Before last week’s elections, the Financial Times columnist Janan Ganesh predicted, “the worst for Labour is yet to come”. Labour would do badly this May, he said, but would suffer much worse punishment in the 2020 general election.
Then voters will wake up to Jeremy Corbyn’s extremism, “dealing the party a rout from which there is no promise of recovery”. No doubt there was a big dose of wishful thinking here. Ganesh is an admirer of George Osborne. But in any case the picture looks a bit different now. The BBC’s projected national vote share gave Labour 31 percent to the Tories 30 percent if the results were repeated at a general election.
Compared to the general election a year earlier, this is a small rise in Labour’s vote share, and a drop of nearly seven points in the Tories’.
These figures mask more specific shifts. The Scottish parliamentary elections consolidated Labour’s eclipse north of the border. But it’s ridiculous to blame Corbyn for that.
The responsibility lies with Tony Blair’s mix of neoliberalism and imperialism, and with Ed Miliband and Gordon Brown for nailing the union flag so firmly to Labour’s mast. The Tories’ advance makes a certain amount of sense—if you’re opposed to Scottish independence, why not back an unapologetically unionist party?
The Scottish result underlines that the old Labour-Tory two-party hegemony has gone for good. The electoral terrain has become a more complex multi-party system.
But Labour doesn’t look so badly placed. Its victories in the mayoral elections aren’t simply about the deserved drubbing the wretched Zac Goldsmith suffered in London—they underline Labour’s growing strength in the big cities.
Moreover, now that the hullabaloo over the phoney “Labour antisemitism” issue has died down, maybe more attention will focus what is becoming the real political story of 2016—the crisis in the Tory party.
Margaret Thatcher’s spin-doctors put into her mouth the famous phrase, “The lady’s not for turning.” By contrast, U-turns have become a method of government for David Cameron. Nicky Morgan’s retreat over academies is the latest in a long succession—welfare benefits, aspects of the trade union legislation, Syrian refugee children and more.
The immediate aim is to buy peace and maximise support for the government during the European Union (EU) referendum. This is very obvious in the minor concessions that have been made to the trade union leaders.
But the problem lies a lot deeper. Cameron’s opposition to Brexit has deeply antagonised a group of right-wing Tory MPs.
Naively they feel betrayed by Cameron’s decision to campaign for Remain despite his failure to negotiate the deal he originally promised them—as if he could have achieved that deal or would have gone against the settled will of British capital and supported a break with the EU.
This group is big enough to deprive the government of its parliamentary majority. So they are threatening rebellion on issue after issue, and forcing Cameron into these retreats.
The official line from Downing Street is that things will get better after the referendum on 23 June. I don’t see it.
If there is a majority to leave, Cameron is toast and the Tories will find themselves struggling with an enormous succession crisis. They were badly wounded by the inner-party struggles surrounding Thatcher’s fall in 1990.
But if Cameron wins, his right-wingers will be even more embittered and there will be more parliamentary revolts. He has said he will retire before the next election, so there will still be a succession battle, albeit at a more leisurely pace than if the Remain campaign is defeated.
So we confront a government that has been badly weakened by the divisions within the Tory party—divisions that may well get worse. The contemptible behaviour of the Labour right wingers and their media allies has masked this, but it will be much harder to do this now.
In this context, Corbyn’s biggest mistake has been to capitulate to his New Labour shadow cabinet and support Remain. The referendum is an opportunity to damage the Tory government, potentially fatally. The rest of the radical left, whether inside or outside the Labour Party, need to avoid making the same mistake.