After his re-election as Leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn said that he was putting the party on an “election footing” in anticipation of an early General Election. The idea, presumably, was to mobilise and begin properly resourcing Labour’s campaign teams around Britain, those people who would be delivering leaflets, knocking on doors, phoning voters, attending rallies and everything else that accompanies modern elections. In addition, parties preparing for a General Election usually concentrate in their communication with voters on a select few themes or policies which they think are their greatest assets. They tend to focus on delivering a precise, easily recognisable and easily understandable programme for their time in government to the public and media, hoping that this message will prove popular and persuade the electorate to vote for them.
The anticipated General Election has not yet come to pass, Prime Minister Theresa May abiding by her commitment last year not to hold an early election. What Labour has experienced instead is a series of by-elections, in which Corbyn’s “election footing” has been tested.
The results were not overwhelmingly negative for Labour, but the result receiving by far the most attention was that of the constituency of Copeland, where the longstanding Labour seat was taken by the Conservatives. Corbyn’s election footing, such as it was, has been found inadequate to deliver one of the safest Labour seats in England.
The Copeland by-election of 23rd February 2017 should serve as an early warning to Labour election strategists. In their examination of the result they must realise that their strategy is failing and that the party is on a trajectory to suffer a severe defeat at the next General Election, whenever it takes place. Labour leadership figures, however, have offered not explanations for the defeat, but excuses, such as that the nuclear industry in Copeland meant that a party led by Corbyn (famously anti-nuclear) would always struggle to win there. Explaining away every by-election disappointment by an extenuating local technicality would be an error for the Labour Party, as it does not address the overriding inadequacies of its campaigning and policy platform as a whole.
Labour strategists, policy-makers and the left-wing leadership must accept, in the wake of Copeland, that not only is the Labour Party losing the battle to win over the electorate in the debate over Brexit, but is also very far from resembling a clear alternative to the present Conservative government.
As we have said, parties entering important elections need to set out a very clear and easily understandable set of policies with which the electorate can identify. If viewed as an early test of Labour’s and the Conservatives’ respective policies on Brexit, Copeland indicates a strong preference amongst the electorate for that of the governing party, and, while not a full endorsement of every aspect of the government’s handling of Brexit, certainly a vote of confidence in the government to continue the process of leaving the EU.
The government has been unambiguously clear that their policy is to leave the EU, and while no one knows the exact contents of the deal the government will reach with the EU, the public can be in no doubt that the government will be actively seeking trading agreements with other countries post-Brexit.
By contrast, the Labour Party’s endorsement triggering of Article 50 appeared in the public domain not as the impassioned and coherent outlook of a party determined to shape Brexit, but as a capitulation of Labour to the government’s arguments. Labour are, of course, disadvantaged by not being in government and able to set Brexit policy; but the presentation of Labour’s Brexit position, the manner in which Labour voted to trigger Article 50, directly led to the party being perceived as withdrawing from the frontline of the argument and relinquishing their responsibility to hold the government to account over Brexit.
This image was poisoned by the unruliness of Labour’s Brexit discussion. The details of numerous Shadow Cabinet resignations and a large MP rebellion probably did not interest most members of the public, but the news story that Labour could not achieve a unified position on Brexit lowered the party in public esteem and left its stance on the subject unclear.
Copeland contains other lessons for Labour’s leadership.
In the immediate aftermath, commentators attempted to manipulate Labour figures into admitting Corbyn was to blame for the loss of the constituency. At the Scottish Labour conference over that same weekend, Corbyn took his personal share of responsibility, but before and since his speech, his allies attempted to protect him from blame. The role of leadership in politics, some argued, was irrelevant and did not contribute to Labour’s fortunes either in Copeland or in the polls generally, which showed a large lead for the Conservatives.
To completely dismiss the influence of leadership on voting behaviour would be another dangerous error for Labour strategists and for leading Labour politicians.
More often than not, the pretence that leadership does not matter in elections is expounded by the left. Corbyn himself has repeatedly played down his role as an individual and stressed instead the influence that the Labour Party membership should have in policy-making. The term “social movement” is also frequently associated with Labour’s current membership and direction of travel, guided, we are to believe, by the collective instincts of its mass towards social justice and anti-austerity.
The role of party members and the public should never be in doubt, as political institutions and ideas would not exist, let alone survive, without them. But movements, like institutions and ideas, need individuals to guide and channel them. A party leader must reduce the vague language and ambitions of a movement to a policy programme, a set of proposals to be turned into legislation.
