Oh, Labour. I get very frustrated by Her Majesty’s Opposition, which has endured a 2016 full of infighting and backstabbing, not to mention sustained, depleting support in the polls. This in a year when the Conservatives were having their own problems: the new bastards (Boris Johnson and Michael Gove) emerged; being led by a limp and wilted leader (actually two, both David Cameron and Teresa May tick that box); strikes hit multiple sectors; the continued lack of any meaningful plan for the country to leave the EU… the list seems to go on and on. And on.
Yet Labour is found wanting, desperate, and ineffective.
Sure, it can now boast to be the largest political party in Europe, with a membership in excess of half a million individuals. It has directly-elected mayors in place across the country, including London, Bristol, and Liverpool. The party’s leader obliterated his opposing candidate in a challenge in the autumn. A truce of sorts was struck between Jeremy Corbyn’s inner circle and the wider Parliamentary Labour Party. But despite all of that the cracks continued to show and mistakes continued to be made.
Actually, when I say ‘mistakes’ I’m talking about the party’s lack of courageous pragmatism. And when I say ‘courageous pragmatism’ I mean the party’s attitude to the Richmond Park and Sleaford byelections.
Take the former constituency.
Richmond Park was pitched as a Remain vs Brexit battle, with the pro-leave incumbent – Zac Goldsmith – defending his seat as an independent after leaving the Tories in light of their support for a third runway at Heathrow. Both the Conservatives and UKIP decided not to field a candidate, instead throwing their support behind Goldsmith. The Liberal Democrats, who have been vociferous in their pro-EU stance, received similar support from the Green Party and Women’s Equality Party. Labour however believed it was in their interest to stand a candidate, rather than play pragmatic politics and also throw their weight behind the Lib Dems.
The belief, according to senior Labour sources, is that as a national party it should contest every seat. A small handful of shadow ministers, including Clive Lewis, believed the party should be more pragmatic and do what it can to help reduce the Tory majority in Parliament by standing aside. The decision was taken to contest the byelection, and the result was nothing short of an embarrassment: The Labour candidate secured 3.67% of the vote, around a quarter of votes it won during the General Election a year earlier.
Which meant the party lost its deposit.
A week later, Labour’s candidate in Sleaford’s byelection came fourth behind the incumbent Tories, and was leapfrogged by both UKIP and the Lib Dems.
Early in 2017, Labour will face a fresh byelection (in Copeland, Cumbria) but this time it will be the incumbent party. A Labour constituency since its creation in 1983, Copeland will no doubt be seen as a key indicator for Jeremy Corbyn and his party. All eyes will be on UKIP, a party that having fulfilled its raison d’etre with the Leave victory in June, will be pushing hard to secure a second Commons seat. In the 2010 General Election, UKIP received 2.3% of the vote in Copeland; in 2015 it won 15.5% to take third place behind Labour and the Conservatives. They, like the Tories, can likely smell blood.
Labour’s majority in Copeland was just 2,564 in 2015. Had it taken a pragmatic “You scratch my back” approach in Richmond Park and stood aside, Labour could now have called for the Lib Dems and Greens to throw their collective weight behind its candidate to boost his or her chances. After all, as I said, both the Conservatives and UKIP have their eyes on the prize. Victory for either party, but especially UKIP, would turn the volume on Labour’s alarm bells up several notches.
Of course, Labour didn’t know Copeland would happen during the Richmond Park byelection, but it must now change tact going forward. The focus must now be to whittle down the Tories’ slender majority in the Commons, not be arrogant in its approach. Courageous pragmatism is needed, which means Labour not contesting Tory marginals if it is polled as the third or fourth party in the constituency. If Labour loses Copeland you can expect their rivals to begin breathing down their necks in other future byelections and the 2020 General Election in constituencies across the north of England and Wales, and even London. The idea of a Labour or Labour-led coalition government would become an even distant possibility.