Corbyn addresses the Scottish Trades Union Congress on 24th April. Jane Barlow/PA Images. After repeatedly saying there would be no election before 2020, Theresa May u-turned again, announcing her plan for Britain to return to the polls this June. Her aim is to cement her leadership and wipe Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour off the map.
Timing is ideal for the Conservatives. As well as sweeping the election expenses scandal under the rug, the party enjoys a 20-point lead over Labour and faces little opposition from the right. UKIP has resumed its death spiral after a brief surge following Paul Nuttall’s election, and Aaron Bank’s new populist party is still yet to emerge. May hopes to profit from these wandering working class voters that years before would have voted Labour.
Meanwhile, the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) will be in meltdown. In January, research from the Fabian Society suggested Labour could fall below 150 seats in a snap or 2020 election. Since then, little has improved. Following defeat at the Copeland by-election, the leadership asked for more time while they develop their policy programme. They now have less than 7 weeks until the polls open. In the upcoming local council elections, polls show Labour is on course to lose over 100 seats with major losses continuing in Scotland.
Since June last year, Labour has been caught in an impossible bind, trying to talk to both sets of their supporters who voted Leave and Remain.
Can Labour survive? This election will be all about Brexit and Labour must first pick a side. Since June last year, they have been caught in an impossible bind, trying to talk to both sets of their supporters who voted Leave and Remain. In February, after promising Remain voters they will fight the Tories every step of the way, Corbyn whipped his MP’s to wave through the Great Repeal Bill without a single amendment. Much of their poor polling is owed to this spineless policymaking.
Labour must respond coherently. Following the EU referendum, analysis conducted by the National Centre for Social Research, emphasised the vote “split across traditional party lines.” This means debate over the EU cleaved a new political divide, creating what Guardian journalist John Harris calls “52:48 politics.” In this new political age, standing on the fence won’t convince either side.
Labour obviously cannot and should not try to out-Brexit the Tories, so opposing Brexit and representing the 48% is Labour’s best avenue to win votes. This, in turn, presents an opportunity for Labour to work with the other parties of Remainia, such as the Lib Dems, the SNP and the Greens, to form an ambitious anti-Tory coalition.
In the 1997 election, Tony Blair and Paddy Ashdown discussed how tactical voting could be used between their parties to challenge the Conservatives. On a larger scale, an electoral alliance in 2017 would be unprecedented. The first-past-the-post system makes things difficult, but not impossible. First suggested by Labour MPs Clive Lewis, Lisa Nandy and Jonathan Reynolds following the Brexit vote and proposed in the Richmond by-election, it is something that should not be left off the table.
In this new political age, standing on the fence won’t convince either side.
If Labour could reach an agreement with pro-EU allies in marginal seats, the pact would allow them to better coordinate and prioritise their campaign. Drawn together by their opposition to Brexit, Labour should work to negotiate with other like-minded parties to prevent a Tory majority.
But what can we do about the Corbyn-sized elephant in the room? With only seven weeks until the polls open, even Corbyn’s harshest critics will agree this leaves no time for another leadership contest. For Labour to have any fighting chance of survival, the party must come together.
Undeniably, the polls for the Labour leader look terrible. Corbyn’s image never really recovered from the Tory smear campaign when he was first elected leader. Perhaps, if May had stuck to her word, before 2020 Corbyn might have passed the torch over to an ally, allowing his policies to be presented with a fresh and less toxic face. But it is too late for any of this now. The PLP has an ultimatum. They must rally behind the party or face decimation.
Similarly, Corbyn has a big job ahead. The fear of a snap election is the reason the PLP wanted a new leader. Running against Owen Smith, he knew the road ahead and made the decision to stay on. He must take responsibility as he leads Labour into a general election.
Unified, and with a strategy Labour can look to take on the Tories. Since 2010, we have seen the devastating impact of Tory rule – austerity and Brexit. The latter has unleashed a wave of xenophobia towards minorities and plunged us into a constitutional crisis. We have a Prime Minister telling us we will be stronger outside the EU, while she goes begging for trade deals with squalid autocracies like Bahrain, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. We have a government proposing to check the teeth of migrants upon entry, a government that has tried to force schools to provide lists of foreign students and quietly suspended the safe haven of child refugees. Anyone who is worried about Brexit is accused of “talking our United Kingdom down.”
When he stops banging on about Trident and focuses on domestic politics, Corbyn’s policies are popular.
The Tories will hit Corbyn with everything they have so it is essential Labour does not hold back. They must convince voters that our government is a threat to our values of decency and tolerance. With a hard Brexit, a vote for May is a vote for the UK to become an American lapdog. On Holocaust Memorial Day, May initially refused to condemn Trump’s Muslim travel ban. Labour must argue May does not have the moral leadership to stand up to a volatile American kid-president.
With the French and German elections this year, how we vote could prove hugely influential to the future of Europe. Labour must campaign hard to force a high turnout, by highlighting what exactly is at stake. A vote for Labour must be seen as a vote for stability of the West, for the defence of the EU, the institution that has prevented a major war in the continent since 1945.
When he stops banging on about Trident and focuses on domestic politics, Corbyn’s policies are popular, whether on the railways, the minimum wage and the top rate of income tax. But to have any success, this anti-austerity, pro-EU agenda must be tied together into a single story. Labour must run a tightly focused campaign that is not distracted or baited into discussing irrelevant issues. They must communicate their vision of a brighter, more hopeful future. And they must repeat it again and again.
Thousands have joined the party in the recent hours following May’s announcement. Labour must commit its activist base to a cross-party Remain campaign to rally against Brexit and lock May out of Downing Street. Anything less and it is hard to imagine a Labour party existing after the 8th of June.