Euan McColm: Labour oblivious to ballot box oblivion

I listened to shadow chancellor John McDonnell with a mixture of astonishment and contempt after Labour's defeat in the Copeland by-election on Thursday. He maintained a straight face while blaming the result on interventions by former prime minister Tony Blair and his fellow architect of New Labour, Peter Mandelson.

Labour candidate Gillian Troughton, right, looks on as the Conservatives Trudy Harrison speaks after winning the Copeland by-election. Picture: Leon Neal/Getty
Labour candidate Gillian Troughton, right, looks on as the Conservatives Trudy Harrison speaks after winning the Copeland by-election. Picture: Leon Neal/Getty

Of course, the Tory victory in a seat Labour has held for decades was nothing to do with the public’s disdain for opposition leader, Jeremy Corbyn. Instead, voters had looked at the divided Labour Party and thought better of offering their support.

Perhaps McDonnell really believed what he was saying. If so, then Labour’s dwindling band of supporters may comfort themselves that the shadow chancellor is more idiot than cynic.

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If it was true that voters had been repulsed by the pro-EU proclamations of Blair and Mandelson, surely Labour would not have won the Stoke-on-Trent Central by-election, also held on Thursday. Stoke was vehemently pro-Leave in last year’s EU referendum and yet Labour managed to hold off a challenge from Ukip’s recently elected leader, Paul Nuttall. He saw his campaign crumble after it was revealed that – contrary to claims on his website – he did not lose close friends in the Hillsborough disaster. It does not take a great leap of the imagination to conclude that Nuttall’s use of the 1989 disaster, in which 96 football fans died, was at the root of his defeat.

Fortunately, in the world of the Corbynistas, there is no need to ponder such things. Jeremy was responsible for the Stoke victory and Blair was responsible for the Copeland defeat. 
Got that?

The Labour Party was in poor health long before Corbyn was elected leader in 2015. His predecessor, Ed Miliband, had a disastrous five years in charge and handed on a party that had lost confidence and focus.

But while Miliband might have played his part in bringing Labour low, it is Corbyn and his cronies from the unreconstructed left who have killed it.

In public, even Labour MPs sceptical about Corbyn will talk of the need to rebuild and renew but, in private, a growing number now conclude that the party is over; Labour is no longer fit for purpose and there’s to be no Lazarus-like resurrection.

I’ve been banging a particular drum recently: after the EU referendum, rather than trying to woo back Labour voters who had backed Remain, the party should have declared itself the champion of the defeated Remainers. I base this view on what happened to Scottish Labour after the 2014 independence referendum when the party thought it could win back former supporters who’d voted Yes.

Scottish Labour proceeded to try to be all things to all people and ended up meaning nothing to just about everyone. The minority of Scottish Labour voters who believed in Scottish independence had found a new home in the SNP. Rather than accepting this painful truth, senior party figures reckoned that the suggestion it might support independence in the future would be enough to restore that broken relationship.

In concentrating its energy on trying to bring back voters who now view Labour with contempt, the party left No voters vulnerable to the overtures of vehemently pro-Union Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson.

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Last year, Scottish Labour paid a heavy price for this strategic mistake and came third – behind the Tories – in the Holyrood elections. Labour at a UK level has made the same mistake the party made in Scotland: it has tried to be all things to all people and ended up being less appealing to both Leavers and Remainers.

I was heartened last week to hear the nation’s favourite psephologist, Professor John Curtice, give credence to my theory. Poll after poll, he said, showed that Labour was losing support among Remainers to the Liberal Democrats.

Corbyn and his team may have thought they could win back voters who’d responded to Ukip’s anti-EU message but all they have achieved is to push away some of those who had been willing to stick with the party.

It is this catastrophic failure to understand the changed nature of UK politics that has sealed Labour’s fate. Corbyn and his allies might still insist that a return to the left-wing politics of the party’s unsuccessful past is the answer to its electoral problems but, back in the real world, voters are no longer guided by the left-v-right arguments that once characterised our politics.

The modern tradition of David Miliband – defeated in the 2010 leadership election by younger brother Ed – popping up when things go wrong for Labour played out as we could have predicted. He said he was deeply concerned about his party’s future. We were not, he said, watching a re-run of the politics of the 1980s and it was essential for Labour to grasp the fundamental change in our politics.

Miliband – now working for a charity in the USA – went on to say that he would not rule out a return to frontline politics in the future.

He was correct to identify that political fault lines have shifted but I cannot see how, having failed to grasp this truth, Labour – even under a new leader – can find its way back to relevance.

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The sharp surge in support for French presidential hopeful Emmanuel Macron shows that there is a vote out there for politicians who promote an open, inclusive, centrist agenda. In just 10 months, Macron’s “En Marche!” movement has become a serious player in Gallic politics.

It’s time, now, for a British political party that espouses the same unambiguously pro-European message.

Labour should have romped to victory in both by-elections on Thursday. Instead, it lost one to the Tories and held the second because Ukip’s man made such a mess of his campaign. Those allies of Jeremy Corbyn who say he can turn a united Labour into a winning machine miss the point that their party is no longer relevant to 21st century politics.

If David Miliband is considering a return to the political stage then he should be thinking about forming a new party rather than trying to resurrect a political corpse.