After any set of elections, commentators and politicians invariably argue about the consequences of the results and the messages to be taken from what has happened. This week they have gone a step further, and started arguing about what has in fact happened. This has been particularly problematic in a divided Labour party. After these results, it’s time for Corbyn’s opponents to give him a chance.
Jeremy Corbyn’s critics had prepared their statements for Friday morning on the assumption that Labour’s performance would be disastrous. It wasn’t and their criticism now amounts to little more than “yes we came first but not by enough.” They have tried to point to obscure historical precedents to paint the results in a negative light, making some fairly loose and unconvincing claims about the number of gains made by completely different opposition parties in completely different council elections in completely different eras. These precedents are then used to make entirely unverifiable claims about what Labour “should have achieved” if they were “on course for government” whatever that means four years out from the next general election.
Scotland has, of course, been a catastrophe for Labour and it has unfolded over several years. North of the border, put simply, the SNP are able to make an appealing pitch to left-of-centre voters who want independence while the Conservatives can rely on the votes of the vast majority of right-wing Unionists. It means Labour have been left in a situation where their only “natural supporters” are left-leaning unionists who don’t seem to be a particularly large group. This problem, however significant, has nothing to do with Jeremy Corbyn as some seem to be trying to imply. The idea that Labour would have done better in Scotland if Liz Kendall, Yvette Cooper or Andy Burnham were leader is impossible to support.
What surprised me was the number of English councils the party was able to retain control of in places that went Tory at the General Election last year: places like Nuneaton, Corby, Ipswich, Crawley, Lincoln, Reading and Stevenage. These are exactly the sorts of places Labour needs to win to get back into government and on Thursday they did. Of course, Labour have a mountain to climb before 2020, especially when you take into account the boundary changes to likely to be implemented before then and even I, as a cautious and qualified supporter of Corbyn, wouldn’t have said we were a fifth of the way there after the first of this parliament’s five years. If anything, the local elections in England (on top of the longstanding and frankly slightly tired-looking Labour government retaining control of the Welsh Assembly) have made me wonder if I was being too pessimistic.
Then of course there is London where, quite simply, Labour battered the Tories. Corbyn’s critics are trying to argue that this was despite him, not because of him and in many ways they’re right. Sadiq Khan ran an excellent campaign in stark contrast to the disgraceful tactics adopted by his opponents and, as last year’s general election results in the capital demonstrated, London is, generally speaking, a Labour-supporting city. However, to try and blame Corbyn for Scotland (where Labour had already been wiped out in Westminster before he was elected) while totally separating him from Labours performance in his own city seems somewhat mischievous if not downright dishonest.
Corbyn’s detractors within the parliamentary party have a number of valid concerns. He is often far too slow and unsteady in his response to events as they arise (the way the antisemitism row was handled was just appalling) and some of his priorities are a definite hindrance to electoral success (I don’t support Trident but if the billions of pounds it costs to retain it are the price we have to pay to neutralise Tory fear-mongering about Labour’s “threat to national security” and kick them out of office, then so be it.) However, I don’t believe these are the biggest threat to Labour’s electability at the moment. The biggest problem, for me, is the appearance of disunity created by certain figures within the parliamentary party itself.
Corbyn wants to offer the British public a radical alternative to the country’s current direction of travel. He talks of “people’s quantitative easing,” of a “national education service” and we’re even hearing that he may be considering drawing up plans for a Universal Basic Income. I’m personally very interested in these ideas but I recognise they are not the sorts of questions and issues that energise most voters. His own MPs plead with him, quite understandably after the last election, to do the opposite; to adopt a policy platform which speaks the language voters are already using. I understand that but I also wish that, instead of publically criticising their leader at every opportunity, some of these individuals would use their many political skills to actually help Corbyn package his ideas in language that would be more appealing to the electorate. Labour retained control of English councils that everyone expected them to lose next week. How much better might they have performed if the entire parliamentary party had been united behind Corbyn’s campaign?
I can picture the sort of Labour leader who would stand a much better chance of winning the next election with a cautious and less radical approach to Labour policy (Chukka Umunna, Dan Jarvis and Stella Creasy might be good real-life examples) and if someone like that had stood in the Labour leadership election last year I might have been tempted to vote for them. But they didn’t and, without the option to vote for an obvious election-winner I, like many others, took the perhaps somewhat self-indulgent opportunity to vote for someone who really represented my own values on inequality, public services, community cohesion and the environment. Maybe, just maybe, I thought, circumstances could change. No one knows how the next few years will play out or what will happen to the Conservative Party in that time. The print media is in decline and the internet is offering people, especially the younger generation, a far wider range of sources from which to gain information and thus form opinions. Perhaps, I thought, it was just possible the British people could find themselves in a position where by 2020 they were willing to try something different and a bit radical.
I understand why so many people within the Labour Party find this frustrating and fanciful and why they believe Corbyn is doomed to fail but I don’t think that belief is necessarily supported by last week’s election results. For the moment, whether some Labour MPs like it or not, the most effective way to oppose the Tory government is to try and help Corbyn succeed. For anyone within the party who refuses to do that to accuse anyone else of damaging the party is entirely hypocritical.