A New Year, and Old Woes for Labour.

Ah, 2017. The smell of a fresh new year of politics. As the magnificent Nina Simone did sing, “it’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life”. She was feeling good. The same cannot be said for the British Labour party.

Yesterday marked three days into the New Year, but also yet another reminder of the ongoing problems within and outside of the party. For apparently British Labour has almost no chance of winning a majority at the next general election, and so must try to gain enough seats to form a centre-Left coalition with other parties, according to analysis by a think tank. The general summary of British Labour is that the party is “too weak” to win a general election on its own.

The Fabian Society, which has close links to British Labour (and is strongly associated with the New Labour movement led by Tony Blair), warned the party was on course to win fewer than 200 seats for the first time since 1935. It currently has 231. The report suggests Labour could gain 30 seats by aligning with centre-left parties, such as the Liberal Democrats, at the next election. Moreover, based on current opinion polls, the total could fall as low as 140 because Labour traditionally does worse than its mid-term polling suggests, the report added. The report, aptly named ‘Stuck: How Labour is too weak to win, and too strong to die‘ also cited the personal unpopularity of Jeremy Corbyn with potential Labour voters, and a “muffled” approach to Brexit. (I personally think “muffled” is a very diplomatic summary of the party’s Brexit stance; I am sure I could refer to it in a more blunt manner).

Andrew Harrop, the Fabian Society’s General Secretary, described the finding that the party could not win a general election outright as being a “pretty terrifying thought” for most Labour supporters. Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme, Mr Harrop said:

“The 2015 election led to a huge meltdown in Scottish support and the rise of the SNP and that’s stopping Labour making progress…”

Side note: I pulled an all-nighter to watch the 2015 election results, and watching the virtual extinction of the Labour party in Scotland vividly stands out in my memory from that night.

The Fabian Society’s analysis of polling and election data suggests that the Labour Party is likely to win between 140 and 200 big city and ex-industrial constituencies on as little as 20 per cent of the vote, which would be a further retreat from the 231 seats it currently holds.Moreover, the party must position itself in the centre-ground, as it is losing as many votes to the pro-EU Liberal Democrats as UKIP and the Conservatives, meaning it must find a way to appeal to both Remain and Leave voters in a political landscape now fractured and defined by Brexit.

But there is a positive note for the party – the ‘too strong to die’ section of the report’s title. The “firebreak” of the UK’s first-past-the-post electoral system means it will still have a platform on which to rebuild. In addition, even with the party’s continuously poor performance in the polls, it appears very unlikely it could be replaced as the Official Opposition.

Some key points to take away from the report:

  • Only over a half of those who voted Labour in 2015 say they support the party today. The report suggests the starting point for a Labour comeback must be to target and connect with these voters.
  • Labour’s current poll rating (27%-28%) is slightly below its share of the vote at the 2010 general election. But if this performance was repeated at the next election, after the decline of support in Scotland, the party would win fewer than 200 seats, around 40 fewer than in 2015, and 70 fewer than in 2010.
  • The threat posed by UKIP is being “exaggerated.” Even if UKIP and Kabour were tied on votes cast, the smaller arty would win fewer votes. The report notes that since 2015, UKIP has actually lost twice as many votes to the Conservatives as it gained from Labour.
  • There is no quick and easy fix to the Brexit problem in the party. Since 2015, Labour has lost as many votes to the Liberal Democrats as it has to the two right-wing, Europsceptic parties (Conservatives and UKIP) combined. But overall, the party has lost four times as many votes from Leave supporters as Remain supporters. Therefore, the party needs to retain those who supported Remain, and regain those who supported Leave. Whilst the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats are both attracting new support from one particular camp (Leave and Remain respectively), Labour has the awkward task of having to reach out to voters in both camps, and succeed in promising to represent both.
  • Just like for the US Democrats, winning the popular vote is not enough
    for Labour. To win a majority of one, Labour needs to beat the Conservatives by a higer margin than it achieved in 2001. Oh, and if that wasn’t steep enough, the party also has to secure over 3 million more votes than the Conservatives. (No wonder the report says, “even before Labour’s current problems, this was unlikely. It is currently unthinkable.”
  • If the above appears too difficult to achieve, the report states “a far more plausible goal” is that the party needs to gain only an additional 30 seats for it to be able to govern in partnership with other centre-left parties.
  • The proposed boundary changes are a distraction given Labour’s other problems. It is just as hard to win a majority under the old boundaries as the proposed new ones. In many possible election scenarios, the risk of massloss is slight, perhaps only a handful of seats.
In sum: the Labour Party is too weak to win the next election whether it takes place in 2017 or 2020. But it is also too strong to be displaced as the UK’s main party of opposition. However, achieving an English majority in terms of seats in the Commons is also much more achievable than a UK majority. This is because of the party’s performance in Scotland, which seems unlikely to change, and also because it does not contest seats in Northern Ireland. (It could, however, rely upon its sister labour party in the Northern Irish SDLP should it require it for a coalition). Labour seemingly must prepare itself to work in partnership, in an era of quasi- federal, multi-party politics. Moreover, it must be prepared to adopt a stable, fixed position on Brexit. Finally, the propossed new constituency boundaries should be considered a minor factor when thinking about Labour’s preferred timing for the next general election.

But this is all easier said than done.

Labour is currently split on Brexit. It is, in particular, split over freedom of movement: the shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union has recently said the system must change, just days after party leader Jeremy Corbyn said it must remain as it is.

Sir Keir Starmer called for a “fundamental rethink” of free movement rules as he claimed that the party is agreed when the UK withdraws from the EU, its immigration system must change. But it followed Mr Corbyn’s confirmation that he backs free movement of people, despite the Brexit vote. And to top it all off, whilst Jeremy Corbyn has questioned the feasibility of a system which people could only immigrate to the UK if they had secured employment, Sir Keir has suggested that immigration reform could include a policy which requires immigrants to have acquired a job.

And as for the poll ratings… On the first day of 2017, one of Mr Corbyn’s allies, Unite boss Len McCluskey, suggested the Labour leader could step down if the party’s poll ratings fail to improve, describing them as “awful”. But he later tweeted his “full support”, describing Mr Corbyn as a “genuine, decent man fighting for a fairer Britain”.

So, whilst Jeremy Corbyn has suggested Labour would support a call for an early general election, it is clear that the party could really do without it. Labour needs to undergo some soul-searching, and seek unity within the PLP and grassroots movements. It also needs to understand and accept that whilst Mr Corbyn is popular among registered party supporters, the same cannot be said for all potential Labour voters. Finally, it simply must adopt a common line on key issues. It must serve as an alternative government to the Conservatives, which requires unity and a common message. It cannot be an opposiiton within an opposition.

The Fabian Society’s report simply pointed out the reality of the party’s situation and potential future. It said the obvious. Labour must now listen, and act accordingly.






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