The two byelections to be held this Thursday (23rd February) could save the Labour Party from its headlong rush off the edge of the political precipice into electoral oblivion, but only if the party loses one, or both, of the two seats which it previously held.
The situation in the Parliamentary Labour Party remains dire. More splits over the votes on Brexit, more resignations of able Members of Parliament from the Shadow Cabinet, more rumours about Jeremy Corbyn being told to resign the Leadership, more manoeuvring by potential assassins and successors, and more flexing of their muscles by the party’s trade union paymasters over at Unite the Union.
The bizarre situation in which some sensible, moderate Labour MPs now find themselves is that they must work hard and be seen to work hard for a Labour victory to replace those two former colleagues, Tristram Hunt (formerly Labour MP for Stoke on Trent Central) and Jamie Reed (formerly Labour MP for Copeland) who both resigned their Parliamentary seats in large part because of despair over Labour’s prospects under the seemingly cursed leadership of Jeremy Corbyn.
Yet, at the same time, many of those same, sensible, moderate Labour Members are probably hoping that either the Conservatives, or Ukip, or both, might yet save Labour from its Leader by taking those seats off the party and giving a solid reason to eject Corbyn from the office to which he is clinging so desperately and so disastrously for Labour.
If Labour holds both the seats that are up for grabs this week, then Jeremy Corbyn’s position as Labour Leader will be secure for a while because, he will be able to argue, the Party is demonstrably not unelectable under his leadership. But, these seats should never have been in any doubt. Oppositions should be hoovering up seats from the Government in byelections at this stage of a Parliament. That Labour’s best case scenario is to hold what it already has in terms of MP numbers rather than steadily and significantly increase them, is an indicator of the parlous performance of the party in the opinion polls and, more importantly, in the voting booth.
The longer Jeremy Corbyn remains in office, unable to control his own Parliamentary Party, unable to connect with the concerns of the electorate, unable to accept that the country is not ready to countenance a return to the hard left, union dictated, economic shambles that was Labour Government in the 1970s, the lower Labour’s popularity will fall.
But, Corbyn won’t be out of the woods even if he does hold the two seats in this week’s Westminster parliamentary byelections. There’s trouble brewing; deep, dark trouble, for Corbyn and Labour in Scotland. All 32 of Scotland’s local councils face elections on 4th May, with 394 Labour council seats up for grabs. There was a time when Labour was the real force to be reckoned with in Scotland and Labour local government candidates could expect to be a shoe-in in many places. But, today, the party is in dire Scottish straits.
The level of support for Labour in Scotland is currently, according to a recent opinion poll, at a paltry 15%; lagging a staggering 12% behind the Conservatives who are on 27%. Labour in Scotland are getting desperate and in an attempt to carve out a new niche for themselves have published a raft of new policy proposals in a “vision for local government” that promises higher spending on care services and schools.
The Scottish electorate are not fools, they have learned to be discerning and cynical about promises made by politicians; and voters realise that Labour simply cannot deliver through local government candidates the changes Labour have promised. The delivery of those promises would require Labour to control the Scottish Parliament and Government. It does not have that control; that role falls squarely to the Scottish National Party. What is more, some of the ways in which Scottish Labour has suggested it would raise the money for its spending promises, such as proposed rises to income and property tax and new land and tourism taxes, are hardly likely to win over businesses, taxpayers or voters.
The Scottish Labour Leader, Kezia Dugdale, has tried to carve out a clear role and political position for her party in Scotland by calling for a more federal United Kingdom as Labour’s positive response to the rejection of Scottish independence, only to have that vision slapped down by Jeremy Corby in Westminster. As such internal tensions continue, it’s hardly surprising that Labour in Scotland is increasingly seen as a contaminated brand, an occupying force of just another “Westminster party”.
Corbyn cannot rest easy about his party’s standing in England and Wales either. The same crucial date, 4th May, sees 35 councils in England and all 22 Welsh councils up for election at the same time as 8 polls for directly elected mayors in major English cities. The results of these elections will be mixed. Labour is expected, through its selection of popular, high profile candidates, to secure most key mayoral positions, and there’s at present no force equivalent to the SNP in Wales to cost it too many seats there. Yet, even though Labour doesn’t control the majority of the councils up for grabs in England, the polling there will send a very clear message about Labour’s standing in the minds of the electorate.
If there is a major cull of Labour councillors in Scotland, if Labour fails to deliver success in the mayoral elections and local elections in England on 4th May, then that could be the tipping point for Jeremy Corbyn even if he survives this week’s byelections. May the 4th be with you, Labour; that date could indeed yet prove to be the dawn of your Deliverance Day!
As this column has consistently argued, our constitutional arrangements need an effective Opposition in our Westminster Parliament. But, what we actually have is a lame duck Labour Leader whose brand of politics is electorally toxic.
Cllr Chris Whitehouse KCSG is Chairman of Westminster’s leading political consultancy, www.whitehouseconsulting.co.uk, Secretary of the Catholic Legislators’ Network, a Trustee of the Right To Life Charitable Trust, and a Member of the Isle of Wight Council (Cons. Newport West).