After an historic defeat in Cumbria and a narrow victory in Stoke during last week’s by-elections, Antony Tucker examines where Labour go from here.
There are five stages to by-election grief: 1) Denial – “We can’t possibly lose to the Tories in a constituency with a maternity ward in the firing line that’s backed us since 1931.” 2) Anger – “That’s it! We’re stuffed! Let’s all move to Rotterdam.” 3) Bargaining – “Maybe if we talk about the NHS more, everyone will forget about Brexit, immigration, the economy, taxation, defence and nuclear power.” 4) Depression – “Why bother? Theresa May’ll be Prime Minister until the sea rises and everyone has to move to Derbyshire.” And finally, 5) Acceptance – “Let’s work out what we can actually do about this.” Unless you having nothing better to do, it’s best to skip the first four stages and get on with thinking up some pragmatic solutions to Labour’s by-election blues.
Admittedly, it could have been worse. To lose one by-election is a misfortune, to lose two might have looked like carelessness. But that is scant recompense. This is the first government win in such a contest since Mitcham and Mordern in 1982, the first without disqualification or defection since 1960, and the first government win in a by-election with more than a three percent swing against the chief opposition party without defection or disqualification since 1878.
Benjamin “Quite A Good Novelist” Disraeli was Prime Minister then. Universal suffrage was fifty years away. Ben Elton hadn’t sold out yet. This a historic defeat. And holding on to Stoke Central does not make up for it; the Conservatives still got a bigger vote share there. Had Ukip chosen a leader other than Paul Nuttall, a serial liar and not even a convincing one, it might have been a double defeat.
So what is wrong? Yes, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership is disastrously unpopular with the general public, regardless of what his most fervent supporters believe. A toxic combination of universal name recognition and mass public disdain does not a Prime Minster make. But he is not going anywhere fast – twice elected, a change in the leadership will only come about if he attempts to resign in favour of a younger, more popular figure from the far left. Therefore, we need to look at what else is not working and fix what we can in the short term. And, contrary to what the far left believe, it has nothing to do with Blair or Mandelson, or a leadership election that ended six months ago, or “fake news” as Emily Thornberry would have it.
Firstly, a proper strategy on Brexit would help. The current dichotomy between anti-Brexit parties (such as the Lib Dems, Greens, some Labour figures and Ken Clarke) and the pro-Brexit bloc of Ukip, the Tories and the Labour MPs who followed the whip does not represent Britain. Most people do not want to leave the single market or the customs union, nor are most people driven by an all-consuming hatred of immigration. Whilst Theresa May pushes for the hardest Brexit possible, and the Lib Dems pretend that the last decade only happened to other people, Labour must fill its natural niche: the only true party of government.
A better approach would be to copy the “four tests” that kept Britain out of the Euro in the 2000s. As a party, we should refuse to vote for any deal that does not cut immigration, ensure maximum single market access, result in significant savings in contributions and receive the approval of the devolved assemblies. No party of government can refuse to accept the referendum result point blank. By opposing a hard Brexit whilst being prepared to assent to a good deal, we can cut straight to the heart of the national debate on the immigration and the economy – above all now that it is clear May is making a hash of the whole process.
Above all, a broader appeal is needed. There is no point in ditching a leader in the future, if only to choose a new figure with an equally uninspiring, undiverse and unpopular platform. Supporting defence investment and nuclear power would help in the Copelands of the future, since messages on the NHS and social care were not enough to bring a Labour victory. In Stoke Central, the apathy on the ground was obvious, with little engagement with any party. The left behind are not only concerned with immigration, as some would have us believe – and deserve to be listened to, not condescended as the far left would have it. More houses, better wages, job security (rather than the Tories’ gig economy) and an end to the crisis in education would all complement a better line on Brexit, and reconnect Labour with the many who feel alienated from both the party and politics in general.
Last week, two deserving candidates were let down. Not by their fellow party members, or their constituency parties – the ground operation in Stoke was one of the best organised and keen efforts I have ever seen – but by their leadership. Even without taking into account the weaknesses of the leadership and his media team, the platform championed by Corbyn and his allies is still too narrow and too out-of-touch to bring victory. To lose by-elections after seven years in opposition to a government party is catastrophic, especially when that government is as rudderless and ill-led as Theresa May’s. Corbyn’s refusal to take responsibility for this shows us more clearly than ever why the PLP is so keen to be rid of him. But all is not lost – Labour is a party full of talented individuals, enthusiastic members and the diversity of ideas that make for true resilience. More than anything else, what we have to learn from these by-elections is, more than anything else, how to dust ourselves down, learn from our mistakes, and win.
 Which is a very nice place, especially if you like hills and traditional desserts.