It’s a tricky business, writing about Labour’s fortunes. You can guess why: it’s best not to revisit the scene of the crime.
You see, a lot of us keyboard bashers have got it wrong over the past few years, never more consistently than on the subject of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party.
I have to take personal responsibility for my share of the failure. In October 2016 – which seems an awfully long time ago – I covered the ‘Kez v Jez’ battle that took place on the fringes of the Labour conference in Liverpool. In my column that week, I argued Corbyn showed contempt for Labour’s fortunes north of the border by fighting against internal reforms that gave Kezia Dugdale’s Scottish party greater autonomy.
On that count, I’ll defend my record. Corbyn got his man in the recent Scottish leadership election, and the response to Hugh Gaffney’s racial slurs has revealed what that means in practice. You can speculate as to whether either Dugdale or Anas Sarwar would have allowed Gaffney to escape suspension for his behaviour, but I doubt either of them would have left so much of the heavy lifting up to the UK leader’s office and party whips at Westminster.
The Scottish Labour leader should have taken the lead in disciplining a Scottish Labour MP, and in Richard Leonard, it’s clear Corbyn has a natural ally to run the branch office again. Both men deserve the awkward questions they are sure to face as they campaign together in Scotland this week.
I also wrote that Corbyn’s attempt to outflank the SNP on the left was doomed to failure, because the Scottish electorate was fragmented along so many fault lines.
I was wrong, which is why reading analysis of Labour’s current fortunes has given me the same queasy sensation as watching those YouTube videos of freerunners leaping between skyscrapers.
After a truce of little more than six months, commentators want to know why Labour isn’t miles ahead of the most dismal government in a generation. The question has new urgency thanks to three consecutive polls showing the Tories level pegging or pulling into a narrow lead – the first time that’s happened since the general election. The numbers break a long-held orthodoxy that opposition parties pull ahead of unpopular governments. That should be especially true of a government led by Theresa May and at war with itself on Brexit, to say nothing of the worst-ever NHS winter crisis. But orthodoxy was what got us in trouble in the first place. From bitter experience, I’m giving Corbyn’s Labour party the benefit of the doubt.
First of all, while there has undeniably been a slip in support since the heady days after last June’s election, when Labour were as desperate for a rematch as a journeyman boxer, the party is polling within the margin of error both of the Tories and of its own 2017 result. Labour remains as popular today as it was under Tony Blair beginning his second term. That bears remembering. I also take issue with the orthodoxy itself. The Tories’ unaccountably robust poll ratings look like they must be on some performance-enhancing drug – but that is what the distorting effect of Brexit amounts to.
By acting as the ultimate protest vote, the EU referendum removed the need for Ukip, now more relevant as a soap opera sub-plot than an electoral force. By comparison, between 2010 and 2015 when Labour enjoyed long periods on top of the polls, Ukip was grabbing 10% of the electorate from David Cameron’s Tories.
In fact, Brexit is probably boosting both parties as Remain and Leave voters alike hold their noses and back a side that doesn’t fully reflect their views. Cynical as it sounds, one theory doing the rounds at Westminster is that Labour are sticking as close as possible to the government’s hard Brexit policy in order to limit May’s room for manoeuvre, forcing her into a calamity that propels Corbyn into Downing Street. The next general election isn’t going to be fought on a familiar political landscape, though. Polling suggests that Labour could suffer if they go into the next election supporting Brexit – but the next election isn’t expected until after the UK leaves the EU. Whenever it is, the Tories are highly unlikely to fight it with May as their leader, and Labour would love to take on Boris Johnson or Jacob Rees-Mogg.
It is also worth remembering the circumstances that led us here. On the day the general election was called, May’s Tories were 21 points ahead. The high water mark came the following day, as newspaper front pages hailed her decision to “crush the saboteurs”, when another poll put them 24 points ahead of Labour, who commanded the support of less than quarter of the electorate.
In the space of two months, Corbyn transformed the way the public viewed him; more importantly, since then he has broadly sustained the perception that was formed during that general election campaign.
Beyond Brexit, he now largely commands the policy agenda, with the Tories bereft of a domestic programme. Witness the response to the collapse of Carillion or the East Coast rail contract, where the economic debates have played out on Labour’s terms. With a majority in every age bracket up to 55 in 2017, Labour is winning the demographic battle. Corbyn’s manifesto won support during the election campaign when broadcasters had to give it equal billing with the government’s. In 2022, with wage growth still stagnant and the NHS still struggling, who’s to say that won’t happen again?
A more moderate Labour leader might be doing better, but in that counterfactual the Tories could still have a majority and the UK might have stayed in the EU. Corbyn is hardly loved by all, and he is still feared by many. But the lesson from current evidence is that he is also accepted. With populist parties – which in many ways is what Corbyn’s Labour is – that acceptance can be the crucial step to power. Then again, that evidence could change and I could be wrong, again.