Thursday 10 October 2019

Can Labour Win a General Election?

Name things better than Prime Minister's Questions? Very well, there are infinity of riches more interesting and useful than this tedious simulacrum of accountability. Like speeches by Jeremy Corbyn, in which he set out Labour's own programme of government. If you thought the 2017 manifesto was a good thing, the next one is set on being an altogether more radical document: the green industrial revolution is in there, the scrapping of Universal Credit, house building, better public transport, nationalisation of the rail and utilities. It is all very good stuff, and might turn the heads of some sections of business given the disastrous Tory alternative. And yet we need to win the next election, and the polls aren't looking too clever at the moment. Can Labour win?

This is a question also asked by academic friend to centrism, Glen O'Hara. Unlike his Twitter stable mates, he does remember Labour were in the doldrums in early 2017 and yet surged into contention, giving the Tories a bloody nose and tipping them into an intensive crisis from which they are yet to emerge. What chance for a repeat? Well, no doubt much to his Corbyn-sceptic frustration, his argument concedes the possibility of a repeat.

Glen's argument follows a four-fold analysis. First, the number of 2017 Labour voters who don't know which way they're going to vote at the next election is smaller than it was for 2015 voters, and the number of 2017 Tory voters in a similar place is higher than 2015. Furthermore, thanks to the LibDem surge and research suggesting referendum identities are stronger than party identities, it's looking like this quarter will prove harder for Labour to squeeze. Second, while Corbyn's personal ratings are again poor there is some movement in a positive direction. Third, while Labour have some popular policies it also has some that are not - Glen cites the abolition of private schooling, and the big offers on the four-day week and more tax liabilities for the rich. Radical, but not reasonable or tangible - at least according to focus group work done by The Times. And lastly polling now, if anything, probably overstates Labour's share - most pollsters were way out on the EU elections, for instance.

Doom and gloom, gloom and doom then? Not quite. He concludes Labour's numbers are bound to recover in a general election, but we won't see as sharp a surge as last time. Yet this isn't necessarily as disastrous as you might suppose, especially when the Tory lead is not what May enjoyed in 2017, and Johnson is a much more polarising figure. Also, one thing Glen forgot to mention - if Johnson has to extend Article 50, despite expending all the rhetoric against, no matter what he says and does subsequently the Brexit Party are well placed to make the Tories pay.

Or are they really? Assuming the scenarios of a reworked version of Johnson's new proposals don't come to the Commons, and therefore doesn't win over the "ex"-Tories and Labour's own any-deal Brexit tendency and pass, there is a possibility we could see the Brexit Party perform as similarly and unevenly as per UKIP's 2015 outing. Then, you might recall they polled four million votes and though while they predominantly appealed to disgruntled Tory as opposed to Labour voters, more of the ex-Tories went Tory than ex-Labour went Labour. Yet, unexpectedly as far as punditry were concerned, Corbyn's Labour proved more adept at getting these sorts of voters back than centrist Labour ever did. Might the party's repositioning around second referendum undo this, while failing to satisfy those attracted to the LibDems on the basis of Jo Swinson's embrace of hard remain?

Yes, it might not work. Labour's best chance is to hammer its second referendum position, opposing it to the Tories' Trump-first Brexit. The galaxy brain of Dominic Cummings knows the potential power of populist insurgency and sharply polarised politics, has been helpful in telling the world what kind of campaign the Tories are planning on running, and so Labour have to play the same game. The LibDems can simply be excluded from the terms of these debates (indeed, Corbyn should only agree to TV debates with Johnson with this in mind) with Labour offering both the possibility of leaving or remaining vs the extremes of either. The second strand of Labour's strategy plays to its strengths - the Tories have nothing to offer outside of Brexit, and nor do the yellow party. Labour does, and without rolling back on policy commitments that might invite scepticism it, again, must emphasise its popular anti-cuts/renovate Britain positioning. The Tories are vulnerable on public services, economic policy, inequality, housing, and the general and diffuse sense of fairness. Labours temptation is to escape Brexit and believe this agenda will do the heavy lifting, when in fact both have to go hand in hand with one another. The other good reason for Labour going down the sharp, populist route on Brexit and policy allows for the stakes to be starkly drawn, and that's more likely to mobilise the membership. Two years of backbiting and parliamentary shenanigans has demobilised Corbynism to an extent, a result we're seeing in the turn out for trigger ballots, but a general election matters. Again, the party's subterranean strength as a mass body with members on every street, every workplace, every circle of friends and acquaintances can reach parts a Cummings social media campaign can only dream of.

