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Johnson’s strength is his divided opposition – is Labour brave enough to respond?

With Boris Johnson vocally setting up 'the people vs parliamentary elites' and promising a public spending splurge, the terrain of opposition has to fundamentally change.

Mark Perryman
1 August 2019
Boris Johnson outside Downing Street
Boris Johnson outside Downing Street
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Dominic Lipinski/PA Images

Poll bounce or no bounce, new Prime Minister Boris Johnson is unlikely to be keen on throwing his slim majority away on an almighty gamble – after all, his entire political career has been about this moment. But he may have no choice. So he’s got a twin-track strategy to stack up the odds of winning, if it comes to that.

First, to build the maximum momentum towards his ‘do or die’ 31st October Brexit deadline, which when thwarted he’ll entirely blame on a parliamentary elite in cahoots with their Brussels mates. Second, to ignore any usual customary costings and responsibility to implement in an almighty splurge of public spending commitments.

Together these can seriously wrongfoot the opposition and potentially hand Johnson the much increased majority he craves to secure his Premiership for the long-term.

Win some, lose some?

With the opposing parties fragmented and maintaining tribal loyalties, if Johnson fights an early general election as ‘the will of the people vs the parliamentary elite’ then the fallout in votes is pretty obvious. Assuming it’s ‘No Deal’ on offer, he’ll most likely get the boost he needs to win, reducing the Brexit Party to an insignificant rump in the process. He’ll lose some of the Cameron social-liberal Tory vote to the Lib-Dems but it’s quite doubtful much of that remains, given the Brexit trajectory of the Tories since the referendum.

Meanwhile Labour’s loss of voters to the Lib-Dems while unlikely to be on the scale of the Euro Elections will be significant enough to cost it seats and fail to gain some targets. In Scotland, with absolutely no sign of a Labour recovery, Labour gaining its 18 target Scottish target seats looks like a forlorn ambition. It is more likely to lose seats, 4 of which have majorities under 1000. With the Tories’ Scottish seats vulnerable too, the SNP is likely to emerge not far short of its 2015 landslide.

The Greens? The harsh truth is that despite any surge, they remain no closer to winning anywhere other in than Caroline Lucas’s Brighton seat than they have ever been.

Tactical campaigning, not tactical voting

Our first past the post system is spectacularly ill-equipped to deal with the emerging fragmentation of voter loyalties, and to steer their way to victory the opposition parties need to face up to the implications of this and fast.

Perhaps in a handful of seats the Greens may stand down, though their experience in 2017 where they got nothing in return means it is less likely this time round. There will be various tactical voting initiatives, but these will be almost entirely lost once the whole furore of a General Election campaign kicks in.

A smarter move is tactical campaigning. Labour has 66 target seats and a further 19 with sub-1000 majorities it has to defend. Win / save the lot, and it has an overall majority, but right now that seems a long shot. Brexit has changed the dynamic in too many of those seats, and the list is too broad now. Tactical campaigning is the recognition that while some of those seats remain winnable, or saveable, others aren’t - forget them, and use your campaigning resources accordingly, without exception. Brutal, but to win Labour is going to have to be every bit as ruthless as Johnson. In particular Momentum’s brilliant 2017 online tool ‘My nearest Marginal’ campaign tool needs to be recalculated, to focus on where Labour can now best win, sending tens of thousands of campaigners to those seats

Labour also needs to renew its focus on first time voters – and another huge voter registration drive – as these factors undoubtedly contributed to its 2017 result. These are the voters for whom Johnson is part of the establishment in a way Corbyn never has been, and still isn’t.

The big offer – and the Corbyn factor

But first-time (and second-time) voters, whilst they should shape Labour’s campaign, won’t be nearly enough on their own. Nor will Labour’s core vote. Any party, including Corbyn’s Labour, has to reach out. This is where the ‘hardness’ of the hard left tradition Corbyn comes from, is in danger of getting things so very wrong.

It’s tough, of course. At the moment, tribal point-scoring prevails on most sides, Plaid Cymru and the Greens sensibly standing down in favour of the Lib-Dems in the by-election in Brecon and Radnorshire, where they were never going to win, is very much the exception.

Much more typical was Jo Swinson launching her leadership by declaring Corbyn a Brexiteer – but this statement defies logic, given that her party’s MPs have marched through the lobbies with Labour to defeat May’s deal, time and time again. Labour’s position isn’t as ‘pro-Remain’ as the Liberal Democrats but it’s never been pro- Tory Brexit either. Bringing an early end to May’s premiership proves that, and if the opposition to Johnson is to be maximised there has to be a degree of recognition of this.

