On the morning of 28th October, 1931, Britain woke up to one of the most remarkable political events in British history.
Seeking approval for a bizarre coalition of Conservatives, dissident Labourites and Liberals, Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald had gone to the country just two years into a Parliament. Having jettisoned his former party (Labour) whom he had led into government in 1929, MacDonald’s ‘National Government’ received a stunning mandate from the electorate: the parties making up the government won an astounding 67% of the votes and 90% of Parliamentary seats. The Tories alone won 55% of the national vote and 470 out of 615 seats, the last time that any political party has won a majority of the national vote.
One of the newly elected Conservative MPs was William Nunn (born 1879), who snatched the seat of Whitehaven from Labour. He held it for 4 years before Labour took it back, by 352 votes, in 1935. This moment was significant in history: Nunn would not live to see his party hold the seat again. In fact, it would be 82 years before the Conservatives would win it again.
Whitehaven, you see, was the old name for what is now the constituency of Copeland – a constituency that one month ago, Labour lost to the Conservative Party in a shocking and nearly unprecedented rout.
Though his strongest supporters may continue to defend his leadership as it lurches from crisis to crisis, though his allies may continue to blame everyone from Tony Blair to the weather for his inadequacies, and though the man who aspires to manage the public purse in the world’s 6th-largest economy spreads total fiction about Labour being ahead in the polls last May, the fact remains that Jeremy Corbyn is the first Labour Party leader since the Great Depression to preside over the loss of Copeland to the Tories, and he’s the first opposition leader to lose a seat to the government since 1983. By some measures, the last time a sitting government performed this well in an opposition-held seat was in the 19th century. The loss of Copeland is not just a blip – it is catastrophic and conclusive proof of what every poll, every focus group, every canvass and every report is telling us. And that is that Jeremy Corbyn is killing the political left.
Back in 2015, the left hitched itself to the little-known MP from Islington North in the hope that he would shake up a moribund leadership election and get Burnham and Cooper to commit to some left-wing policy. In the end, Corbyn won with over a quarter of a million ballots – a testament to the timidity and weakness of the other candidates, the party’s distrust of a Corbyn-critical media which had just spent 5 years pummelling Ed Miliband into the dust over a bacon sandwich, and the frustration and anger of the Labour grassroots with a Parliamentary Party that had, in their view and mine, acted immorally by abstaining on the Welfare Bill. The man was an unknown; he represented an uncertain and unclear change, but with a desire for change running high and the other 3 candidates running to the right, Labour’s membership opted for that change. As much as I would now disagree with the decision that was made, it was a decision I agreed with at the time, and can still respect. Corbyn was put on the ballot by the required number of MPs; his candidacy was validated by that act, and his victory was completely legitimate. And in the context of a stampede by the other candidates towards the centre-right, Labour’s membership made it very clear that they wanted a course correction. That was fair.
But in the time since he was elected, Corbyn has proven that the hope we invested in him was very much misplaced. The hope of a mass Momentum movement facing outwards, and doing extra-Parliamentary work in communities that Labour alone could not do, has devolved into bitter factional infighting, internal conflicts and attempts to totally reshape Labour into something it was never designed to be. The hopes of a broad-based left-to-centre-left leadership team have been replaced by a Leader’s office dominated by the hard left and a shadow cabinet lacking any major centre-left figures. The hopes of a new, 21st century-orientated policy direction have been replaced with meaningless platitudes about “peace and justice” and unaffordable promises by John McDonnell drawn up on the back of an envelope. And the hope – the one that stood out above all else – of a clear, unwavering progressive direction and vision has been replaced by months of total silence, followed by muddled thinking, recycled Miliband-ism, pathetic attempts at triangulation on immigration, weak capitulation on Brexit and empty slogans. And despite the popularity of the narrative of “if we were unified we’d be ahead in the polls”, there is no point in calling for artificial “unity” behind such a failing project. Telling Labour moderates and left-wing critics of Corbyn to “get behind the democratically-elected Leader” will not win us a single vote in a country that hasn’t elected a PM to the left of Tony Blair since 1974.
At the same time, and indeed probably in part because of these failures, Labour and its leader have been pushed to electoral lows unparalled in modern political history. It has become an article of faith on the Labour left now to point out that Labour was in poor shape before Corbyn won. That, of course, is undeniable. Miliband failed to inspire the electorate, Brown bottled the election-that-never-was and Blair’s election-winning streak is long in the past. It is, I think, worth mentioning that Labour’s support in England increased by 1.1 million votes in the 2015 general election – a fact not exactly supportive of the idea that Labour was in continuous decline in England before Jeremy Corbyn won.
