Success in Oldham deepens denial among Labour left

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

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.



4 thoughts on “Success in Oldham deepens denial among Labour left”

  1. Your final section sums it up. Cameron has in spades what Napoleon demanded from his marshals – LUCK (in his case in the dire state of opposition to the Conservatives anywhere south of the border with Scotland). This reflects the ever growing division of English society and the huge over-dominance of London/the South East (the true Tory heartlands). I do not think there is the faintest prospect of Labour ever again becoming what it was, whether under “a new Blair” (Hilary Benn) or (certainly not) under Corbyn. The only realistic party of restraining the Tories ARE the Liberal Democrats as the wheels fall off Cameron’s waggon (e.g. over Europe). The party threw most of what it had available at Oldham and had a great candidate, but, as you say, the result was lamentable with the vast majority of the electorate just not caring less about the LDs (as I heard from a number of people who actually made the trek over the Pennines to canvass in Oldham). The message has got to be (as in local elections) paper candidates/minimal effort in the Oldham-like areas and FOCUS, FOCUS. FOCUS on wards/constituencies where there is a real chance of success and learning from the places (YORK, Torbay etc) where the “LD fightback” really is on the move and the local parties are doing great things! If the Tories are left as the sole real power in England, then prepare to emigrate if you are not a hedge fund manager or property speculator.

    1. I agree. The Lib Dems need to go back to building on local success, based on work in local communities and hope that this allows some wider recognition and momentum. Meanwhile we must hope that Cameron’s luck holds until the EU referendum. Right now the wheels on that waggon are looking wobbly though.

  2. Austerity measures are evil. There is no need for them and to make the poorest pay for the recession. They are based on ideology not a need to balance the books as the Government is still wasting money on vanity projects.

    There is are many people in this country who think this other than left wing Labour voters. They are those who didn’t bother voting in May this year as the parties are “all the same”.

    And Corbyn voters have reported striking up conversations in public and finding other people feel the same way about him and this Government.

Comments are closed.