Britain’s Labour Party is neck-and-neck with the Conservatives in opinion polls. Surely, many claim, this means that Labour are in trouble, and its leadership is woefully complacent? The Tories are in an utter mess, the argument goes, so if Labour aren’t streets ahead now they never will be. I’m not so sure.
The first part of that argument is surely correct. The Conservatives are caught in a conflict between Brexit fundamentalism and reality. Such conflicts, when you are the governing party, bode ill. Government pronouncements are almost comic. Today, for example, David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, raised the prospect of a Mad Max dystopia after Brexit, which we can happily avoid, he suggests, by staying in the EU in all but name. Well that’s how it sounds. But worse, Theresa May is a lacklustre leader, neither able to present an inspiring vision, nor to handle the everyday give and take of networking and negotiation the role requires. The party is shrinking, and it is failing to capture the interest of younger voters, by which I mean under-50s. Its chosen core support base is literally dying. The party is being hollowed out in a way reminiscent of the not dissimilar situation it faced in the mid-1990s under John Major.
But then a relaunched Labour Party under Tony Blair established a massive poll lead and then crushed the Conservatives in the election of 1997. So why isn’t today’s Labour Party doing much better than it is? It is reported that the Labour leadership feel confident that they can repeat their performance in last year’s election of a poll surge during the campaign itself. And yet surely the Tories will not run such a dire campaign? They may be running out of activists but they have no shortage of donors. A halfway decent manifesto should mobilise the oldies better, and in a second attempt they can surely create doubts about Labour under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. And the voting system is tilted in their favour.
What the Conservatives have to play with is Labour’s lurch to the left under Mr Corbyn, and the rapidly growing hold of his supporters, organised by the Momentum movement, over the party. This has awoken traditional fears of Labour – and this seems to be propping up the party’s poll rating, as well as motivating wealthy donors. In the 1990s Mr Blair tacked his party to the centre and wooed Tory backers. He left his opponents with no oxygen; how different is Labour’s strategy now.
But I have underestimated Labour’s leadership once (last year), and I don’t want to do it again. Labour retains some key strengths, and the Tories some concealed weaknesses. This will not guarantee Labour victory in the next election, but it will give them a base from which to make a serious challenge.
Labour’s first strength is that they are building a solid political coalition of core support. Last week I described an idea that I called “Brixton liberalism”, and how it gave me hope about the future of liberal values. Labour has a stranglehold on Brixton liberals, notwithstanding the party’s distinctly un-liberal instincts. They have seen off two challenges: from the Liberal Democrats, following the period of coalition in 2010 to 2015, and the Greens. The Lib Dems, my party, seem to have retreated to the professional middle classes; they are hoping to win liberal voters from Labour through anti-Brexit feeling. This shows no sign of making headway. The Greens have been almost completely crushed; Labour’s intent to maintain their stranglehold was recently shown by their airing of policies on animal welfare. They are presenting themselves as the Green Party by other means.
The Brixton liberal coalition comprises many younger professionals, especially those linked to the public sector, and the new working classes, who are often members of ethnic minorities. A common theme is that these people have been priced out of owning their own property, and have no prospect of secure social housing. It is particularly strong in London. To these can be added trade unionists, who see real hope of extending their influence, through job protection, nationalisation and subsidies for declining industries. How will Labour fare amongst traditional, white working classes, especially outside the cities? These are the Labour heartlands that Mrs May hoped to capture last year, and came closer than many credit to succeeding. But the Tory appeal to this group may have peaked. It is very conservative, and Mrs May was a good standard bearer for that type of conservatism – she might have succeeded if she had offered more to older voters. But her reputation for competence has taken a knock, and any successor is likely to a sharper, more liberal type who will be distrusted by working class voters. We can expect Labour to continue their studied ambiguity on Brexit and immigration, so as not to scare off this group.
The second thing going for Labour is that they are doing careful work on their policies. Their critics dismiss Labour’s policies as a throwback to the failed policies of the 1970s. Public ownership of utilities, the roll-back of public-private partnerships of all kinds, free university education, and so on all seem to play to that narrative. But Labour are quietly giving a modern gloss to these policies. They will argue that they developing new models of managing the public sector, and not going back to the bad old days. No doubt they plan to have it both ways – invoking nostalgia for the old days alongside enthusing newer voters. Besides, some of those old ideas don’t look that bad in hindsight: council housing for example. By contrast any new ideas the Conservatives come up with are likely to be more neoliberal fare that will themselves look dated. While South America shows that we should not write off neoliberalsim, it is only likely to make a comeback after voters have experienced a long period of badly implemented socialist policy.
And the third thing in Labour’s favour is the diminishing hold of traditional media, which have acted as the Conservatives’ attack dogs for generations. Last year’s election was something of a watershed there. Jeremy Corbyn was their dream target, but they could make no traction. Their current campaign that Mr Corbyn was a cold war spy show that they still haven’t got it. Who cares?
And the Conservatives hidden weakness? They are not preparing for the next election in the way that Labour is, or the way that David Cameron did before 2015. Last year’s snap election showed how important such preparation is. Mrs May turned out to be flying blind, without any of the usual preparatory groundwork. Two things are spoiling the outlook for the Conservatives. First is Brexit – it so hard to see how it will play out over the next few years, and therefore what message will work best for the government. Could it be a big anticlimax, defying the Remoaner critics? Could there even be some quick wins, allowing a pro-Brexit counterattack?Or will there be early victims, forcing the Tories to find appropriate scapegoats? And an even bigger problem is the leadership. Mrs May showed herself up as inept in national campaigning, and if anything she has deteriorated since. And yet her party dare not replace her, as each of her rivals shows even deeper flaws. If a new, more dynamic leader should emerge later in the parliament, as many Tories hope, he or she will not have long to pull together an effective campaign, which can take years.
And so if the Labour leadership look quietly confident, they have every right to be.