Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Corbyn must get out of first gear

Jeremy Corbyn needs to get out in Labour gain territories if he is serious about winning the general election, argues Progress director Richard Angell

More effort was put into defending a terrible set of election results for Labour this weekend than was put in actually getting out Labour’s message pre-local elections. Nothing makes this point clearer than Jeremy Corbyn holding events in Croydon and Bedford, two places that did not have councillors or mayors up for election. He then spent polling day in David Cameron’s former constituency of Witney, a safe Tory area in Oxfordshire, suggesting the leadership is less interested in power across the country than shoring up its support base within the party. 

John McDonnell set the tone on Friday morning and argued on the Today programme that Labour had avoided ‘wipeout’. With the full results now in, that looks an optimistic assessment. 

The results for Jeremy Corbyn were worse than under Jeremy Corbyn 2016: Labour won the popular vote by double digit leads in both the West Midlands and Tees Valley 12 months ago. This year, both mayoral elections – covering exactly the same voters in Labour heartlands – went Tory. 

The results are worse than Ed Miliband did throughout his time as leader of the opposition: Labour came third in Scotland for the second year running – losing Glasgow council, held by the party for 40 years, in the process.  

They are worse than 2009 under Gordon Brown when Labour lost 291 councillors, when the same counties were on the ballot; last Thursday Labour lost 382 hard working councillors. 

It was worse than Neil Kinnock and every single one of the 18 years in opposition during the 1980s. Labour lost Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Lancashire – three counties never lost during opposition before and only ever lost in the fag ends of tired Labour governments: 1977 and 2009. 

He did worse than Michael Foot. Thursday’s Labour’s vote share was calculated at 27 per cent. That is worse that Miliband in 2015 (30.4 per cent), Brown in 2010 (29 per cent) and Foot in 1983 (27.6 per cent). Theresa May goes into this general election further ahead in the local elections than Margaret Thatcher was in both 1983 and 1987. We all know what followed. 

In fact it was worse than every leader of the opposition ever. This is the first time an opposition party has lost councillors three elections in a row.  

This is just a disaster for Labour – and those who need a Labour government. 

Whether it was McDonnell, or his partners in crime Diane Abbott, Barry Gardiner and Emily Thornberry, frontbenchers went on television to say it was ‘mixed’. It was far from it. Excuses were trotted out – about the United Kingdom Independence party vote collapsing to the Tories. But this was not a given. McDonnell himself did a video attempting to appeal to these voters – it clearly had the opposite effect. 

So what can be done? It is time for the campaign to get out of its lacklustre first gear. Corbyn told the BBC ‘campaigning works’, so get on with it. Stop the rallies in safe seats. It does not matter if big majorities are mounted up in Labour held seats – you have to win more seats to win power.  

Corbyn must spend his time in Labour gain territories. Thurrock, Bury North, Plymouth Moorview and the like. His re-election campaign promised rallies in places like Milton Keynes, not Leicester, Poplar and central Manchester. It is telling that when his close allies applied to be general election candidates, it was invariably in safe Labour seats rather than ones we would be about to win if a sweep to victory was imminent. 

In the aforementioned Radio 4 morning show, the shadow chancellor said: ‘This issue about Jeremy Corbyn: in the very place he campaigned … we have held on to it.‘ But this is not true.  

Corbyn launched the campaign in Nottinghamshire: we lost the county. He went to Derbyshire: same result. He went to the West Midlands: the mayoralty was lost. He went to Harlow: where the only seats we lost in the whole of Essex were. He went to Cardiff, a city that defied the odds and kept a Labour council. However, the Labour leader visited Whitchurch Common, and the only place in Cardiff that Labour lost was Whitchurch & Tomgwynlais ward where all four councillors were wiped out. 

Now McDonnell has taken charge of the campaign it is time for him to prove me, and his critics, wrong. We are told Corbyn is an asset – prove it. 

This election will not be judged on ‘vote share‘ but seats. Kinnock only ever took us in one direction – net gains. Even then Corbyn attempted a ‘PLP coup’ get his hero Tony Benn a second shot at the leadership. 

If the Corbyn-McDonnell co-leadership does not win there is one else to blame for the Tory landslide that looks so likely – if, of course, the polls and historical prescience, are correct. 


Richard Angell is director of Progress and organised the Labour three seats challenge that takes activists to marginal seats – join the next one on Saturday


Credit: Richard Gardner


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Richard Angell

is director of Progress


  • Good to see your usual whole-hearted support for your elected leader, Richard. I wonder if I could ask you a couple of questions. First, given that Corbyn is leading Labour, do you hope he wins the election? Second, if he loses the election, do you think his PLP opponents bear any responsibility whatsoever? I look forward to your answers.

  • For once and unusually I find myself in agreement with your article. To launch the manifesto then let yourself be ambushed by a ‘when did you stop beating your wife’ question takes a rare talent. Corbyn’s team should have prepped him for this type of question on leaving the EU.
    So instead of the media leading on the contents of the Manifesto all we hear of is Corbyn creating confusion – and not for the first time. And it opens up the Tory attack on his ability to lead negotiations over exit. Instead we have the brittle and inconsistent May made to appear ‘strong and stable’ because she sticks to the script and doesn’t worry about coherence.

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