Saturday, 15 April 2017

Corbyn's Labour: resigned to failure?

A new poll puts the Tories 21% ahead of Labour. 46% vs 25% is a staggering gap between the two big parties. There's no denying that - for anyone on the left - the poll is awful.

Let's put it in perspective and think things through a bit.

Such a huge gap is likely to be a one-off, but gaps of around 15% are a pattern. That will perhaps continue for a little while. It's not yet clear, though, that such awful polling is matched in real elections. Local council elections on 4 May will clarify that one.

The Tories are still benefiting from Theresa May replacing David Cameron, and from Ukip's decline (this latest poll has Ukip on just 9%). May's mixture of populist nationalistic discourse and rhetoric suggesting a gentler approach to austerity, combined with her shrewd political positioning around Brexit, has given the Tories a fresh lease of life. That can probably work - reasonably well at least - for a while, but it's safe to assume that the rhetoric will increasingly clash with reality.

It isn't credible for anyone to claim that such poor Labour polling is an inevitable consequence of Corbyn's leadership. After all, between March and June last year the gap was typically just 3 or 4 percentage points.

Things changed after the double whammy of last summer's failed anti-Corbyn coup (by his parliamentary colleagues) and the Tories' rejuvenation under May. The relentless attacks on Corbyn have done great damage. It should be obvious that a deeply divided party is not an attractive proposition to voters.

It's also unlikely that Corbyn's left-ish policies are to blame. There is plenty of evidence that many Labour policies - especially those associated with Corbyn's more left-wing stance - are popular. This includes the latest raft of policies. This would suggest that something else is going wrong for Labour, e.g. the policies are not yet getting through properly to millions of people, they aren't seen as adding up to a coherent 'narrative' etc.

The argument from some quarters is that what's needed is a new leader. But Corbyn was faring much better until last June, as reflected in polling on parties' projected vote shares and also on the party leaders' approval ratings. Many popular policies are associated with his leadership. However, it's undoubtedly true that his personal ratings are currently very poor.

The problem, though, is that none of the critics have any alternative to offer. There are not currently any credible candidates on the left (this could change) and a more right-wing leader would herald a shift rightwards in policy, even if their supporters claimed otherwise. For anyone on the left, maintaining Corbyn as leader is - for now - therefore bound up with defending any sort of left-wing advance in the Labour Party. In the current climate the leadership question is fundamentally political, not personal.

The idea - also popular in some circles - that a shift rightwards is precisely what's needed is undermined by international comparisons. Look - most obviously - at the awful ratings for the Socialist Party in France. There is little reason to believe that a leader from the Right of the Labour Party, with a more 'moderate' policy platform, would be faring any better than Corbyn-led Labour is faring.

So, what next? It is very likely that the polling gap will - to some extent - close over the next 3 years. It's unlikely - when you think about longer-term trends and patterns (eg the Tories last got above 38% in a general election in 1992), the problems that almost certainly lie ahead for the government etc - that the Tories would actually win a thumping huge victory in a general election.

In addition, it's likely that a left-ish Labour Party would increase its support in the course of fighting a general election campaign. See the effect on left-wing candidate Melenchon's support since the presidential campaign got underway in France. Labour would likely increase its support as a result of the mass exposure that comes from a campaign, if (and it's a big if) it goes to the polls with bold, left-wing policies. It also has the advantages of more money and more members, largely as a result of Corbyn's two successful bids for the leadership.

These are no grounds for complacency. We may well see the gap closing, but not enough to stop another Tory majority in 2020. But some perspective is helpful. It's certainly an over-reaction when commentators claim that Labour can write off any chance of winning even in 2025. That kind of blinkered short-term impressionism hugely underestimates how much things can change, especially in times as volatile as our own .

Labour is more likely to close that gap if there's more of the popular left-ish policies that we've seen announced recently, such as a £10 an hour minimum wage and free school meals for all primary-school children. This needs to be reinforced by a relentless focus over time on promoting those policies.

It will also help if there's a reasonable degree of at least appearing united, with less of the sabotage and undermining from the Right. The left leadership has a lot of control of the first two points; it has little control, at least directly, over that last one.

Such a path for Labour is more likely to become reality if there's a broader groundswell of pressure in a leftwards direction. That's partly about the internal Labour Party conflicts - from candidate selections to conference votes to the NEC composition - but in very large part it's about how the struggle evolves beyond those intra-Labour debates.

The extent to which Brexit becomes a hugely contested process, with the left making waves, isn't just down to Corbyn and his closest allies. The NHS and school cuts are the two most obviously explosive issues. These could become real battlegrounds where we see May overstretching herself and facing mass opposition. If mass movements are built and sustained around these issues - and potentially others - it will have an effect in the sphere of electoral politics.

This will be amplified if we move to large-scale strike action. And that's especially so if pay becomes an area of generalised opposition across the public sector (a genuine possiblity, though far from inevitable). That's more likely to happen if we see inflation rise, and if there are other economic problems, but it depends partly on what we as a movement choose to do.

What's clear is that the prospects for the project of shifting Labour to the left - and such a party winning widespread public consent - will depend partly on Labour's left leadership charting a bold way ahead, but also on the growth of extra-parliamentary opposition. We need to rise to new levels of combativity, co-ordination and coherence in fighting the Tories across a range of issues - in parliament, in the workplaces and on the streets.


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