I am going to make a prediction that many people are not going to like. It is this – the June 2017 general election represented the high-water mark of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party. Why is this relevant? Despite all the hoopla and excitable claims, the Labour Party lost. It won 56 seats less than the Tories and it was 64 MPs short of the 326 needed to win an outright majority in the House of Commons. We are still then lumbered with a Tory government, at least for the present.
That’s not to detract for a moment from the excellent campaign that JC and Labour ran. He performed much better than I (most of his MPs, the Tories or the commentariat) believed that he would do, and he was clearly able to connect with voters in a way that was completely beyond Theresa May.
However, if Labour is to win the next election, which may not be very far away, it will need to convince many more voters in those additional 64 seats needed that it has the policies and the answers they want. I think that this is unlikely to happen for a number of reasons:
- Jeremy Corbyn and Labour did quite well, but against a weak Conservative leader and a hopeless Tory election campaign. There are Tories grandees saying that this was their worst election campaign in modern times. Theresa May became increasingly exposed and unpopular the longer the unfortunate process lasted. If it had gone on for another few days, Jeremy Corbyn could well have been moving into 10 Downing Street next weekend.
- The Tories will not let Theresa May lead them into the next election whenever that that may be. They will appoint a leader with a much greater ability to connect with the electorate and far better political skills well before then. Instead of anointing the new leader as they did with Mrs May last year, there will most probably be a more rigorous selection process to properly assess the candidates.
- There is talk of a Boris Johnson / Michael Gove joint ticket. Boris as the amusing frontman – or the limbic brain, and Gove as the frontal cortex of the duo to do the heavy lifting and serious thinking. It makes for an interesting image. Whilst there is no doubt that Michael Gove is a clever man, he is also like Marmite for many of us. To be effective, cleverness needs to be coupled with common sense and sound judgement. The high jinks and jolly capers of last summer’s Tory leadership election amply demonstrated this is one area where the Govester does not score highly. When the term “loose cannon” was originally coined, Boris Johnson could easily have been the inspiration. The Tories need to think carefully about what they wish for.
- The Labour manifesto promised a great deal but was rather disingenuous about how it would all be funded. Because the Tory campaign was all about Teresa May and because she hid herself away most of the time, the Labour promises were never really challenged by others in the Tory party who were better placed to do so. That’s not going to happen again next time around in my view.
- The Labour manifesto tuition fees pledge got the full attention of young people and for the first time in my memory, got them out to vote in very significant numbers, predominantly for Labour. They’d slept through the Brexit vote last year to their detriment. They really helped to swing things for Labour this time. Full credit to Jeremy Corbyn for achieving this seemingly impossible task; albeit helped by social media, an effective, national & local Labour Party machine and a £30k sweetener…
- The Tories will have learned some very bitter lessons about the hopeless manifesto they produced. They have already started cleaning house this weekend with the abrupt departures of the much disliked Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, May’s former joint chiefs of staff and pit bull enforcers who bear significant responsibility for the debacle. They will be utterly ruthless in doing whatever needs to be done to make the party electable, because that’s how the Tories behave.
- Without doubt, the next Tory manifesto will be much more hopeful and positive. It will also have to match or neutralise the offer made to young people by Labour on tuition fees.
- Many young people will be fed-up that the Tories are still in power and that their votes have seemingly had no effect. They may well be much more disinclined to vote next time or perhaps they may vote Tory, given the better offer the Conservatives will surely make to them?
- If a newly installed Tory leadership has any sense, it will abandon the rush towards the US-style, drastically pared-down state, spending 35 percent of GDP, beloved of David Cameron and George Osborne and all their rich pals. The Conservatives have come a cropper with this before during the Thatcher / Major era. They cut taxes, looked after business and the wealthy with the result that our public services became threadbare and unreliable. They then got rightly tossed-out by a fed-up electorate.
- The British are Europeans not Americans. We don’t like the high levels of inequality seen today in the UK, and we do like our NHS and our public services to work well. If politicians are straight and honest with us about their cost, we are prepared to pay for them too. A savvy politician will recognise this and aim for something between the Scandinavian model and where we are now. If the Tories are clever and wise, and they may well be under a new leader, then that is the line they could well take. The Labour leader will have to have something ready to counter this eventuality, should it come to pass.
- In my view, it is almost certain that the next election will happen before the Brexit negotiations have got into full swing and well before the shape of the final deal becomes apparent. Because Labour has been all over the place about Brexit; because Jeremy Corbyn is ambivalent about the EU; and because very many young people want the UK to stay in Europe, the electoral implications of Brexit on Labour’s electoral fortunes are very hard to predict.
So where does that leave those of us who want the Labour Party to do well but who have had deep reservations about Jeremy Corbyn from Day One? I remain with my long-held view that it will be very difficult for Labour to win from the hard left. If it is to govern on its own, it will need to attract significant numbers of Tory, Lib Dem or SNP voters in at least an additional 64 seats to allow it, at a minimum, to scrape over the finishing line and to avoid having to be propped-up by another party. To do this will require a more moderate, centrist leader. He or she must be prepared to take on many of the manifesto promises outlined by Jeremy Corbyn and his team, because the direction of travel is good and they are popular with voters. They must also have a more honest and credible plan for funding those pledges which will stand up to rigorous scrutiny.
Jeremy Corbyn is going to be hard to shift anytime soon. However, if the Labour Party is to make good on its manifesto pledges and bring about the change that people so desperately want, then a new leader is needed urgently to take the fight to the Tories. Without a change at the top, Labour faces another 10 years in the wilderness.