should. Whilst the current leader should be retained for the immediate future, he must accept responsibility for this failure and act to mend the faults uncovered: or we will keep reaping the costs of complacency.

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1 Response

  1. Bob Sutton says:

    Hmm. I think you need to clarify a few things in your own mind. First of all, ‘Antisemitism’… Many people in the Labour party think we should take a strong and unequivocal stand on human rights violations – wherever they occur in the world. Nobody should be above above criticism, regardless of their political or economic importance and influence, or of their terrible and tragic history. That means we detest the inhuman regime in Saudi Arabia, for example. And that in Syria. And in Israel too. So the idea that mentioning Hitler, Zionism, Fascism and Israel all in the same sentence is in some way Antisemitic is facile. It’s a justifiable debate.

    Zionism itself has no clear definition – not even amongst Jewish authorities. Within Zionism there are different positions, from moderate to radical – some ultra orthodox Jews are even anti Zionist themselves, But by contrast, many Zionists maintain that any criticism of the government of Israel is by definition Antisemitic. since they feel this is a criticism of Judaism itself – for them there is no such thing as a secular government. And that is the problem. Western left wing politics is not keen on the intertwining of religion and state. In the Middle East, however, religion very often IS the state. So perhaps, Antony, the first question you should answer is ‘Do I believe that the Israeli government is above criticism, if criticizing it is, from a mainstream Jewish and UK establishment perspective, Antisemitic?

    The other question you should ask yourself is where you stand on left wing policy in general. The problem with the ‘middle ground’ argument is that it suggests that the electorate is basically thick. There is no point in trying to persuade them on policy. Thatcher, Reagan, Bush et al, the argument goes, have already won that debate. Did they, really? Do you really believe that supply side economics, and monetarist macro economic theory has borne fruit? Do you believe in ‘trickle down’. Do you really think that Trident is a great idea? Are you of the opinion that railways work best as part of the private sector, or that large industries should be abandoned at the whim of the market?

    If you mention unions to people, their hackles go up, Pavlovian style. That’s because Thatcher et al above managed to brainwash the electorate into believing that collective action and trades unions are basically evil. Well, if you are a Labour man, as you purport to be, then you need to ask yourself if you agree with that – or if, on the other hand, your think your job should be to ask people to think again about what left wing policies actually mean. For me, left wing politics are no longer about Marxist theory or permanent revolution or the establishment of a new International. Heaven forfend.

    What they should be, though, are a much needed clarion call against our self serving, greed ridden society. We need people to start taking pride in making a contribution to society through appropriate taxation. We need those who administer the public purse to lead by example and to respect their responsibility rather than wallowing at the trough. We need to start feeling outraged by injustice, poverty and privilege.

    Broadly speaking, I agree with some of your arguments in terms of engaging the public. But to do this the party needs to get behind Corbyn and stop this wretched hankering after the failed, and wholly tarnished Blairite experiment. Middle England won’t be inspired by Blair or his grinning sycophancy any more – he is the ultimate sell out – a rotten apple. But Middle England does not like academies or SATs. It does not like what is going on at the BBC. It is behind the Junior Doctors. So what we should be doing is getting out there and arguing for our policies, instead of navel gazing.

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