The Labour leadership’s failure to provide the certainty, or at least the clarity, of a platform for government, and their own refusal to embrace the fact that leadership matters, has brought Labour to its present situation.
It is notable that present Shadow Cabinet members try to dismiss leadership as an issue, while repeatedly asserting that Labour’s problems can be traced back to the Blairite faction, the Blair governments, and even Blair’s comments about Brexit in February 2017. Tony Blair’s leadership, it seems, can be blamed for the party’s fortunes after he has left office, yet the actions of the present leadership, which the left fought extremely hard to defend in summer 2016, is not credited with any of the misfortunes to befall Labour since.
Since 2015, the leadership of the Labour Party (whether it is described as Blairite, Brownite, moderate or right-wing) has been replaced by those on Labour’s far left Parliamentary wing, who had themselves criticised the direction of their own party for decades.
Those who might consider themselves moderates, while outnumbering their left-wing colleagues in the Commons, find themselves marginalised in policy-making, powerless to influence the leadership, abused by three-line whips in Brexit votes, and accused of plotting by the Shadow Chancellor.
The left-wing leadership brought with it into positions of power its outsiders’ rhetoric, speeches and opinions. They often tell the media that they intend to end inequality, reduce poverty and make Britain fairer, and the public know the Labour Party opposes hard Brexit, austerity, benefits cuts, and the government’s handling of the NHS.
It is, of course, necessary for the opposition to scrutinise and criticise government policy when it sees fit. But Labour’s leadership has invested nearly all of its time in opposing aspects of government policy and neglected altogether to transform its rhetoric and ideas of “fairness” and “equality” into policies.
Labour’s policies on taxation, spending, immigration and economics remain vague, despite 18 months having elapsed since Corbyn’s first election as party leader. That the party has failed to achieve a unified position on Brexit has also rendered the party second best to the Conservatives on the single most urgent political and social debate of the day. This is a crucial shortcoming because, more than any other policy issue, Brexit lingers in the public consciousness and eclipses nearly every other issue, and it will be remembered that when it came to triggering Article 50 the Labour Party could not give the public a unanimous answer.
The loss of Copeland cannot be attributed solely to leadership, or solely to Brexit, but to a combination of Labour’s weakness in both areas. Having been a Labour seat for more than 80 years, the loss of Copeland to the Conservatives half way through the Conservatives’ seventh year in government demonstrates that Labour’s left-wing leadership has not only failed to reinvigorate the party, but facilitated its decomposition as a party competing for government. If the Copeland result is to be taken as indicative of Labour’s performance across the country, then the chronic instability created out of the leadership’s inability to make policy or cooperate with Labour MPs threatens to place Labour as far away from power as it has been in a generation.
The last time a governing party gained a seat in a by-election, as we are all now well aware, was in 1982. The next year the Labour opposition lost 60 seats at a General Election.
Another example is the 2016 English Local Council Elections, in which Labour lost seats, the first opposition party to do so since 1985. Again, Labour went on to lose the 1987 General Election and did no re-enter government until 1997.
Opposition parties that suffer poor mid-term election results, on this evidence, go on to lose elections. And the present Labour Party has the unfortunate distinction of having lost both a round of council elections and a safe seat in a by-election.
The question “can Labour win the next election with Corbyn as leader?”, which we need to ask in response to these losses, has already been asked countless times, and Labour’s Deputy Leader, Tom Watson, answered it definitively in the affirmative on the Andrew Marr Show, albeit just before the Copeland result. The next question for Watson, for Corbyn, and the left-wing leadership as a whole, is “how?”
Some of the lessons from Copeland have been outlined here, but the challenge of winning the next election does not even start with learning these lessons. The first step Labour’s left-wing leadership need to take is to admit that their actions have contributed to their party’s disorder and unpreparedness for government. They must recognise that having won the leadership again in 2016, and in occupying the positions of power in the Labour Party, the responsibility of deciding what Labour stands for, rather than merely opposes, lies with them.
And in describing where Labour has gone wrong electorally, the leadership must cease blaming former leaders speaking from the sidelines, while claiming the present leadership is irrelevant to the party’s declining fortunes.
Leadership begins and ends with responsibility. Indeed, responsibility is what defines leadership compared to every other member of a political party. Corbyn was right when he accepted part of the responsibility for Copeland. But in making this concession to the maxim that leadership matters Corbyn must accept another concession: that his leadership must change if Labour is not to suffer more defeats like Copeland.