Last week BBC Radio 4’s Thinking Aloud ran a piece on research showing how people assume that most other people think like them. This is, apparently, particularly strong at the political extremes. We don’t need academics to tell us this, of course – it explains many of history’s major political misjudgements. Prime candidates at the moment are supporters of the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who are in deep denial about how difficult it will be for their party to win elections. In this, if nothing else, they resemble the supporters of Donald Trump in the US.
Of course, being in denial is something that, as a Liberal Democrat supporter, I know something about. Throughout the Coalition years we were told that our party faced oblivion at the next election. We refused to accept this, but alas we were wrong. Denial is always easier to see in others. The main problem on the Labour left is that they assume that most Britons share their view that the Conservatives are out only to line the pockets of the rich, and that “austerity” is evil. Now I’ve written before that this outlook will doom the Labour Party to failure, and that one of the first tests of the Corbyn leadership would be the Oldham by election. Well that election was last week, and it was a triumph for Labour. They increased their percentage share of the vote, though with less votes overall. A challenge from Ukip failed to materialise: they increased their vote (by 3%), but by much less than the Conservative vote fell (over 9%). Is this vindication for the Corbynistas?
Up to a point it is. It shows that all the chatter that Labour’s lurch to the left has affected the party’s electoral standing is just that. There is little decent data on this result, analysing who did and didn’t support each party, so we can’t say for certain what happened. But as Alistair Meeks points out in politicalbetting,com, the result is completely consistent with previous by elections in the area. Nothing much has changed. There is much for Labour supporters to take heart from here.
The first point is that Ukip look like a busted flush. The party was supposed to be picking up disillusioned white working class votes, and presenting a major threat to Labour in the north of England. They nearly won one of those previous nearby by elections. If Mr Corbyn did not play well on Oldham’s doorsteps, as the chatter suggested, Ukip’s Nigel Farage played no better. He used to be a media star, and regarded as “authentic”, but he seems to have lost his credibility. The Ukip result in the May General Election was disappointing, as they were mugged by the ruthless Tory election machine. Mr Farage’s shenanigans over whether he was resigning as leader may have had the same sort of effect on his public standing as Nick Clegg’s U-turn on university tuition fees. The party needs to dump him, but probably won’t. The transition from a Tory breakaway in the shires to being a party of working class protest is too much for it.
The second cheering point for Labour is that their challengers to the left are thoroughly neutralised. The Greens achieved barely 1% of the vote. The Lib Dems put in a major effort and still lost their deposit, and tried, unconvincingly, to draw comfort from the fact that their vote did not actually fall from a mere 3.7%. In this environment at least, these parties are treated as a complete irrelevance. In living memory the Lib Dems were capable of pulling off a stunning wins almost anywhere. There are some signs in local by elections of a Lib Dem bounce back, but it is highly localised and bypassed Oldham.
All this bodes well for Labour’s prospects in May 2016, the next big local polling date, when there are also elections to the Scots and Welsh parliaments, and London’s Mayor. Labour’s candidate for London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, has every chance of wresting the position back from the Conservatives. In Scotland, though, prospects look dire for Labour as the SNP machine looks dominant. It is even possible that the party will drop to third place behind the Conservatives. But London’s political class seems to have written Scotland off.
So why am I suggesting that Labour activists are in denial? Because May’s result in the General Election was terrible for them and there is not the faintest sign of it getting better – only that it is not getting worse. Their prospects in Scotland are not the sort of irrelevance that Londoners seem to assume. Scotland is one of the most important battlegrounds in British politics; it has been for at least five years. If Labour can’t engineer a recovery there, they will be locked out of politics in Westminster. Interestingly, the success of the SNP was a key piece of evidence for the Corbynista thesis – that the public was really angry about austerity, and Labour’s big mistake was not to be angry enough. But Scots voters turned on Labour because they thought they were incompetent, and did not stick up for Scotland. Mr Corbyn’s election does not improve their standing on either count, to put it generously.
Labour may be standing up well enough in the north of England, in spite of a cheeky challenge by the Conservatives to win back support there, but there is no sign that Labour can win back those politically sceptical middle-England voters that they progressively lost after Tony Blair stepped down as party leader. To do that Labour activists must break free of the notion that most people share their political outlook, deep down. Meanwhile a dangerous rift between the parliamentary party and the leadership reinforce a general air of incompetence, the most fatal thing in politics.
I have heard a number of people suggest that the real winners of Oldham are the Conservatives. It is hard to disagree.