Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Why is Labour not doing better?

Labour is backtracking on the coalition that meant 2017’s result was an unexpected improvement on 2015, not convincing former Tory voters to switch sides next time

In the long annuls of British political history, has the nation ever been led by such damaged goods? Theresa May is a weak leader at a time of maximum peril, encircled by inadequates, charlatans and frauds.

She may have a small majority to maintain her parliamentary position and to pass her budget, but on all other matters she lacks the authority, imagination or numbers to get much through the legislature. At a time of great threats and major opportunities, Britain is being run by political pigmies, unable to see above the top of the long grass.

Sage observers point to the similarities with the slow death of John Major’s government, tarred with the brush of economic incompetence after the exchange rate fiasco, and mired in sleaze after the ill-judged call for ‘back to basics’. Others cite the end days of Jim Callaghan, with a tired administration, propped up by a third party, and riven with ideological schism.

But there is one missing ingredient from our current circumstance, shared by both of these historical parallels. As Major and Callaghan witnessed their parliamentary majorities shrink, then disappear, and their own authority shrivel, the position of the leader of the opposition was enhanced. It was a zero sum game. As Callaghan shrank, Margaret Thatcher rose. As Major declined, so Tony Blair reached ear-popping heights of popular support. For example, in June 1995, Labour enjoyed a poll lead over the Tories of 29 per cent. Two years later, in the weeks after New Labour’s landslide, the party’s lead over the Tories was 39 points, but that is another story.

So why is the Labour party under Jeremy Corbyn not doing much, much better? You could hear the frustration in Blair’s voice on the BBC Today programme in November when he said that Labour should be 15 or 20 points ahead of a Tory government which makes Major’s look like a ‘paragon of stability’.

The absence of a significant poll lead should be a concern to all of us, and not just Blair. It should concern all of us who want an end to this Tory government and the election of a Labour alternative. It should especially concern those at the heart of the new Labour establishment who have bet the entire farm on this current electoral strategy. Having lost one election, to lose another within a few years on the same prospectus would mean the end of the Corbyn approach to politics. For the people in charge, in the shadow cabinet, the National Executive Committee, and the leader’s office, the absence of a double-digit poll lead should lead to some deep soul-searching.

The question the Labour hierarchy should be asking themselves is: what are the limitations and boundaries of Labour’s appeal? The last election showed that, when up against May, a left-populist manifesto, untroubled by fiscal responsibility or economic coherence, could garner more votes than Ed Miliband managed. The manifesto pledges appealed to those struggling with student debts or exercised by nationalisation. But they said little to the millions in private sector jobs, or running start-ups, or worrying about Brexit.

Labour’s manifesto had a specific appeal. If we offer more of the same next time, with the same faces at the top, where will the new support will come from? They say if you lose an election offering ham and eggs, you cannot expect to win the next one by offering double ham and eggs. Why just promise to nationalise the water companies, when we can pledge to nationalise all the banks and building societies too?

The James Graham play Labour of Love, currently on in the West End, starts and ends with a Labour member of parliament in the Nottinghamshire coalfields who is about to lose his seat in the 2017 general election. It is salutary to remind ourselves that we lost Labour seats in traditional industrial areas this year. Dennis Skinner saw his majority halve in Bolsover between 2015 and 2017. It is now a Tory target seat. The success of the last manifesto was to align personal economic security with the nation’s security – the best of Corbyn and Tom Watson, if you will. The former inspired new voters, the latter reassured many. However, this coalition – which got Labour 40 per cent of the vote – was dealt a fatal blow when Corbyn undid the pact by pledging to abolish Trident at Glastonbury festival just days after the national poll.

This explains why Labour is neck-and-neck with the Tories now, and why Corbyn is actually behind May on the question who would make the best prime minister. For all the excitement and energy, all the new members and rallies, all the knitted Corbyn dolls and sing-songs, Labour’s appeal is narrow, nor majoritarian. It makes no attempt to win over sceptical people in the party, let alone swing voters in the country. It is designed to pile up votes in university towns and urban areas like Islington, but fails the test of taking enough seats from the Tories.

Labour’s vote went up in 2017, but what goes uncommented on is that the Tories did too. Tory support in the country remains stubborn since June. If the older people put off by the Tories anti-pensioner 2017 manifesto no long stay home, the Tories could actually improve on their position next time. Labour has got to be ready to take power from the Tories – which means winning over those who voted Tory in 2017, not wait for our rivals to drop the Downing Street keys.

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