After the by-elections, the comment on the state of Labour. For the Labour Party – which won Stoke and lost Copeland – the very fact that its, rather than the Tories’, performance was the focus of attention ought to be bad enough, given that the Government is in clear disarray over Brexit. But there is, in Labour circles, an apparent climate of excuse-mongering this morning that does nobody – not least the people that Labour should be speaking for – any favours.
First, Labour needs to realise that Stoke was every bit as bad a result as Copeland. Talk about seeing off UKIP is, quite obviously, premature. The fact is that, despite the UKIP candidate, Paul Nuttall, having his credibility destroyed as his political track-record was held up to media scrutiny, UKIP increased its vote – by around two percentage points – and Labour’s fell by the same amount. Would Labour still have held the seat if UKIP’s candidate had been more credible? It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that UKIP lost this election, rather than Labour winning it. And, for all the focus on this as a Labour vs UKIP battle, the Tory vote held up and even increased on its 2015 percentage. That’s incredibly bad news for Labour in a seat where, in normal times, a by-election would barely have caused a political ripple.
Second, Labour seems unwilling to learn any lessons. The excuse-mongering from prominent MPs on social media has been extraordinary: Corbyn ally Richard Burgon MP tweeted that Copeland was a marginal seat, despite Labour having held it continually since 1935. The thrust of John McDonnell’s comments on the BBC Today programme was that Mandelson’s and Blair’s comments had been a factor (although he stopped short of allocating blame). Social media warriors have blamed the result on Blair, on the mainstream media, on last summer’s leadership challenge, on the political establishment – on everything except the boogie.
And that approach is just frivolous – and convinces nobody, least of all potential Labour voters on their sofas at home. Nobody in Labour should be making excuses; the party can only move on from this debacle if, as a party, we acknowledge how bad these results – both of them – really are; take responsibility for that; and start asking serious strategic questions. But there appears to be no appetite – or even any capacity in the leadership – for doing this. It’s not just that Labour’s leadership team contains nobody with serious policy-making or strategic experience; there remains an aura of cultism around the leadership in which those asking questions are treated as traitors undermining the leader. Corbyn and his team need to understand that Labour needs critical friends. Labour people outside the Momentum camp are angry and frustrated because they understand how badly this country needs Labour values, and how far we are from being able to put those into effect. Oppositionism and social media bluster never created a single job, fed a single family or opened a single family centre.
One question must be whether Labour’s policy of stressing the NHS above all else is an intelligent strategy. Of course the NHS is vitally important; of course it’s in crisis in England; of course it’s an issue that Labour needs to campaign on. But just repeating the same story over and over again is not a strategy; Labour needs to be much broader and more credible.
A second question is whether Labour’s claim that Corbyn somehow stands in opposition to the political establishment is sensible politics. Jeremy Corbyn has stood outside the Labour Party establishment, voting against the Labour whip on hundreds of occasions; but he’s been an MP for 34 years. To those genuinely outside politics, he looks like an insider and the rhetoric about the political establishment doesn’t work.
Another question must be whether it was intelligent politics for Labour effectively to give the Tories a free pass on the most important political issue of the day – Brexit – by backing Article 50. Obviously the deed is done now, but at one level it indicates the intellectual vacuum at the heart of the Labour leadership – and in particular how the values of Left oppositionism, and its obsession with mandates, has translated into a failure to recognise that policy-making by plebiscite is the very opposite of democracy as a participative process that involves so much more than one vote. We can’t close the stable door now, but an honest and serious leadership would surely need to examine the reason why we ended up in the current shambles. And it was the awareness of that shambles,.as much as the policy position, which surely contributed to Labour’s abysmal poll ratings and yesterday’s by-election disaster. The sight of Labour MPs whipped through the lobbies to vote for a policy they know to be disastrous convinces nobody (and is the very antithesis of straight-talking, honest politics).
Finally, here in Wales we have a particular problem. Labour is in Government in Wales, led by a First Minister, Carwyn Jones, who has won two national elections. We can point to a raft of Labour achievements – free prescriptions, retention of EMA, Flying Start, an NHS free of PFI, privatisation and an internal market – as well as a focus on investment and job creation. As devolution and Brexit change the relationship between England and Wales, there is a growing issue of the relationship between Welsh Labour and the UK party (the very fact that the UK party is focussing its attention on the NHS – which is devolved to Wales – begs questions about that relationship). In Wales Labour is a party of Government; in England, from this side of Offa’s Dyke, Labour looks increasingly like a party of oppositionism. Serious thinking is needed here too.
Labour needs a period of hard, unflinching thinking following these by-election results. It needs to accept they were a disaster, examine them critically rather than defending them, and to start asking some very serious questions about why Labour is failing. This is no time for cultism.