Labour: Maintaining Momentum

BY STEPHEN BOAKES

If any political pundit had predicted before the election that Corbyn’s Labour had a serious shot at power, they would have been met with derision. Nobody is laughing now.

Labour created shockwaves across the political sphere when it defied all odds of electoral wipe-out and achieved a stunning 40% of the popular vote, gaining a net 30 seats. With Corbynism having solidified its hold over the party, the naysayers have been temporarily silenced as Labour “unites” in celebration at not being wiped out. Despite this, Labour remains just as dis-united as before, as the party continues its struggle to find itself in the post-Blair era. The question now is how Labour can maintain the momentum of their victories during the tenure of this parliament and into the next election.

There is no question that Labour ran a good campaign, a popular campaign. The campaign was the antithesis of the Tory campaign. While the Tories ran a cold clinical campaign, removed from the Great British public, Labour ran a much warmer campaign, embracing the public, and declaring all-out war on the policy of austerity. Nobody realistically predicted that it would be Theresa May whose job would be under threat, over Jeremy Corbyn. The assumption was that Labour would be crushed, and perhaps Chuka Umunna or Yvette Cooper would be crowned leader to professionalise the party once again and take on the Tories, many forgetting, of course, the surge in membership who would be quick to crown any Corbynista who stood. At this point, John McDonnell, Angela Rayner and Emily Thornberry, backed by Unite leader Len McClusky, all have a much greater chance of succeeding Corbyn over the usual suspects, with Sadiq Khan and Andy Burnham having fled the Parliamentary Labour Party to become the Mayors of London and Manchester respectively. Here they hold greater independence and are “safe” from the influence of Corbynism. Increasingly side-lined, and with threats of deselection and no-platforming, moderates can only watch as Corbyn and the ‘hard left’ consolidate their authority over the party.

While questions and doubts have plagued Corbyn’s tenure as Labour leader, any chance for a leadership change has been buried by the results of the recent election. Perhaps to the horror of some Labour members and figures, who may be considering their future in the party. The left of the party, and Corbynism, now dominate the membership and have the electoral legitimacy to back them up, and while the majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party must be uneasy, they must for now put up and shut up. Silenced by the tidal wave of Corbynism that now loudly bangs on the doors of Number 10. No longer a joke, the prospect of Prime Minister Jeremy Corbyn is an ever-growing possibility.

While supporters can almost smell the tea-bags of Number 10, it is important not to exaggerate Labour’s prospects. While 40% is a strong result, the party remains 62 seats short of a majority. Indeed, Neil Kinnock outperformed Corbyn’s increase in seats in 1992 by 42 to 271 yet still resigned. Labour’s victory, is that they did not get wiped out and that Theresa May’s gamble fell flat. Considering the gains made from the Greens and Liberal Democrats, and the gains made from the collapse of the UKIP vote, one must consider the prospect that Labour’s good performance was as a coalition of anti-austerity sentiment, resentment of Tory governance, and, oddly, uniting both left-leaning Leavers with those disenfranchised by Brexit, rather than a necessary endorsement of Corbynism. Could it be that Labour performed well despite Corbyn, with voters having nowhere else to turn? Very few believed Corbyn had a shot at Number 10 after all. Could Corbyn’s Labour have peaked? Only time will tell.

Some pundits argue that Labour picked up swathes of disenfranchised Remain voters, ignoring that Corbynism and Europhilia are conflicting ideologies. If this is the case, then those who voted Labour in the hope of frustrating Brexit have set themselves up for disappointment. Proven when Corbyn did not back Chuka Umunna’s bid to keep Britain in the single market, going as far as to sack three shadow ministers who backed the amendment to the Queen’s Speech for their attempts to frustrate Brexit. While this commentator accepts some Labour MPs ran a local campaign of backing a soft Brexit, it is wishful thinking that nationally citizens voted Labour to prevent a hard Brexit. Passionate Remainers who viewed Brexit as the key issue had a home with only the Liberal Democrats and the Greens, whose vote share dropped in the election. Polls suggest that the clear majority of the electorate accept the Brexit result, including the “hard Brexit” that some describe, backed by the Conservatives and Corbyn’s Labour in the election.  But if there is truth in this, then passionate Remain voters will struggle going forward to support a Brexit-supporting Labour Party, and may be tempted to return to the Lib Dems and Greens going forward. The first crack in this coalition of 40%.

With Labour changing its Brexit stance more than one changes clothes, Labour’s opposition to the Great Repeal Bill, backing of a longer transition period, as well as Deputy Leader Tom Watson’s suggestions that Labour could back staying in the single market permanently, is an attempt to maintain this balance and reconcile Leave and Remain voters via a “soft Brexit”. Perhaps an attempt to fill the “soft Brexit” void, this will inevitably irk left-leaning Leave voters swayed by Labour’s hard-Brexit manifesto, whose frustrations may lead them into the arms of the Conservatives and UKIP going forward. While Labour’s obscure Brexit stance served them well in the election, Corbyn will struggle to maintain this balance as negotiations look to dominate the foreseeable future and expose deep-rooted divisions in the party, evidenced by Labour rebels backing the EU Withdrawal Bill despite instructions to vote down. Obscurity on Brexit can only serve Labour so far, before it soon becomes tiresome and irritating to an unforgiving electorate, which will be wary of entrusting Labour with vital negotiations and a post-Brexit Britain.

Labour’s decision to shift the election debate onto one about cuts to public services and austerity, rather than the Tory’s preferred issue of Brexit, was a wise one. Had Labour attempted to take on the Tories on Brexit, they would have reopened old divisions between the PLP and Corbynism, and undermined their campaign, perhaps even fulfilling the prophesied wipe-out. The strategy of declaring all-out war on austerity from police cuts aiding terror attacks to poor NHS funding enabling it to be hacked, from the “Dementia Tax” on social care to the public sector pay cap, inevitably sung to an electorate who have grown sick and tired of austerity, and was an effective campaign against a Conservative Party failing to defend its record on the economy. The Tories have been forced onto the back foot, and are already making concessions on public sector pay, the cost of May’s failed gamble.

Alongside the more traditional policies of renationalising public utilities, this inevitably halted any “Green surge” and won back a Wales that had become increasingly tired and frustrated with Labour rule. It called to the under 44s who had become increasingly disillusioned and in need of a party offering hope and change. A coalition of anti-austerity sentiment, and resentment of Tory governance, is a winning formula that is cutting through with the electorate. Whether it is enough to take power is another question, but it is enough to unite a deeply divided Labour Party and make gains against all odds.

If Labour wants to maintain their momentum during the tenure of this next parliament and into the next election, they must keep the issue of the day on austerity and domestic policy, where they perform strongest, and away from Brexit and foreign affairs, where deep-rooted divisions in the Party will consistently undermine and embarrass. By no means an easy task when Brexit negotiations look to be the key recurring issue until 2019 and beyond.

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