Can Labour win in 2020?

I haven’t put anything out on this blog for a while, due to a combination of factors: my phone breaking and being sent in for repair has left me relatively disconnected from the news, I’ve had little free time and when I have been working on this blog, it has been on a few more thought-out essay-type posts that are still in development. To try to keep up some momentum, I offer here a quick (EDIT: turned out to be not quite so quick after all in the end) piece of political analysis.

Can Labour win in 2020?

The press of late has suggested that Jeremy Corbyn’s team is planning to emulate parts of Donald Trump’s strategy to try to win the next UK general election. To describe the policies and personalities of the two men as “different” is an understatement and a half; the strategy however is not necessarily a daft one. Part of the reason for Trump’s victory is that he fought the election on policy. When Hillary Clinton asked American voters to vote for her because of her political experience and fitness for office (juxtaposed to failed adult Trump’s complete lack of both), she was asking Americans to judge her on her personal qualities and attributes. And they did: they judged her on her sincerity, they judged her on her trustworthiness, they judged her on her judgement – and found her sincerely wanting.

Trump on the other hand could not ostensibly care less what people thought of him as a person. He focussed his campaign not on who he was, but what he would do. He was going to ban Muslims from entering the US. He was going to pull America out of some of “the worst trade deals ever.” He was going to build a big, beautiful wall – and Mexico was going to pay for it. If you were to stop Americans on the street at random during the run-up to the vote and ask them to list both candidates’ major policies, chances are they’d find Trump’s far easier to recall.

Beneath the darkly farcical theatrics of the horror show of his campaign, The Donald fought the election on policy – and many of those sympathetic to his ideas and sentiment judged him accordingly. They didn’t view Donald Trump as a great potential president, or even a good person, but as the embarrassing leader of a necessary movement. They went to the polls not thinking that Trump was 100% fit for office, but that a Trump presidency was a necessary evil if the movement was to achieve its aims. If anything, amid the melancholy of the post-crash era, having a terrible leader may sometimes be an advantage, because it takes personal credibility out of the equation and focusses campaigns onto policy.

There are lessons that Corbyn, and Labour, can learn from this. Jeremy Corbyn is not going to win an election on personality. Jeremy Corbyn is not going to win an election on perceived suitability for office. Labour’s only route to victory under Jeremy is to develop a bold, coherent vision for Britain that excites people enough to make a Corbyn premiership seem like a worthwhile sacrifice – a vision that convinces people that they and their country will be better off under Labour, even with JC in Number 10. Such an offer, however, still seems a long way off for the Labour Party.

Until recently, despite the consensus amongst economists being otherwise, the electorate bought into George Osbourne’s line that austerity was necessary to save the economy. Today the public mood is more sceptical, and there is real opportunity for Labour to beat the Tories on the economy. To give them credit, Corbyn and McDonnell recognise this; moreover, many of their economic policies are both practical and potentially popular. The problem is with packaging and communication. Good economic policies seem to be produced at random, rather than as part of a coherent new economic model, and their announcement is draped in so much grievance, sentiment and tribalism that many are put off who might otherwise be curious. If Labour is to win on the economy, it needs to present the public with a consistent, credible economic programme to definitively draw a line under Thatcher’s neoliberalism and – just as bi-partisan Thatcherism supplanted a long period of bi-partisan social democracy – move Britain into a completely new phase of economic thought. Further, this new model must be communicated in the accessible language of pragmatism and efficacy, sans harmful virtue signalling.

Labour’s base has long been an increasingly incongruous alliance of the liberal metropolitan elite and a more socially conservative working-class. Brexit has only propelled this duality into even sharper focus. The fact is, Labour has long relied on (and taken for granted) a peripheral working-class that is not particularly left-wing. Were they in America, they’d have no qualms about voting Republican. In Britain, they could never bring themselves to vote Tory due to history and class; UKIP presents them with no such moral conundrum. Part of the reason the left lost in the US is because liberals focussed too much on patronising the working-class about guns, religion and social issues, and not enough on addressing the economic problems that were severely affecting the American working-class. Though it was certainly a major factor in their near wipeout in Scotland, it would be naïve to put the threat from UKIP down simply to identity politics. If Labour is to fend off the UKIP challenge, it must stop offering the working-class hymns to Labour’s history and “values”, and start offering them solutions.

