Labour’s choice: visible change or terminal decline

After its worst result since 1935, Labour has only one chance to get back into the zone where it could dislodge the Conservatives from power in 2024.

Yes, 2024 – it’s a truly depressing thought, but that’s when we are looking at the chance of winning an election (1). In the meantime those who need a Labour Government most will suffer the most.

On Thursday night as the exit poll (those things the cultists tell us we are not meant to believe) accurately set out the horror that was to follow, the proprietor of the Momentum company and Labour NEC member, Jon Lansman, said:

“Democracy gives power to people, “Winning” is the small bit that matters to political elites who want to keep power themselves.”

For Mr Lansman, a wealthy individual, taking a 30 year view of “winning” is probably fine, but for many of us “winning” is the big bit that enables Labour to deliver for the people it seeks to represent.

The greatest betrayal of all, the most objectively right wing act for a party that seeks social justice, is to lose and so remain powerless to deliver. This is why every Labour Prime Minister will be objectively further to the left than Bennites like Mr Lansman – because they did what was needed to win and deliver for people. If Labour consistently fails to deliver the people who need a plausible alternative will look elsewhere and Labour will shrink toward irrelevance.

So only one chance to realign ourselves with realistically seeking power. Elections are only partly about policy. Perhaps they should be entirely, but they are not. They are also about fitness to govern, economic competence and the quality of leadership – especially the potential Prime Minister on offer.

One chance. Labour can not go into an election with a leader so manifestly despised by so much of the electorate as was Jeremy Corbyn. In some respects it doesn’t even matter why Mr Corbyn was despised – but anyone who knocked on any doors at all knows all to well that this was the case – even if they choose to deny the reality publicly. But failures in politics are rarely individual, Mr Corbyn’s colleagues in the shadow cabinet knew very well how much of a drag on the party their leader was. It was clear at the European Elections that the game was up for Mr Corbyn, his credibility destroyed by successive defeats in local and European polls and fatally undermined by the antisemitism affair. At that point the comrades in grey should have made clear that a dignified exit would be his best service to Labour’s electoral prospects. I did not call for Mr Corbyn’s removal because, coming from me, it would have served no purpose – only those close to him could have dealt with the problem from Islington North. By indulging continued failed the Bennite leadership failed their duty to the party the country and the people who’s interests they claim to serve. Now there are those who would say that Jeremy Corbyn was unfairly treated by the media. I agree – he was – but it isn’t as if we didn’t know the nature of most of the media. It isn’t as if every Labour leader is not demonised by two papers in particular and the rest frequently. Deal with it or lose – but to deal with it the raw material has to be plausible. Jeremy Corbyn was not.

Fitness to govern amounts to many things. Divided parties rarely win – but in 2019 both the main parties appeared divided. However Conservative messaging was far superior. Their central, most plausible if dishonest message, “get Brexit done”, chimed with most of those who voted leave and to many who were simply so tired of the whole thing they were prepared to vote against their instincts in the hope that it would go away. Labour by contrast had started in the wrong place on Brexit, shifting position uncomfortably and ending up a perfectly reasonable but largely unpresentable policy. Brexit was and will probably remain for some time the greatest issue of the day. It is simple not possible for the Leader of the Opposition not to express a clear view on such a crucial question. Clarity from leaders is everything.

Those who attempt to pin the blame on Labour’s support for a second vote are wrong. Lack of clarity and shape shifting was the problem. Labour damaged itself on Brexit over years not weeks. Without ambivalent leadership and the resulting confusion of the Labour vote at the referendum Brexit probably would never have happened in the first place. The imposed whip in favour of Theresa May’s premature declaration of Article 50 sold the pass when an abstention would have made sense, the wording of the 2017 manifesto and the lack of strategy in holding the Government to account made things worse. By the time we got to a second vote Labour was no longer trying to persuade, it was simple seen as driven there by fear of the Liberal Democrats.

It should have been clear from the start. A leadership of known ‘lexiteers’ who professed a member-led party faced an overwhelmingly pro-European membership. It was never possible to unite Labour around ‘leaving’ – two out of three of Labour voters, most MPs and MEPs and four out of five members simple wouldn’t allow it. The fudge proved unsustainable and was respected by neither leavers nor remainers in the country. The view that Labour’s leader did not believe in the party’s position further undermined any notion of trust. His unwillingness during the campaign to express a view was the final blow. (2)

Fitness to govern also requires a plausible programme for Government, that demonstrates economic competence. Labour’s manifesto did anything but. Ruinously fiscally irresponsible and politically undeliverable without a very large majority, it lacked any notion that the economy even matters;  that wealth must be created before it can be distributed. There was no recognition of the role of business nor what a Labour government would do to ensure firms could prosper and deliver the taxation that we should rightly expect of them. Instead the notion seemed to be that the economy would be driven by state intervention. That has simply never worked. Neither were there priorities – everything seemed to be ‘free’ and everything seemed be a priority in a programme that would have been ambitious over three terms of Government let alone one. Taken one by one many of the policies may have been popular (though some clearly less so) however as a programme for government it was absurd and not worthy of trust.

The election should have been entirely winnable (3). Boris Johnson was widely understood to be a proven liar, the Conservatives were divided, their own programme was also fiscally irresponsible and based on promises not believed, they had failed on their management of Brexit. However Labour was thought to be worse and the leader of the opposition less even less trusted than the proven liar.

So we have one chance to put it right. It involves a visible willingness to change, electing a plausible leader, a coherent programme that establishes economic credibility, ensuring the government is held to account in a way that has not been the case, that every election is taken seriously and what is necessary to win is done.

The alternative is a continuation of Corbynism without Corbyn and the terminal decline of Labour.

John Howarth MEP

(1) December 2024 assumes a five year Parliament – but it’s a pretty good bet that the Johnson Government will scrap the Fixed Term Parliament Act, giving back to the PM the choice of election date – I’d expect a poll in May or June 2024 at the very latest.
(2) The progression of Labour’s shambles on Brexit is abridged here – there is a lot more to say.
(3) The election actually should never have taken place.