But the mandate of a Labour Leader is to improve their party’s performance, not worsen it or hold a losing party steady. The fact that Labour had only 31% of the vote in 2015 is irrelevant: Corbyn’s job was to increase that vote share, not keep it the same, and certainly not cut it. We lost 18 seats at the local elections, compared to Miliband’s gains that reached into the hundreds every single year. Poll after poll after poll shows that the public overwhelmingly prefer Theresa May as Prime Minister, and in margins that far exceed the leads that Cameron had over Miliband. Post-Corbyn’s re-election, Labour has now sunk to a new low of 25% in opinion polls, we are up to 19 points behind a flailing Tory government, and when Corbyn’s name is included in the question, the public says they trust the Tories more on the National Health Service.
Let that sink in: the party that voted against the creation of the NHS is now more trusted on it than the party that created it, solely because of Jeremy Corbyn. He is toxic.
But the worst result, by a country mile, was the defeat in Copeland.
Despite the twisting of statistics on the matter, the fact is that Labour’s majority in 2010 and 2015 was bigger than it was in 1983, 1987 and 1992, and from 2001 to 2005 the majority increased (see above). This was not a swing seat. The last Labour leader to preside over a loss there was Arthur Henderson in 1931, in a year when the Tory-dominated National Government won nearly every seat in Parliament. Prior to that, you have to go back to 1924, the year of the forged Zinoviev letter and other such manufactured smears against Labour, to find a Labour candidate who failed to win in Copeland.
In that light, any doubt as to whether Corbyn is about to lead Labour to an overwhelming defeat should be set aside. The question is longer whether under Corbyn Labour will lose in 2020 – that is now a certainty – but whether the loss will smash Labour’s ability to form a government for the foreseeable future. If it does, the political left will be irrelevant for generations, because we will be tarnished with the destruction of the Labour Party and the negative impact such a disaster would have upon millions of lives. The Labour right and Labour’s liberals will be able to point to Corbyn’s defeat and say: “See? We told you”. And they will say that for at least the next 30 years, just as they did from 1983-2015. Anything the Left says or does will be dismissed with just two words: “Jeremy Corbyn”. We will be a laughing stock – a complete and total joke.
But if we accept that we made a mistake, and act now to prevent it from becoming a deadly mistake, we can win back a lot of the support that we have lost. It is not too late to salvage this and turn it around. We can throw our weight behind a Leader from the centre-left who can unite the party and take a coherent message to the country. We can show that we are willing to compromise for the sake of winning – because 9 million Labour voters, and millions more who didn’t vote for us, desperately need a win. And maybe, just maybe, we can cobble together a minority Labour government in a hung parliament in 2020. And thus, we live to fight another day.
Saying all this is not popular on the political left. At all. Voicing any criticism of Corbyn leads to accusations of “Blairite”, “Tory”, “traitor” and “neoliberal”; even the most left-wing writer who dares to voice concern about the project is met with a storm of personal attacks (see Owen Jones for the best example of this). But what I have said is simply the truth: as hard as it is to hear, and as heart-breaking as it is to see, the electorate are walking away from the Labour Party, and it is because of Corbyn. And unless we act to stop it now, they will not come back for a long, long time. His “mandate” – because I know the two leadership elections will be cited – is irrelevant. The fact that 300,000 members of a political party appointed him is irrelevant. The only thing relevant is whether he can deliver a progressive Labour government in 2020. And he can’t.
So: let’s accept that we made a mistake, and keep it from becoming a disastrous one. Corbyn should resign after his inevitable crushing in this May’s local elections, and retire to the backbenches where he has always been most comfortable. A centre-left figure like Lisa Nandy should be encouraged to stand for the leadership and appoint a broad-based shadow cabinet that represents all wings of the party. And Labour should start doing what it has needed to do for the past 7 years: listen to the voters, and develop a manifesto and a vision that unites its disparate coalition of supporters, rather than fighting the battles of the 1980s and 1990s over and over again.
Admitting that you made a mistake is one of the hardest things a person can do. It is even harder when you have invested so much hope and emotion in that mistake and been attacked for it so much that admitting that mistake feels like letting the Tory bastards win. But if the left doesn’t admit its error, then we – and the country – will deeply regret it in years to come.
And that is the uncomfortable, unavoidable, undeniable truth.
Image credit: Paul Ellis