The lesson of 2017 was how a sharp and insurgent strategy can work - it can capture the polarising mood. It can again. Clear and consistent messaging on Brexit, and clarity when we push our policies helps us create our space and make the political weather. By the end of the last campaign, May was forced into responding to Labour on Labour's terms. If we're adroit, savvy, disciplined, and committed to emphasising the sharp differences between us and them, history doesn't have to repeat as tragedy or farce. It can end in victory.

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Speedy said...

The 2017 campaign was another country.

May fucked up. Corbyn was still in his honeymoon phase (albeit a wet weekend in Bognor).

The choice was not between staying and no deal. The assumption remained there would be a negotiated settlement.

The Labour manifesto was far less like a hard left wishlist. Two years of Labour division over Brexit was yet to come.

This campaign will only be about Brexit. Unless Boris pulls off a deal by 31 Oct, in which case he is a shoe in for obvious reasons. Also the soft-Labour support behind a referendum will dissolve. In this scenario Labour's best hope is that no deal choice.

Interestingly, if Brexit is taken off the table, it will become both more a question of manifestos and who will negotiate trade. Maybe I'm a mug for following the polls, but I can't see that flying. Populism - either left or right - is a false choice. Brexit happened only because it was allowed to (by incompetent Tory leadership). When normal service has been resumed Labour's "Left populism" will not attract the support of the undecided centre. We'll see if I'm wrong.

Boffy said...

I've set out how Labour can win here.

But, it requires a recognition that 2017 was about Brexit, and he next GE will be even more about Brexit. Labour's centrist position triangulating between Tory Leave and Liberal Remain, will see it crushed.

Anonymous said...

I don't think the next election will be all about Brexit. Labour haven't colonised remain or leave like the Tories and Lib Dems have. They can't possibly win except on a platform of renovation and climate rescue, so it is their job to make sure that the debate becomes about that. It's imperative Labour supporters contribute to that.

Dipper said...

As a Tory, I'd say yes Corbyn can be PM of a coalition, no he cannot form a majority government.

There is clearly a feeling in the country that we need more public spending. It is easy for me to sit back in my relative luxury and point to low productivity growth, highest tax take as a percentage of GDP for over forty years, and state that we cannot afford extra public sector growth, that there isn't an economics case for deficit funding as we are not in a dip, that simply producing a list of things we'd like to spend more money on isn't politics, but quite a lot of the public will say so I'd rather the hope that things can get better under Corbyn than the despair of knowing that life ins't going to change much under the Tories.

It is likely that some Tory seats will go Lib Dem, so between Lub Dem and SNP that's possibly 100 seats that sit in the way of a majority.

The Tory strategy relies on a lot of voters switching to Johnson in Leaver Labour seats. I think that vote is very volatile and could easily some out for Labour if the campaign moves in the way of public services.

Obviously Corbyn will be a disaster as he has an O level in protest and no other discernable intellectual capability, and is a misanthropic tosser with a short fuse and no interpersonal skills, but that will sort itself out fairly quickly when he gets in power and a replacement will be elected.

James said...

If the Conservative and Unionist Party win the 2019 election the NHS will be handed over to American corporations and they will remodel it as a for profit insurance based healthcare system similar to the USA.

As an ex-pat living in the United States I assure you that that that will happen if the British public elect Boris Johnson and his party.