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Corbyn’s Labour and the general election: is it to be Heaven or Hell?

Written by Steven Fielding.

When Theresa May called a snap election she did so for two reasons. The early summer is her last chance to hold a contest before the start of Brexit negotiations. And the Conservatives’ commanding lead over Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party meant May was confident she could win a big Commons majority that would see her through the tricky Brexit process and beyond.

Labour could do nothing about the timing of Brexit negotiations but has only itself to blame for the weakened state in which it currently finds itself.  The 2015 election was devastating for Labour: the polls had incorrectly predicted a hung Parliament. But the silver lining was that David Cameron’s unexpected Conservative government had a majority of just 12 seats and was about to hold a referendum on the EU about which it was seriously divided. If Labour members had elected a more adept leader to replace Ed Miliband, one with greater credibility in key voters’ eyes, the party had some hope of rebuilding itself during the new Parliament. For while Miliband’s leadership was flawed, his talk of the ‘squeezed middle’ and ‘One Nation’ resonated with the public.

Instead, nearly 60 per cent of Labour members elected Jeremy Corbyn their leader. In doing that, as many electoral experts warned at the time, the party waved goodbye to any chance of winning the next general election. But, if threatened with Electoral Hell, most Corbyn supporters nonetheless believed he would lead Labour to victory. For many however that was not the most important consideration: voting Corbyn meant they were transported to Ideological Heaven.

As their response to his revision of Clause Four in 1995 proves, not all Labour members took to Tony Blair. But if uncomfortable with his courting of Conservative voters they tolerated him for winning three back-to-back elections. However after the 2008 financial crash, what some call ‘Blairism’ lost its electoral magic while to many members’ eyes the New Labour years were damned by the Iraq War and a domestic record they considered wanting.  So they turned to Corbyn, an MP who opposed Blairism from the start and stood out against the invasion of Iraq. He also argued that a Labour party true to its core values would storm back into power: as some of the speakers in this 2015 TV debate claimed Corbyn’s Ideological Heaven would end Labour’s Electoral Hell. There was no further need to pander to Conservative voters, apparently.

The enthusiasm generated by Corbyn saw Labour membership double to 550,000 and even spawn an organization – Momentum – committed to advancing his kind of politics within the party and without. But that which made Corbyn catnip for a few hundred thousand members was kryptonite to millions of voters vital to a Labour recovery. And the right wing press helpfully niggled away at Corbyn’s support for terrorism, membership of CND, role in Stop the War and mumbling of the National Anthem.

Afraid of the electoral consequences of a leadership few wanted and incensed by his lackadaisical support for the Remain campaign, 80 per cent of Labour MPs tried to unseat Corbyn in 2016 with mass resignations from his Shadow Cabinet. After Corbyn was returned with even more votes than in 2015, MPs resolved to remain quiet and let him do his job unhindered. If MPs had a strategy it was to allow bad polls and poor election results to drain away Corbyn’s support and perhaps make another move before the next election.

So when May called the election Labour was facing the wrong way, divided and with a leader widely considered too eccentric to be Prime Minister. Labour’s campaign is being fought in light of that. Individual candidates – and the whole Welsh party – pretend Corbyn does not exist. Members of Corbyn’s denuded Shadow Cabinet regularly reveal their lack of experience in interviews. Nobody fronting the campaign think Labour stands a chance of even coming close to winning but they have to pretend in public they do. There is a bizarre unreality to it all, with Corbyn addressing big rallies of keen partisans while he is routinely disparaged whenever a Labour canvasser knocks on a voter’s door. It is being conducted with another and, for the party, a far more significant election in mind: the one for leader that will follow at some point after the election.

When the polls close on June 8th it will be the start of a poor night for Labour, although it is uncertain exactly how bad. Opinion polls suggest the party will do slightly better than the 27.6 per cent it received in 1983, its worst post-war performance, while various calculations make it likely its seat tally will fall below the 209 Michael Foot achieved. Perhaps Labour members will consider that a good result, in the circumstances. And Corbyn’s leading supporters will certainly argue he needs more time to change Labour for the better. This might persuade members to stick with their leader: only they will know how far the pleasure of Ideological Heaven makes the pain of Electoral Hell easier to bear.

Steven Fielding is a Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham. Image credit: CC by Chatham House/Flickr.

Published inBritish PoliticsGeneral Election 2017Labour

2 Comments

  1. Daniel Sutton Daniel Sutton

    Your article is obsessed with personalities. The reason why people opted for JC is less of a mystery to many. After decades of voting for a self defeating orthodoxy the membership have woken up. If there was an alternative, Owen Smith would have had policies or a vision different to JC. The peoples of the UK will follow suit in the coming years when they see that things aren’t getting better.

  2. Andy Andy

    Not much more than a week later this article looks utter garbage. May’s campaign is in bits all over the floor and Corbyn is running rings round May in the TV ‘debates’, no least because May hasn’t turned up to one of them.

    The part of Labour that has done the most to lose the election is the right-wing Blairites. Who knows where Labour would be if they had been behind Corbyn from the beginning, rather than acting like toddlers who had had their future directorships on privatised health company boards taken away.

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