The same can be said of the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens, for their own short-term interests each treating Labour, or more specifically Jeremy Corbyn, as every bit as much of a problem as the Tories. Where does that get us?

But Labour’s response is a problem too. Heaping all her track record as part of the Con-Dem coalition of Cameron and Clegg on to Jo Swinson just drives away left-leaning voters who flirt with voting Lib Dem every now and then. During the Blair years, for some left-leaning voters to vote Lib Dem was to vote against the Iraq War, now for many it is to vote against Brexit. The Greens attract left leaning pro-remain votes from those who still can’t quite stomach voting Lib-Dem, as well as those to whom green issues appeal and politics as usual doesn’t. And the same goes for the appeal of the SNP, with their increased votes as much about recording Scottish opposition to Brexit as necessarily for independence. Labour insults the intelligence of all these voters the party has lost since 2017 at its electoral peril.

So for Labour to reach out needs three key elements.

First, a vote for Labour is against No Deal, for a referendum on any deal.

Second, it should be for the Scottish Parliament to decide on having an independence referendum, not Westminster.

Third, this will be a Climate Emergency government.

The first and the second won’t satisfy everyone in Labour’s own ranks. The third goes against some trade unions’ sectional defence of airport expansion, nuclear power and fracking. Tough. This is a programme to win the broadest possible support for Labour that doesn’t soften its radical appeal, not one bit. Triangulation from the Left.

The magic of the money tree

Such a broad appeal is the only way to stand any kind of chance in the face of the Tories twin track campaign - against the ‘parliamentary elite’ and for a huge public spending programme. Neither may wash, but that doesn’t mean they won’t work, as countless defeats of the Left should be enough to tell us.

A race to outbid Johnson on his ever-increasing spending plans is dubious politics. Rather the message should be about who spends the money and how. The superlative Angela Rayner on education shows the way - the party that rolled out much-hated academies, versus the party that would abolish them to return our schools to their communities, teachers and parents to run. and Labour needs to ensure this becomes the narrative across the board. Labour should steer the debate away from the ever-spiralling amounts of money Johnson pledges to spend, and towards the party of failed privatisation vs the party of improved public service. If it can’t this is potentially where Labour is most vulnerable.

Getting Boris wrong

‘Maggie, Maggie, Maggie. Out! Out! Out!’ didn’t get rid of her or John Major for the best part of two decades. And neither will Fck Boris. This is feel-good politics masquerading as resistance. Nor is the liberal left version very much better, focusing on the Eton-educated bad boys using dodgy Facebook ads to win votes. Yes, we know all that, it makes us feel good telling ourselves so – but it didn’t stop the country voting Leave, and similar strategies haven’t dented Trumps chances across the Atlantic either.

A Coalition of Chaos?

Since the 2015 General Election, the spectre of those Tory posters of Ed Miliband in Alex Salmond’s pocket, ‘the coalition of chaos’ has haunted Labour. But when May invited the DUP into Number Ten she replaced the coalition of chaos with the coalition from hell. Game on.

Of course, Labour is never going to campaign for a coalition government – they fight to win an overall majority. But fighting to win is very different to ruling out the possibility that such a result may not be delivered by voters.

What does Labour achieve by ruling out refusing to discuss, the possibility of coalition? Nothing. Instead it has plenty to gain by entertaining the idea, if required, in the national interest if that is what the voters demand. And the same of course goes for the rest of the opposition parties. With Johnson’s No Deal centre stage, on what possible basis could they consider a coalition with him, and if not with the Tories, with whom?

Meanwhile, even to reach the stage where a Labour-led coalition is possible, Labour has to win the most seats – which focuses minds over the ballot paper, doesn't it?

Can Labour win?

Who knows? The kamikaze Labour centre-right are convinced it can’t under Corbyn and aren’t exactly backward at saying so. Many of Jeremy’s most vocally critical MPs are sitting on hugely increased 2017 majorities, due less (whatever they may like to think) to the candidate’s personal qualities, as to the popular appeal of the For the Many Not the Few manifesto.

But painful as it might be to point out, that manifesto didn’t actually win the election for Labour last time. And this time Labour face Johnson and Swinson, infinitely better campaigners than May and Farron. If Labour fights 2019 (or whenever it might come) on the terrain of 2017 it will surely lose, and badly. This is little or nothing to do with Jeremy Corbyn, it’s the party’s strategy that matters, and Corbyn is as capable of representing the shifts I set out above – on the environment, on Scottish independence, and on Brexit – as anyone. Indeed Corbyn making them will have immeasurably more impact than coming from someone else, least of all his dogged critics. The terrain isn’t of Labour’s choosing, but it is the basis on which it can win – in all probability not on its own but with other parties too. With such shifts, everything becomes possible. Such is what dreams are made of.

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