The British working-class of old did not start voting Labour because they were hardcore Trotskyites whose primary concern was flying the red flag outside parliament; nor have the present working-class abandoned the party because they are disillusioned by its loss of ideological purity. The working-class voted Labour in the past because it offered them four things: security, opportunity, money in their pocket and – thanks to the militaristic patriotism of those like Atlee and Bevan – a country to be proud of. If Labour is to win again, it must dispense with vague, meaningless, sentimental rhubarb about its “values”, and desperate, nostalgic, triumphalist reiteration of its past achievements. If Labour is to win again, it must once more be the bold, pragmatic, patriotic socialist party of Atlee, and offer people security, opportunity, money in their pocket and a country to be proud of.

Furthermore, Corbyn must overcome his perceived (and actual) weakness on defence. A prime minister who makes poor decisions on foreign policy and is a bit of an embarrassment on the world stage can be forgiven if he or she works wonders domestically. A prime minister who is unwilling or incapable of defending the realm is a non-starter. Were Corbyn to ditch his long-held positions on defence issues and, like every other politician, pretend to believe in what he thinks is popular, his entire anti-establishment shtick would be ruined. But, however passionately he may hold the views he does, he must acknowledge they are a hindrance to winning an election and implementing any of his other equally passionately held ideas. Part of what made Trump electable was the presumption that much of the nonsense he spouted wouldn’t actually happen due to various “checks and balances”, including a Republican-controlled House and Senate. Labour can have six good ideas in government or six hundred in opposition – Jeremy must accept this and visibly cede control of defence and security matters (ideally foreign policy also) to tougher characters in the party.

Another crucial issue will be division within the party. Corbyn will not win, or lose, the election on his own. Trump’s open warfare with the Republican establishment, in an election under an executive presidency system, if anything bolstered his appeal among his supporters as an anti-establishment reformer. After getting them in to power, Republicans who had spent the previous months warning of the apocalypse suddenly rallied behind Trump predicting four years of greatness. In a parliamentary democracy, leaders of parties do not have the luxury of acrimony. The public will see no point in electing a Labour government that can’t command the confidence of its own MPs to deliver on its promises.

Corbyn has spent his entire political career as a rebel, campaigning to remove three previous leaders from post, and defying the party whip 537 times. Now, he demands loyalty and takes offence at his MPs trying to topple him. This makes him a hypocrite. Many of his “moderate” critics however have largely supported the leader and obeyed the whip through many incarnations of the Labour Party, because they understand the importance of unity in achieving power and getting things done. Howsoever they endeavour to justify it, that they have understood this previously shows that their extreme defiance of the current leadership is primarily out of spite, not principle.

As much as they might complain about the “hard left” being “unelectable”, the electability of a modern left-wing Labour Party has never actually been tested. In the 80s, the party formally split into socialists and social democrats – and both were beaten resoundingly. Regardless how little esteem each faction holds the other in, both must accept that each has appeal to a sizeable section of the electorate, and Labour only ever wins as a coalition.

During periods of “right-wing” Labour leadership, the party has taken working-class and left-leaning voters for granted. If the anti-Corbyn majority in the PLP wants to prove once and for all that a left-wing Labour party cannot win elections, they should extend to Corbyn the same courtesy they have to other leaders:  get stuck in and ostensibly do everything they can to support the party, the leader and the message – if the party still fails to win, Corbyn will have failed on his own merits and deficiencies. Many on the left will claim that the failure of a left-wing Labour Party under a terrible leader does not prove conclusively that a left-wing Labour government is a pipe-dream, but the argument of the party’s right would certainly be bolstered and the path to unity would be eased. The alternative is a continuation of the present strategy of recalcitrance, in which case inevitable electoral failure will present both camps with a plausible scapegoat.

Those Labour MPs who say they respect the result of the last two leadership elections, then refuse to serve in the shadow cabinet, do not respect the result of the last two leadership elections. Big names with good ideas and the talent to help win elections cannot wash their hands and harp from the sidelines. A decent policy platform is a prerequisite for victory, but once it has been developed a bold reshuffle is required – bringing big beasts back into the cabinet singing from the party hymn-sheet – to send a strong signal to the public that Labour is united and ready for government.

For Labour, winning in 2020 (or sooner) is far from inevitable – in all honesty far from likely – but not impossible. If it does happen, it will largely be despite Corbyn, as opposed to because of him. But Corbyn’s leadership, during a global wave of populism, does allow the party to fight an entirely different type of election – and that’s something the Parliamentary Labour Party need to appreciate and get behind.

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