By Jake Wilde
Professional commentators and columnists are obliged to take a broad, holistic view of the political landscape, to consider their audience and to write in such a way that connects with the thousands, maybe millions, who read their views. They can’t afford to be too narrow in their focus because there’s only so many politics trainspotters like me (and, if you’re reading this, you) out there.
I, by contrast, can be as niche as I please. I’ve written about subjects other than the Labour Party, but I don’t write about the Tories, the Liberals or the nationalists because I am not particularly interested in them and I wouldn’t consider voting for them. On the one hand that frees me to focus on the space usually and generally occupied by the broad church Labour Party. On the other there’s the risk that I view everything through this prism and I’m conscious of this flaw.
So when I look at this snap election I see it as only being about one thing – the state of the Labour Party. I know that it’s billed as being about strengthening May’s hand in Brexit negotiations, and about giving her, and her government, a mandate they arguably don’t possess, but I simply don’t think that’s true. However, and hence my preamble, I am aware that I might just be blinded by my perspective. That my focus on my niche has made me think that the only reason we’re having this election now is that 21 point lead in the polls. That May looks at those polls and thinks, “this is when politicians call elections and I have these plausible (Brexit & mandate) ‘reasons’ for doing so.” As John Rentoul wrote today “everyone knows that the purpose of this election is not to decide who will win, but how much she [May] will win by”.
I’ll explain why I think I’m right, and you can decide if I’m just confirming my own bias. For this election to be predominantly about Brexit two things would need to be true. Firstly there would have to be two different options on offer from the two potential governments. Are there? At this stage I’m not even sure there’s one option on offer. If the argument is about strengthening the PM’s hand, and not about collectively agreeing our aims and objectives, then we are being asked to sign a blank cheque. The only reason for such a request is the absence of any coherent alternative being offered by an alternative government. Thus the election is actually about the competency of the Labour Party and not about Brexit.
Secondly it would need to be the case that Parliament is the best place to articulate opposition to ‘bad Brexit’. Oliver Kamm wrote that it is acceptable to vote for individual Labour candidates who oppose Brexit (or possibly Brexit at any cost). This is based upon the theory that we need, after the election, the House of Commons to contain enough MPs prepared to challenge May’s desired hegemony. (And to break party discipline if necessary.) However it’s surely not sufficient just to challenge, that challenge also has to be effective. Yet only 114 of the current crop of parliamentarians voted against triggering Article 50, to precisely zero effect. I would suggest that greater challenge, to greater effect, has come from outside Parliament and this will become more, not less, important after a general election purporting to give an individual a mandate to pursue as yet unspecified outcomes. The battle against a bad Brexit won’t be won in Parliament – Corbyn has seen to that already.
Alternatively, if I’m right and this election is a referendum on the Labour Party above all else, it’s the chance for the moderates to call in the cavalry. The contention from the moderates has always been that the selectorate (those voting in the Labour leadership election) is different from the electorate. That people who normally vote Labour will simply not vote for this incarnation of the party. That nobody in the middle, those crucial swing voters, will swing as far left as Corbyn wants or needs them to. That Britons will burst the Corbynista bubble, decisively and clearly.
So this is why I argue that the scale of the defeat is the most important thing. It needs to be so overwhelming that the Corbynistas can rescue nothing from the ashes.
John Rentoul’s article today was about the next Labour leadership election, who might be candidates from the Corbynista faction and the numbers they’d need to stand. If the rejection of Corbynism is sufficiently great then that whole debate will return to being the sideshow is used to be, when it really didn’t matter who the far left chose. And frankly if the hopes of the moderates are based on preventing the far left from taking part in the competition then we ought to be planning for a split instead.
You know when you get so drunk that you have a hangover so bad that it makes you cry with pain, and you swear that you’ll never get that drunk again? But then, as time goes by, you forget the pain until one day there you are again, drinking like there’s no tomorrow, having forgotten the agony of the inevitable outcome. Labour have forgotten 1983 and are drinking hard right now. The electorate are guaranteed to give them a hangover but it needs to be one that the party never forgets.
Theresa May is only interested in capitalising on Labour’s drunkenness for her, and her party’s, benefit. And in the short term she’s right and she will indeed benefit. But there’s a way, an opportunity, to find some measure of victory for the opposition to May as well, beyond the Kammite rescue of individuals. As surely as Foot led to Blair, without that defeat in 1983 there wouldn’t have been 13 years of a Labour government. This election is about a Labour defeat in 2017, but it can also be the first step to a Labour victory.