Like, I would imagine, every single other Labour Party member, I have just received an email containing a Christmas message from Jeremy Corbyn. It is difficult to imagine a more complacent document; it almost appears to have issued from a parallel universe.
Corbyn writes about how the Labour Party has signed more new members in 20 months than in the previous 20 years; about how when we campaign together we get great results, as evidenced by the defeat of the Tories’ academy plans, or the retreat on Working Tax Credits and Personal Independence Payments for disabled people. On Brexit, the fudge is familiar: to unite those who voted Leave and Remain, but not to obstruct the democratic will of the people.
It gives the impression of a Party where things are going well – a party that is united and confident and striding forward. And sadly, that’s not a vision of Labour that many longer-standing Labour people would recognise.
There is some irony that the two major elections that Labour won in 2016, in London and Wales, are not mentioned. And even then things are not rosy in the garden; yes, Wales has a Labour government that was re-elected after delivering every single one of its 2011 manifesto proposals, and is continuing to deliver Labour values in Government in the face of funding cuts and the huge uncertainty of Brexit. In Carwyn Jones, Labour has a First Minister of real stature, far ahead of any Labour leaders in England; the only active Labour politician to have won two national elections. But even here, the elections showed serious concerns; mostly the rise of UKIP. Labour may have out-organised the opposition to hold key marginal seats like Llanelli and Cardiff North, but a UKIP surge meant that a heartland constituency like Blaenau Gwent was held by only a few hundred votes.
And, electorally, the position remains dire. Double-digit Tory leads in the opinion polls; local by-election defeats in Labour heartlands. The Tory response to Brexit is pitiful – Labour should be ahead by miles. Why not?
The simple fact remains that Labour is not winning the arguments. And it seems difficult to argue that the fundamental reason is that even when the Labour leadership is visible (which is far less often than it should be), it simply is not using language that resonates with people; and is failing to take the lead on issues like Brexit, where Corbyn’s effort was half-hearted and feeble. The Labour leadership’s decision not to oppose Article 50 – which means it has, in one sentence, renounced any influence over the negotiating process – is typical of the strategic and political crassness of a leadership team that combines arrogance and incompetence to a degree that, even after eighteen months, never fails to amaze. You do not have to be a political ally of Blair, Campbell and Mandelson to understand how painfully their professionalism compares with the atmosphere of student-politics amateurism that surrounds the Corbyn leadership team.
And as far as those new members are concerned – as those of us working in the 2016 Welsh Assembly election campaign were asking ourselves, where are they? Not on the doorstep, certainly, at a time when many stalwart long-standing Labour people are scaling down their involvement and support, either through despair at the quality of leadership or because they cannot stand the new environment. In my old stamping-ground of Brighton and Hove, the Labour Party was briefly taken over by people whose avowed aim was to deselect the only Labour MP outside London in the South East of England; the same people, largely, who accepted the argument that Labour should not even have contested the Pavilion seat against Caroline Lucas in 2015.
The Corbyn Christmas message is symptomatic of Labour’s fundamental problem – it is part of a wholly inward-looking conversation taking place among people who appear to exist in a parallel universe, apparently unaware of what is happening outside their ideological bubble and refusing to engage with it. And the problem one faces – especially when dealing with Momentum – is that Labour’s leadership, and many of its new members, are at one in subscribing to an ideology in which building a “movement” matters more than winning power.
Even on its own terms, Labour’s leadership is failing. Ultimately Labour’s failure to articulate the case for remaining in the EU comes down to what appears to have been a calculated decision not to implement Labour conference policy, effectively ensuring the victory of the policies of the nationalist Right. And, remember, these are the same people whose abusive term of choice for their opponent is “Blairite”.
The only way forward for Labour is to be absolutely honest about the shambles that exists at the moment. Labour is a laughing-stock; the question that we in Welsh Labour, as a professionally-managed party of government, increasingly ask is how long much longer we can afford to be associated with English Labour’s toxic combination of ideologically-based disengagement and haphazard amateurism. Labour has to recognise that it is people on sofas, not the people who attend rallies, who determine the outcome of elections.
I want to see a Labour Government in office delivering a real alternative to austerity. I want to see Labour in opposition exposing the Tories’ utter incoherence on Brexit. And what I want to hear from the Labour leadership just now is honest self-examination and a determination to learn the lessons of a disastrous year. Self-congratulation is not something Labour can remotely afford.