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Labour must get over its myth of 2017 if it is to win again

February 29th, 2020

A well-timed aberration is still an aberration

Keir Starmer looks well set to win Labour’s leadership election in April. After securing comfortable leads among MPs, CLPs and affiliate organisations in the previous rounds, YouGov reported this week that he holds a 22% lead over Rebecca Long-Bailey, and is more likely than not to win on the first round.

If he does, it will be in no small part down to the last set of rule changes which at the time were thought to favour the left. YouGov puts him on 53%; under the old rules, Jess Philips and Emily Thornberry would probably have taken enough to deny him a symbolic outright win.

Quite where he will lead Labour is a different matter. Starmer has been remarkably adept at remaining a blankish sheet of paper; appearing at once to be both a continuity and change candidate. While that duality is possible to pull off – you can maintain many of the policies while clothing the party in a quite different style – in reality there will come a point where the Corbyn legacy must be appeased or confronted.

Some of that is about dropping Corbyn’s more ridiculous policies: the free broadband or what might as well be a Kremlin-approved foreign policy. Some of it is also about renewing and refreshing both the personnel and the culture of Labour’s HQ. But before winning the future, first Starmer must win the past.

Even now, many Labour activists will cite 2017 as something akin to a great victory. If it’s not the great recovery in the campaign (leave aside who dug the hole Corbyn climbed out of, and who supplied the opportunity for him to do so), then it’s that Labour won a tremendous number of votes – over 2m more than Labour won in any other election this century.

Such arguments have the tremendous advantage of being true. They might well ignore the important point that Labour still lost but for many Corbyn-supporters, that doesn’t matter: they show that his policies were popular or at least, that they can’t have been all that unpopular if they outpolled Blair, Brown and Miliband.

The trap here is that it’s easy to try to critique that analysis – to point out the other reasons Labour did relatively well and recovered during the campaign which didn’t happen because of Corbyn and sometimes despite him – but that to do so would be a mistake.

The right argument is that even if 2017 was a glorious defeat, it was also the one ray of false dawn in what was otherwise a four-year long record of failure, and that the consistency of the rest of the record represents the public’s genuine verdict on the out-going leader.

To remind ourselves of just how badly Corbyn did, here are a few of the low-lights:

  • A net loss in Westminster by-elections during 2015-20, including the first loss by an opposition party to the government in over 30 years
  • Finished third, losing to the Lib Dems, in the 2019 European Parliament elections
  • Lost a third of Labour’s MSPs in the 2016 Holyrood election, to finish behind the Tories
  • Lost around 400 councillors and 13 councils in net terms across the 2016-19 May rounds of local government elections
  • Worst ever net satisfaction rating by a Leader of the opposition
  • Failed to prevent Brexit, either at the referendum or afterwards
  • The smallest Labour PLP since 1935 (2019GE)

No opposition has ever endured such a lengthy and wide-ranging record of failure. Even the likes of Hague and Duncan Smith racked up decent local government gains and an EP election win. Put simply, the 2017 general election was not representative of some underlying truth; it was the aberration outside a truth that was all too obvious everywhere else.

And that is the point Labour needs to accept if it is going to move on and up. Certainly, there is no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater – but there is a need to throw out the bathwater.

Can Starmer do that? Can he change the culture and tone of the party, and perhaps the policy direction, while also staying true to his desire to unify Labour and not pick internal fights? I don’t think so; it’s one or the other – or if he plays it right, it’s one after the other, with a necessary fight and then unity around a new consensus. But to get there, first the Myth of 2017 must be debunked.

David Herdson

p.s. Last week I tipped Bernie Sanders at 10/11 for the Democrat nomination and 7/2 for the White House. Those odds have barely shifted (he’s now 100/30 for the presidency but still 10/11 for the nomination). These odds are nuts and huge value.

Sanders has built up a big national lead, and an even bigger one in California with its huge number of delegates. Even if he loses badly in South Carolina (which is possible), I don’t see that doing anything other than trimming his Super Tuesday lead, not least because of so much early voting in the bag. I think he’s now about an 80% shot for the nomination and, given Trump’s typically self-centred and quite possibly grossly inadequate reaction to the coronavirus outbreak, should now be favourite in a head-to-head with Trump, the president’s skill at negative campaigning notwithstanding. The polls already give Sanders a healthy lead and while they gave Hillary a healthy lead much later in 2016, I think it’s different this time. It will be a lot harder to campaign negatively effectively if Trump’s own ratings tank, which is now entirely possible if the economy takes a downturn, never mind if he’s perceived to have seriously mismanaged the health crisis – both of which are now big risks.