Calm down

I don’t entirely disagree with Simon when he warns

Corbyn is currently creating the conditions in which a new [centrist, pro-Remain] party could enter, and survive for long enough to cost Labour the next election.

As he says,

When Brexit happens there will be a lot of bitterly disappointed people around questioning where to go from here. … Unfortunately Corbyn has done virtually nothing for members and voters that closely identify with Remain. Hopes have been kept alive by Keir Starmer and occasionally John McDonnell, but neither attended Corbyn’s recent talks with the Prime Minister. The overriding impression given by the leadership and its supporters is that they do not want to antagonise Labour Leavers, and Remainers have nowhere else to go

But I think that – as so often – there’s a huge risk of confusing the trends that are making the news in a small, contained, well-informed and hyper-reflective group with those that are making the running in the country. And this is the case even where that small group consists largely of people whose intelligence, wisdom and public spiritedness is unimpeachable, such as the Parliamentary Labour Party (quiet at the back there)

Simon again:

As the vote of no confidence by 80% of Labour MPs after the referendum result showed, Corbyn is at his most vulnerable over Brexit. The 2017 election result may have wiped memories of this painful period, but to say that it shows the vote of no confidence didn’t matter goes too far. Unfortunately Labour still lost in 2017, as their powerlessness over Brexit shows. How do we know that the perception that Labour MPs were deeply unhappy with their leader did not cost Labour in 2017 the crucial votes that prevented them forming a government?

The trouble with this argument is that it conflates one, relatively trivial kind of vulnerability (being unpopular with Labour MPs) with another more important kind (losing the public). Labour’s polling averages before and after the Brexit vote were as follows:

April 2016: 32.5%
May: 32%
June: 31.5%
July: 30.5%

It’s a slow decline, which continued for the rest of the year – and indeed until the following April. It’s a continuous trend with very little variation – it doesn’t seem to show any obvious reaction to any political event: not the vote of no confidence, not Argh!, not Owen Smith, not even the Brexit vote itself. It’s very much what you’d expect to see if the same influences were continuing to be applied to Labour’s support in much the same way – press hostility, BBC hostility and hostility from the party’s own MPs.

As for Labour’s – regrettable – failure to win the 2017 election, look at these figures:

1997: 13.5 million votes
2001: 10.7
2005: 9.6
2010: 8.6
2015: 9.3
2017: 12.9

Raw figures are affected by population growth over time and differential turnout between elections, so they can be misleading – although it certainly looks as if Corbyn got three and a half million more people to vote for him than Ed Miliband had managed a couple of years earlier. So here are the same figures as %s of votes cast:

1997: 43.1%
2001: 40.5%
2005: 35.4%
2010: 29%
2015: 30.3%
2017: 40.3%

And, for completeness, as %s of the electorate:

1997: 30.6%
2001: 23.9%
2005: 21.6%
2010: 18.8%
2015: 20%
2017: 27.8%

As I mentioned above, Labour support ebbed away throughout 2016; by April 2017 the party was averaging 26% in opinion polls. The election campaign took the party from those mid-20s lows to 40% of the votes cast, in the space of a month and a half: Corbyn’s first General Election, sprung on him (and us) three years ahead of time, saw Labour’s vote share at its highest level since 2001, and its share of the electorate at the highest level since 1997. To look at that campaign[1] and ask why it went so badly isn’t just ungracious, it’s downright perverse. Corbyn’s leadership, and the movement it mobilised, achieved a share of the vote – and a level of turnout – that was far beyond the party under Miliband, or Brown, or even Blair (after 1997, once the country had had a proper look at him). May was only saved – indeed, the Tories since 2010 have only been saved – by the collapse both of the discredited centre and of a far Right left beached by the achievement of its flagship policy. Those are certainly successes for the Tories – I’m reminded of how Italy’s Christian Democrats drew a galaxy of minor parties into their orbit, drained them of voters and ideas, and left them shadows of themselves. But in the nature of things, those successes are unrepeatable: the former Lib Dems and the ex-Kippers are both in the Tory vote bank now. The next round will be a more even contest. (Unless some ill-advised centrists choose this moment to sabotage the Labour Party, of course. Mutter mumble useful idiots of the Right mutter…)

If the new party pledges to fight for staying in both the Customs Union and Single Market after we leave the EU, that will tempt Remain voters, because Labour only speak of a close relationship with the Single Market. There is a world of difference between being close and being in: ask any trading firm why. Staying in the Single Market requires Freedom of Movement, and this would allow the new party to attack Labour on immigration, where its recent actions have also made them vulnerable from the perspective of liberal Labour voters.

I agree that there’s a chink in Labour’s armour labelled “Single Market membership”. Exploiting that has two problems, though. One is that the various right-wing MPs and has-beens who are most likely to break away from Labour are more likely to play to the anti-immigration gallery than not. (The story in the Observer at the weekend cited ‘immigration’ as one of the ‘key issues’ on which they differ with Corbyn, but didn’t specify how.) Secondly, there are good political reason for Labour’s logic-chopping on the Single Market, painful as it is to follow sometimes. Rightly or wrongly, Single Market membership is widely seen as Brexit In Name Only, or even as a step towards not leaving the EU at all. Personally, I’d be delighted if that was how things worked out – but it will needs to be sold as the only possible way forward, advocated by a party unencumbered by Remain baggage. The ground still needs to be prepared: something else that polls tell us is that “repudiate the referendum result” is not a strong seller, and “hold a second referendum (so that we can get the right result this time)” doesn’t do much better.

What that means is that, if a centre party attacked Labour on this flank, it’d be pitching for the votes of two groups: Remain-sympathising Labour voters who are sufficiently well-informed to know what Single Market membership does and doesn’t mean; and Labour voters whose commitment to Remain is strong enough for them to be open to the idea of reversing the referendum altogether. Filter that through the reality of a majoritarian constituency-based electoral system, and you’re left with two subsets of those (already small) groups: those who have a candidate with a believable chance of getting elected (i.e. a centre-party-defecting MP whose personal popularity is credibly sufficient to get them re-elected against Labour opposition); and those who know that their vote will be wasted, while their withdrawal of support from Labour will tend to assist the re-election of May’s Tories – the party of Brexit itself – and who are willing to do it anyway. So that’s the “David Owen vote” and the “self-destructive fit of pique vote”. Good luck, as they say, with that. (Number of Labour MPs who joined the SDP in 1981: 28. Number re-elected in 1983: 4. Tory majority in 1983: 144 (up from 43).)

All of this will be academic if – as has been rumoured – Theresa May chucks in the towel and calls a June election, requesting an extension to Article 50 to allow the new government to get its feet under the table. This doesn’t seem terribly likely, admittedly, but that’s the rumour. Besides, I’ve thought for a long time that the government’s wildly irresponsible approach to Brexit could be explained on the assumption that May doesn’t intend to be in charge when it actually happens, any more than Cameron did; jumping out of the cab immediately before we go over the cliff would be very much in character.

But whatever happens and whenever the next election comes, the likelihood of a new centre party playing a major part in proceedings seems overstated – as is the vulnerability of the Labour Party to hardcore Remain attacks. I think the main thing we on the Left need to do at the moment is hold our nerve. Starmerism of the intellect, Corbynism of the will!

*A word which – as Simon himself has commented before now – is shorthand for ‘period of partial immunity from anti-Labour propaganda’.

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