When Theresa May called the election, it looked like Jeremy Corbyn was doomed and the Labour left would go down with him. Now that the race is on, the Conservative poll lead has been diminished as the public has got a good look at May and her inability to campaign like any other politician.
This might explain why Labour’s standing in the polls has increased to 31%. This is roughly what Ed Miliband delivered in the 2015 election. It should go without saying that this is not enough to win. Even if Labour does better than it did at the last election it could still lose this time around. The combined Tory-UKIP vote in 2015 came to 48% of the electorate. This factor alone makes it highly unlikely that Labour will win.
It seems any Labour leadership would struggle to contend with such conditions. The May government only has to absorb a chunk of the 4 million UKIP voters to expand the Tory majority to 40% and beyond. It’s hard to think of a strategy on Brexit which would prevent this. The ‘soft’ Brexit approach may appear incoherent, but if they ran a pro-Remain line at this time they would just alienate their Leave voters.
So, though the Tories look set to win a majority, but the Corbyn project for turning the party around cannot be blamed. We’re still living through the crisis of the centre-left, and it could be terminal. This crisis predates Corbyn and its roots go back even before New Labour to the compromises of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan. It goes to the heart of the kind of party that Labour is supposed to be.
The crisis of social democracy
I remember watching Ed Miliband on the campaign trail in 2015, even before the Ed Stone moment, and thinking that this really was a dead duck. Not only did Labour lose to David Cameron, it lost the Scottish heartlands to the SNP. There was plenty of talk of Pasokification on the left, and the thesis still rings true today. So why support Corbyn, if Labour is doomed anyway?
Well, the hope was that the left could retake the party and transform it from below under the watch of a new leadership. Some thought the party could be reinvented to work with social movements. The fundamental idea was that the Labour Party could change direction and become a left-wing bloc. The project hit the buffers with Brexit and the coup launched by the Blairites.
Most of the attempts to blame Corbyn for all that has gone wrong for Labour are ahistorical. As if Labour was on the road to victory in 2015 – having just lost the election, including Scotland and much of Wales – and then the left came along and ruined it all. As if New Labour hadn’t cost the party 5 million votes after its major landslide in 1997, after which voter turnout declined consistently.
You’d have to be stupid or Peter Mandelson to not see the full picture. Labour lost in 2010 because it took the working class vote for granted and used it only as a springboard for winning over middle class Tory voters. Eventually the Conservatives found a guy who was enough like Tony Blair to steal back those precious middle class voters.
Then after Gordon Brown, we had to endure the Miliband years. Early on, Miliband was trying to appeal to a sense of injustice in British society without offending the middle classes. This is why he started talking about a ‘squeezed middle’ and ‘responsible capitalism’. But the leadership couldn’t seem to get the tone right. They kept looking for a new brand.
The Miliband years were squandered trying to reinvent the New Labour brand. When it failed, the Blairites began to spin the line that they would have got it right had they picked the right brother. Again, they had no time for historical conditions. It’s just about having an empty suit mouth clichés. This was the pathetic state of the opposition from September 2010 to just after May 2015.
Yet if the Blairites had had a serious candidate and a coherent strategy in waiting, they would have just ran one person against Corbyn in 2015. He could have been stopped in 2015, which was not possible by the time Owen Smith ran against him. This is why what happens after the vote on June 8th is so important. The Labour right are hoping Corbyn will step down, so they can re-establish their old dominion.
However, the right has no guarantee of a clear victory. Even if Corbyn steps aside, having lost the election, the party membership remains overwhelmingly Corbynite in character. So the next leader will have to be of the left. And the electoral defeat does not change the fact that the Blairites and Brownites have no alternative waiting in the wings. They’ve conveniently forgotten this since the last election.
Unless the right can purge the entire membership and recapture the leadership, the Labour Party may remain stuck in the hands of the left regardless of how the election goes. It might even be harder if a high number of right-wing MPs lose seats. This could mean the transformation of the party is still on the cards, but the real problem may be the viability of the party as it is today. What remains possible in this scenario cannot be answered by the election.
What should the left’s attitude be then? Even if you think it’s hopeless you just have to vote Labour, turn out to marches and meetings, and canvass if you can. You do whatever you can in your area. The struggle goes on, as would be the case even if Corbyn won the election with a landslide. It’s not over once Labour gets back into power. What we need is a stoic attitude.
A friend of mine went to Gadz Café the other day. The Lebanese café, based at the back of Finsbury Park station, is a favourite lunch option for Jeremy Corbyn. The owner Hussein Jabar has decorated the walls with cut-outs of the Labour leader. My friend asked Hussein how he feels about Corbyn’s chances. He did not hesitate to say: “It doesn’t matter. We must fight with him until the end.”
Photograph courtesy of Garry Knight. Published under a Creative Commons license.