2017 will be a tough year for Labour but they shouldn’t be written off. If they can hold fast to their principles while taking advantage of the turbulent political climate, hope remains.
The resignation of Jamie Reed and Tristram Hunt could be construed as yet another episode in the ongoing saga of the Labour Party’s decline. Yet Labour have more urgent problems keeping them up at night. Despite this, they should not be underestimated. If they can ride the populist wave while sticking to their principles, they could see their prospects improve.
Firstly, Labour should not be dismayed by the resignation of Tristram Hunt. In refusing a shadow front bench position, he’d made it clear he had nothing to offer the new leadership. Hunt was parachuted into the Stoke-on-Trent seat by Labour’s National Executive Committee, reportedly at Peter Mandelson’s behest. As Hunt was thrust upon them, the local constituency Labour Party were denied the chance to choose their own candidate. For all his academic prowess, only 19 per cent of Hunt’s constituents voted for him, making him the UK’s most unpopular MP. The son of a Labour Life Peer who was appointed under Blair, Hunt’s selection was careerism at best and cronyism at worst. In a talk he gave to Cambridge University Labour Society, he stressed that “the top one per cent” should be “dissenting”. It was their “responsibility to take leadership”. Speeches like this were unlikely to make Hunt popular with Labour’s working class base. Similarly, he irked his fellow academics at Queen Mary University of London by crossing a picket line in order to lecture his undergraduates about Marx. In this way, Hunt was representative of the party’s alienation from its traditional working class base.
Similarly, Jamie Reed was less than useful for the leadership. He was the first to resign from the shadow cabinet after Corbyn came to power in 2015. He said Corbyn’s victory had filled the party with “unprecedented poison”. During the 2016 leadership election, Reed wrote an article concerning Corbyn’s past views on Nato. In it, he told the Labour leader to “give up, go home and go away”. Corbyn will hardly be mourning the loss of two of his most virulent critics.
The exit of hard-line anti-Corbyn MPs may even heal the divisions that have plagued the party since Corbyn’s premiership began. Disgruntled anti-Corbyn MPs have offered comments to the media that have damaged his image. Many of Corbyn’s press conferences have been shortly followed by headlines of Labour infighting. MPs publicly criticising their leader is not a good look. Momentum, a left-wing organisation that grew out of Corbyn’s first leadership campaign, has also seen its fair share of infighting. Splits have emerged over Momentum’s new constitution and voting system which threaten to disillusion Corbyn’s base. This only compounds the stereotype of the factionalist Left.
What will most concern Labour about the exit of these MPs is the prospect of two by-elections upon which their electoral chances will be judged. In the referendum, Leave won 69 per cent of the vote in Stoke-on-Trent and 62 per cent in Copeland. Labour’s electoral coalition is composed of Remain-voting major cities and deindustrialised, Brexit-voting regions in the North. Brexit risks cleaving Labour support in two, leaving the Lib Dems to pick up Remain votes and UKIP and the Conservatives to mop up the Leave vote.
Yet all is not lost. Given the current political mood, Corbyn’s newfound boldness is apt. He mocked Piers Morgan about football and told Jeremy Hunt to “stop dithering” on the NHS crisis. Continually railing against the “rigged system”, a populist Corbyn could ride on the wave of resentment against Westminster. Unlike Miliband, Corbyn’s rhetoric on this is convincing because he is seen as an “outsider”. Furthermore, he is a battle-hardened campaigner. Two comfortably-won leadership elections have shown that he is most at home on the campaign trail. His visit to
Stoke-on-Trent attracted hundreds of people. Moreover, Labour is not only debt free but the largest political party in Europe. The influx of members has filled Labour’s coffers with election funding. Labour’s ranks have been swelled with activists to be mobilized in elections. The party is moving out of the Westminster bubble and into the streets. With national campaigning days on housing, the welfare state and the NHS, the Labour Party is involving itself in communities once more.
Commentators have been keen to portray the North as UKIP’s for the taking. The 2015 by-election in Oldham, John Harris suggested, was where “Corbynmania collides with reality”. Labour went on to hold the seat convincingly, with 17,000 votes to UKIP’s 6000. Unconvinced, Harris now says that “Stoke-on-Trent is the Brexit heartland that could be Corbyn’s Waterloo”. His narrative ignores the fact that so many Northerners still see Labour as their political home. Paul Nuttall’s candidacy gives Corbyn an opportunity to see off the UKIP leader. A strong, local candidate backed by a well-organized campaign should make fast work of Nuttall’s opportunist vie for power. Nuttall’s expressed support for a privatised NHS is hardly likely to go down well with the people of Stoke. While polls suggest Copeland is going to be tough, Labour can be much more confident in Stoke, where they gathered 5000 more votes than UKIP in 2015.
While the meltdown in Scotland can only be reversed through a reinvigoration of Scottish Labour, the party’s problems in England can be overcome. Labour must get Leave voters on board, empower its activists and hold onto their city-dwelling allies. Rather than triangulate with speeches about “managed migration”, Labour need to hold fast to their socialist, internationalist principles. Labour is the party of the NHS, of the welfare state, of the unions, of the working class. Only Labour can represent communities that have been hit hard by austerity, the housing crisis, the NHS crisis and deindustrialisation. Experiments with free-market economics have ravaged communities in the North and elsewhere. The electorate must be constantly reminded of this. All this is easier said than done, there is a mountain still to climb but the experience of 2016 should teach us to expect the unexpected. Labour might be down but they are certainly not out.