It’s been another stinker of a week for the Labour Party and for democracy, if you are the kind of person who cares about having a proper official opposition.
The bright spot was that Labour held on to Stoke, albeit with a reduced share of the vote, losing support to Ukip and the Conservatives – but a win’s a win for all that. Hats off to the excellent ground operation and to the team led by Labour MPs Ruth Smeeth and Jack Dromey. If Ukip had won Stoke, it would have sent a shiver across the political landscape, that the politics of fear and division could triumph. It would have emboldened a very nasty and dark strain of thinking. The Ukip political strategy is to ask people “what are you scared and anxious about and who do you blame for it?” and then helpfully suggest that it may be a “foreigner”. They are very, very good at scaremongering.
Ukip are not so good at providing solutions and it was heartening that the people of Stoke saw through that, despite the fact that it was the Brexit capital of Britain. The fact that Paul Nuttall became a ludicrous character based on his somewhat loose claims didn’t help either. I think we would all like to congratulate Paul on his stunning success at the Oscars for best supporting actress in Hidden Figures.
But Stoke was the equivalent of a Band-Aid over an axe wound for the Labour Party. Copeland was an absolute disaster. This was a seat that Labour had held since the 1930s. It has withstood war, depression, recession and Michael Foot. But it couldn’t withstand Jeremy Corbyn.
Yes, there’s a whopping great nuclear power plant at Sellafield but it wasn’t just Corbyn’s well-known opposition to nuclear itself which lost the seat. It became the proof point they were looking for. It was the man himself. His name came up on the doorstep and people felt they didn’t connect with him. They didn’t get him and felt he didn’t get them.
As I said in my column last week, there should not be a coup because the members would still back him, and there will not be one. The parliamentary Labour Party accept his mandate. So while there’s no question of a contest, there is a moral question for the man himself about whether in his heart of hearts he is doing a good job for the Labour Party. Is he taking us closer to power or is he taking us on a downward spiral to electoral disaster? I think we all know the answer to that. If Jeremy was this kindly, decent man, he would do the right thing and step aside to give someone else a chance to at least try and stem the loss of support. I think any new Labour leader would still struggle against Theresa May, who is riding high in the polls, but they could try and at least cauterise the electoral haemorrhage.
I’m the first to admit that the problems are not all the fault of Corbyn. The electoral wipeout we saw in Scotland was on the watch of my old boss Ed Miliband, although the causes were deep and historic – we took our support in Scotland for granted and we paid a heavy price. But Corbyn is now the leader, and on his watch things are in decline and looking very bleak in Westminster and in Scotland. His brand is so negative, it makes it hard for Kezia Dugdale to find the space to make the progress she needs. Her strategy seems to be to work around him and to play the long game, looking ahead to the 2021 Scottish parliament elections.
Depsite all the gloom, there is no sign that Corbyn and his coterie of advisers will do the right thing and step aside or learn the lessons from Copeland. So we are locked in a loveless, desperately difficult situation. The Labour Party is at an impasse. The leadership is doubling down on Corbyn and blaming anyone else for what’s happened. It’s known as the ABC strategy: ‘Anyone But Corbyn. It was Tony Blair’s fault.’ Now I was critical of Blair’s speech but given that Stoke was the biggest Leave constituency in Britain, I can’t see how Blair’s Remain speech can be to blame. Then poor Cat Smith, who is a really nice, bright, up-and-coming MP, was sent on the airwaves with a briefing line that would have made Sean Spicer blush. She told us that losing Copeland by 2000 votes was actually a massive success because we were trailing around 18 per cent in the polls. Then we had John McDonnell blame it all on a fictitious “soft coup” (which sounds like a nice dessert) in a blog he wrote which he then seemed to suggest was fake news. It’s a sad, sorry mess.
The truth is that Corbyn has every right to lead the party to the General Election unless he decides to go.
But the profound existential question at the heart of Labour’s woes is who does it stand for any more? Is it the Northern working-class voters who are more socially conservative, patriotic and anxious about immigration? Or is it the metropolitan middle-class voters who are angry about all the people who voted to Leave the EU because of immigration. Can Labour represent both? It’s a very difficult circle to square and makes you have some admiration for the electoral coalition that Tony Blair brought together in the run-up to 1997 – despite what you think of his record and legacy as Prime Minister.
Labour has to find some way to get its act together. I want to have some faith that we can find a way through. We have to. A one-party state is not healthy and does not deliver good government. Many working-class voters in England are turning towards Theresa May as they think she’s the only grown-up in politics right now despite the fact there is a crisis in the NHS, the schools budget is about to be cut for the first time in 20 years and there are unfair cuts to disability benefits on the horizon. What summed up British politics for me was listening to a guy called Neil from Sheffield who called into the excellent James O’Brien’s LBC show and basically said it was like asking someone to make a choice about jumping off a cliff. With May, you would break your leg. With Corbyn, there was a good chance you might not make it.
For the sake of progressive politics, democracy and the country, Labour has got to get a grip.