2017 might not be the recovery progressives were hoping for but it could show that a corner has been turned
Not only was 2016 was one of the lowest troughs for the centre-left both here and abroad, there was plenty to suggest a nadir has not yet been reached. Is 2017 a write-off already?
There is little in the way of obvious political set-pieces to measure success for Labour in the coming year. Next May’s council elections will take place in more traditional Conservative areas, and that will be the reason given for Labour’s failure to make ground. The first metro mayor elections, on the other hand, are in Labour heartlands that we should win at a canter.
All will be overshadowed by Brexit, on which Labour is at risk of both alienating its core base and, increasingly, utter irrelevance. That combination has led many in the higher echelons of the party to conclude that Theresa May will seek to call an early election. Indeed, they are convinced.
Activists were initially told to prepare for a snap election by campaigns chief Jon Trickett back in July before being put on ‘election footing’ by Jeremy Corbyn in September, a warning reiterated by Trickett once again last month. But still the party looks in no shape to actually fight one. Put aside the inability to convince even a fifth of Labour MPs that he should carry on as leader or the consistently woeful polling, even Corbyn’s own strident supporters do not appear particularly ready: Momentum has a conference lined up in what could be the weeks running up to short campaign.
At the moment, most analysis is split on whether a spring 2017 election would be Labour’s worst result since 1931 or merely 1935. Whether such a defeat would lead to change at the top remains a real doubt, however. The margin which Corbyn won his re-election in the summer appeared to temporarily galvanise the leader and shored up his position. Emboldened by the contest, his allies now believe he has secured his place long-term and soon turned their attention to extending their power in the party.
However, there is some reason for measured optimism in the year ahead – or, at least, to hesitate from complete despair.
What 2016 did deliver was the groundwork from which to build on in future, and to prevent further losses in the short-term. Humble aims, perhaps, but important nonetheless. A solid base of moderates organising at local levels all around the country means that while Labour may appear ready for the knackers’ yard, underneath the bonnet the party machine can still run.
The National Policy Forum, regional committees, constituency parties and annual conference have all seen varying elements of success in staving off threats from the hard left. These wins are small alone, and they are temporary, but they mean that the vast majority of pre-2015 members who did not vote for Corbyn in the summer remain strongly represented.
Those victories have so far acted as a bulwark against a radical overhaul of the party, which would have diminished long-term members’ voices even further. Attempts to focus on internal reforms that hand more power to Corbyn’s acolytes, including increasing the number of national, rather than regional, constituency representatives on the National Executive Committee and introducing e-balloting for policy decisions, have been blocked. Deselections, still high on the Corbynista wishlist, seem less likely.
There was even a glimmer of hope to be found for the future in last summer’s contest. The number of people who voted for Owen Smith, 190,000, was equal to the size of the party under Ed Miliband – which itself was a 15-year membership peak – and far larger than any other British political party. That is a phenomenal number. The centre-left has stuck together.
Meanwhile, the inevitable hard-left splits are beginning to show. Dissent from the Labour Representation Committee and Trotskyist Alliance for Workers’ Liberty group over Momentum’s direction is growing louder.
This is part of a wider issue of how independent Corbynism should be of Corbyn. Most supporters appear to be solely attached to the personality of Corbyn rather than adherents of cohesive ideology. Each far-left faction can project onto him what they want and claim to be the true holders of the Corbynista flame. The man himself cannot weigh in on the internal wranglings himself, as it would break his fragile and fractured coalition. Unlike during the European Union referendum, or when a Labour MP is threatened with deselection, where his silences imply a point of view, here it leaves real doubt and creates a vacuum in which the hard-left will gladly create chaos for itself.
But that attachment to the man, rather than the ideas, shows why this year’s leadership challenge failed; Smith’s ‘Corbynism without the Corbyn’ pitch was simply not what anyone wanted. With no one able take along all his sections of support, the possibility of a true heir to Corbyn diminishes. Ambitious shadow cabinet ministers Clive Lewis, Nia Griffith and Angela Rayner are already starting to push for greater autonomy.
That gives progressives in the parliamentary party more reason to continue to build ideas and seek to hold the government to account independently of the frontbench. Many of those who initially chose to serve now see shadow ministerial positions as a barrier to formulating good ideas, with their previous attempts bogged down by the mess in the official opposition. The backbenches are now the most fertile ground for big ideas.
There looks to be little hope for a social democratic comeback at the polls in France, Germany or the Netherlands in the next 12 months, but May remains hesitant to call an election. No, 2017 may not bring the success that might once have been wished for, but 2016 shows progressives can stand our ground. If it felt like the bottom, that may be because it was. We might just have started on the road back.
Conor Pope is deputy editor of Progress
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