Labour’s narrow victory at Stoke and disastrous loss at Copeland is the first definitive sign of just how much Labour is struggling under Jeremy Corbyn. In the aftermath, it might be easy for some to dismiss the loss at Copeland as emblematic of current polling, as though that somehow justifies the loss. Of course, that raises the question of why Labour is so far behind in the polls to begin with. Here are 5 lessons to be drawn from the recent by-elections.
1. Copeland is a disaster. Make no bones about it. I saw Cat Smith, Shadow Minister for Voter Engagement and Youth Affairs, trying to make some attempt at explaining the historic closeness of results in Copeland. Despite it being Labour, it has generally always had narrow margins of victory. Unfortunately, while this is true, it is distracting from the wider issue that Labour lost it this time. In 2010, Labour’s loss at the election was described as the biggest in its history, only then for 2015 to see further decline. Both times Labour held Copeland. What does it say now if, as is suspected, people in the seat were actively voting against Corbyn? It signifies just how badly Labour is now doing. To put in context as well, Michael Foot was gone after four years, and it was another 14 before a Labour government. At this point, we’ll have had at least 10 years of a Tory led government by 2020, and Labour could be so far down in the polls to be insignificant in terms of parliamentary power. A quarter of century of Tory rule is growing more plausible.
2. Stoke flatters Labour. Yes, UKIP’s efforts were undermined by poor organisation, and a poor candidate (I cannot see how the Hillsborough fiasco could have done anything other than ruined Nuttal’s chances). However, this shouldn’t allow Labour to think all is well in it’s heartlands. For a start, Labour have found how easy it is when your opposition is so weak. Quite the situation the Tories are in at the moment nationally. I do wonder what might have happened with a more organised UKIP campaign, or perhaps a candidate not so Trump like in nature. Labour had a central campaign message – the NHS – while UKIP had nothing. That doesn’t mean that people found Labour’s message enticing, it’s simply that when faced with a consistent political message, and a chaotic inconsistent mess, people will always pick the most consistent. It’s why the Tories tend to dominate so well compared to Labour. Their messaging is much less nuanced than Labours, and they tend to put their policies in terms of what they will do for you, the voter. Labour’s tend to be more abstract and less direct – they look like they’re telling you what they will do for everyone else, but not YOU. Labour need to learn this lesson and not draw a vain belief that the NHS campaign is the right one. As Copeland showed, people are willing to sacrifice the NHS if they are receiving a more direct form of campaigning.
3. Labour is descending into nihilism, particularly from the far left and newer recruits. Corbyn’s lack of humility about the Copeland result, unwilling to accept responsibility, signifies a Prima facie resolve from Labour, to struggle on even when faced with defeat. In reality, it is defeatism that has turned into nihilism. Faced with no prospect of victory, Corbyn and his cult like following have simply given up and opted for masking their dismay behind a “we will soldier on”. It’s a lie. Instead of trying to improve the situation, they will move ever towards more extreme policies, which are designed to put people off, further justifying the self-destructive passage that may end Labour for generations.
We can see something of this in terms of policy. All Labour seems to be these days is an NHS swan song. Don’t get me wrong, I am horrified by what the Tories are doing and can do further to the NHS. People are literally dying as a result. It’s easy to see why Labour has a particular focus. However, it’s not the only policy that matters and people have other interests. Consider the example of a group of friends that meet up regularly. One of them only ever talks about one thing, the state of the NHS. At first the friends tolerate this, because they are friends and they are sympathetic to the situation. However, as time goes on, the other friends realise this all this person talks about. In fact, this friend doesn’t appear interested in the rest of them. At first they make excuses for leaving early, but in the end they simply stop inviting that friend. That is where Labour are now. A party sounding a one track record that’s scratched.
Why won’t Labour talk about other policies effectively? Well, it’s mainly to do a lack of creativity. Corbyn doesn’t know what to do about the various ‘wicked problems’ the UK faces. Instead of accepting his own inadequacy, he merely sticks to the same topic to distract. Again it is nihilistic – there is no hope of victory, therefore the only course is one of defeat.
4. Corbyn is a really, really poor leader. I don’t know how many times I’ve reflected on this in my blog, but Corbyn is displaying fewer and fewer credentials for being a representative of anything. He rather stupidly referred to how the people of Copeland have been let down by the establishment, after Labour have been representing that seat for over 50 years.
He failed to take any responsibility for Copeland. When asked by a reporter if he ever looked in the mirror and asked if he was responsible, Corbyn answered “No, thank you for your question.” What he should have said is something like, “Obviously I am disappointed by the result in Copeland. I don’t think it represents the hard work we put in, but it clearly shows that there is a gap between our policies and the people we are pledged to represent. We need to examine closely why that has occurred and how we can work to persuade more people to vote Labour. As leader though, I clearly have to take responsibility for the result, and to learn from this etc.”
There are those that blame the MP’s. In some measure, the MP’s are responsible. For a start, those imbeciles that nominated Corbyn two years ago. They are directly responsible for Labour’s current collapse. Then there are the rebels. Truth is, last year, they shot too high and missed. They lost, and Corbyn became stronger than ever, as a parasite does by draining its host. Of course, drain too much and the host dies, and the parasite with it. Am I calling Corbyn a parasite? Yes, yes I am.
Ultimately though, Corbyn is responsible for the conduct of the MP’s. To quote Tywin Lannister, “When soldiers lack discipline, the fault lies with their commander.” The MP’s lack discipline, because Corbyn does not, and cannot, lead. Maybe he’s realised this, and hoping John McDonnell, equally inept, can manage to get the rules changed to get a better chance of nomination, and so resign then. Such a thing would be an even bigger disaster. Corbyn is disliked, but McDonnell is dispised nationally.
5. Extra members doesn’t equal extra campaigners. Labour is sitting somewhere around 500,000 members at the moment, quite remarkable. However, this isn’t turning into extra campaigners. In a seat like Copeland, there should have been a small army of Labour campaigners out there, getting the message out. Instead, numbers of volunteers were measured in the hundreds, not thousands. Where are all the Momentum lackies? Too busy fighting each other in an inevitable internal collapse of the far left? It’s easy to highlight Corbyn’s massed supporters, but in practical terms they have delivered nothing.
So where does this all leave Labour? Even if they did get rid of Corbyn, I wonder if they have the means and the resolve to face up to the scale of the challenge. There needs to be a greater reflection within the party about what they actually want and how they intend to promote it. Challenging the economic wisdom of the time has to be done in such a way that people will feel that they will benefit from it. Nationalising services has to be the means to a particular end, not the end of every means. In other words, using nationalisation as a solution where appropriate, not for every issue. People need persuading of its validity before accepting it wholesale.
The Labour Party needs something radical to shift perceptions, to show that it revolutionise without appearing to be randomly revolutionary. People are genuinely worried about the ramifications of Brexit, for or against, and the wider implications of a failing trust in the free market system. The scale of the challenge of climate change is immense, and the issue of immigration and globalisation reminds unresolved. What are Labour’s solutions and alternatives to these problems? And how can they be articulated in such a way that will deliver public support. The party may have many people in its ranks capable of meeting this challenge, but Jeremy Corbyn is most definitely not one of them. It’s time for him to go, and it’s time for Labour to start meeting the challenges the UK faces.