Labour Goes into the Summer on the Back Foot
Unlike those of God, the mills of politics grind quickly but they do grind finely.
On June 8th, Theresa May went from being a prime minister who commanded all she surveyed to one whose authority was nothing more than a joke. The extent of her decline was seen when, interviewed by Iain Dale on LBC, she begged for order from her Cabinet: no minister was unsackable, she claimed.
Labour’s unexpectedly good defeat, followed by the awful Grenfell fire, left the Tories questioning their raison d’etre. The extraordinary turnaround in political fortunes was symbolised by the huge crowd at Glastonbury singing “Oh! Jeremy Corbyn!”
Yet as Parliament has gone into recess, a temporary harmony has overtaken the Tories and it is Labour who is on the back foot.
The Cabinet truce was displayed by Liam Fox’s speech in which he talked about a growing Cabinet consensus on the terms of a Brexit transition. That leadership talk has calmed a little is a sign that ministers recognised their overreach. With “Don’t Know” beating any candidate, there is no clear frontrunner to succeed the Prime Minister.
Meanwhile, the trailed new policy on transgender rights demonstrates that social policy will not be run from Belfast. In putting it forward, the Conservatives are willing Labour to support them. They are hoping that they can edge back into the mainstream of UK politics - with Labour’s help.
The shame is that Labour now has the same policy as Ukip
There is also an element of chickens coming home to roost. Labour ran an election campaign largely free of media scrutiny. Instead of questioning Labour’s policy, the media focussed on the many skeletons in Corbyn’s closet. Rightly or wrongly, voters ignored these skeletons and voted Labour.
The media’s failure allowed the leader to make wild pledges as he did to NME when he talked about existing student debt. Alongside promising to abolishing tuition fees for future students, he appeared to do the same for existing student debt: “I will deal with it,” he said.
Post-election, the interview has put Labour’s education spokesperson, Angela Rayner, onto the defensive. First admitting it as pledge, she was then forced to deny it was Labour policy.
Unfairly, the argument makes Rayner look bad but the original crime was by Corbyn himself. It was part and parcel of Labour’s Trumpian approach to the election. That the leader of the opposition was allowed to make a £76bn “pledge” with impunity shows how lacklustre the Tory machine really was. That he is now denying it, shows Corbyn to be a merely politician not the Second Coming.
Labour’s problems go further and are more fundamental. It is best left to psephologists to examine the exact nature of voting patterns, but a reaction against Theresa May’s hardline stance on Brexit undeniably gained Labour votes.
Unlike the Conservatives, Labour’s position was studiously ambiguous. Keir Starmer straddled the fence ably enough to attract both Remainers and Brexiters. It was a sign though of Labour’s inherent weakness on Brexit. They are split and therefore can offer no genuine, or sensible, alternative to the Tory extemists.
At first, supporters castigated Chuka Umunna for proposing a Queen’s Speech amendment in favour of the Single Market. This was not the time, they said. Now, as Shadow Trade Secretary Barry Gardiner has repudiated both the Single Market and Customs’ Union, they are discovering the joys of Hard Brexit with the zeal of converts. The sight of pro-Corbyn supporters putting man before country is one of the minor pleasures of observing politics. It is a bit like the last meal of the condemned though.
Corbyn, the great believer in party democracy, has come off the fence onto the side rejected by Labour members. The shame is that Labour now has the same policy as Ukip. The greater shame - and it is for Corbyn personally - is that to justify his position, he has used the party’s language. Blaming immigrants for working conditions is straight out of the Farage handbook.
Labour’s Brexit is as hard and as ideologcal as any Tory one
As they go into the summer break, the Tories have got off the floor. Having ceded the argument to Labour during the election, they are determined not to again. They are not the most successful Western political party for nothing.
The election exposed May’s tin ear for political mood music. Post-election, Labour’s overconfidence might have exposed theirs.
Labour’s vote was not a full-throttled endorsement of Corbynism: there were many reluctant Labour voters. It is extraordinary that Labour is ahead in the polls. But his lead is waferthin and May still leads on who will make the best PM. After Grenfell, nakedly partisan (rather than political) accusations, such as John McDonnell’s reference to “social murder”, were unpleasant, assuming and off-putting.
It is perhaps this complacency that will skewer Labour. Or perhaps it will be the slow realisation that Labour’s Brexit is as hard and as ideological as any Tory one, making a mockery of the idea that Labour will put “jobs first”.
The government may be negotiating Britain off a cliff edge by rejecting the Single Market and Customs’ Union. In doing so, they might destroy their supposed reputation for economic management. The one thing that could stop Labour benefitting from this is if it has the same policy. And that is just what Corbyn has done.
It was Henry Longfellow who completed the ancient aphorism: “Though with patience He stands waiting, with exactness grinds He all.”
In politics, it is voters who take retribution.
About the author
Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).
A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.
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