Labour has the opportunity to change things despite being out of government – but only if it makes use of every constitutional mechanism within its power, writes Progress deputy editor Conor Pope
Jeremy Corbyn’s critics inside the Labour party should not have been surprised that he had a good general election campaign. After strolling to victory in two consecutive leadership contests, it should be fairly clear by now that he is a pretty good campaigner when he wants to be.
That was one reason why, at the beginning of the campaign, I was certain the polls would narrow from the dire position we were in following the local elections. But looking at the lost mayoralties in Teeside, the Midlands and west of England, and the abysmal result in Glasgow, I did not suspect that we would get as high as 40 per cent.
Inside the Labour party, expectations seem high that another election will be forthcoming. The excitement is palpable. The Tories are both on the run and on the edge; an unsustainable state of affairs. As Theresa May’s unpopularity soars, Corbyn’s ratings edge forward. Victory by Christmas is the mentality among the grassroots, start measuring the curtains in No 10. Move aside Larry the cat, El Gato is here to discourage mice with a new approach to foreign policy!
But what we know about precarious minority governments is that they tend to cling on.
The lesson May will have learned from all this is that it is better to ‘just about manage’ with what she has got than risk an election, no matter how tough it is. Even if she were to be shuffled aside to make way for a full-throated ‘Leaver’, the turbulence of public opinion makes another snap election a perilous proposition.
So the battleground shifts from the country at large to the ‘usual channels’. Labour’s strategy for victories moves away from swings seats and to parliamentary procedure. That seven-week short campaign intensity – which Labour managed so well – must now be applied on a day-to-day basis in Westminster.
Taking the battle with to the Tories via parliamentary procedure may not sound as sexy as rallies and winning the social media war, but there is ‘honour in political machinery’, as Richard Angell wrote in his review of the recent play, This House. Revisiting that drama’s script might just help in finding some of the energy needed for the slog ahead – what comes across most, Angell noted, was ‘the personal commitment that Labour [members of parliament] put into fighting back against the Tory war of attrition. The actors’ emotional investment in their characters give a superb portrayal of this. Despite predictions they would last “just four months”, they managed four and a half years. They survived 30 byelections, the Lib-Lab pact and the winter of discontent.’ Let that be a warning that our constitution allows fragile governments a steady base.
It is now over constitutional mechanisms that we search for success, and that means taking a healthy knowledge of how to get things done in parliament and apply a canny dose of wit to it.
Just look at what the House of Lords have achieved over the past couple of years in forcing the government to think again. When we spoke to Labour’s leader in the Lords, Angela Smith, for the February issue of the magazine, she told us to expect ‘thousands of statutory instruments’ to come out of trying to make the country legislatively Brexit-ready. All of that will need full parliamentary scrutiny: it is the biggest job for an opposition in decades. And the Tories have no major mandate or majority to push any of it all through. We are in the unusual position of being out of power and still having the ability to change things. Labour should not dampen the excitement of the past few weeks, or stop the drive to be in No 10, but recognise that there is a tough slog ahead. Outside of election time, that is the focus – and at a time like this, it brings enormous opportunity.
Conor Pope is deputy editor of Progress. He tweets at @Conorpope
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