This year’s Labour Conference will determine the result of the upcoming general election and, ultimately, the fate of Jeremy Corbyn as party leader. As a rule, I don’t go in for political predictions, a fool’s game if ever there was one.
As William Goldman wrote repeatedly about Hollywood in his seminal book of 1983, Adventures in the Screen Trade – and always in capitals – NOBODY KNOWS ANYTHING. This is no less true of Westminster and the mainstream media.
All I am anticipating is the nature and impact of the conference. The outcome I leave to the myriad dogmatists of all persuasions. These blowhards know what will happen, know what the impact of what happens will be and know how they will then play the hand they have been dealt. That they have been consistently mistaken for the whole of this century thus far does not deter them.
Ever since his election as leader – can it really be four years ago and can he really have survived this long? – Corbyn has performed a high-wire act of heart-stopping delicacy.
He has survived threats from the military, allegations of snubs to the monarch and the sovereignty of the nation, Ian McNicol, advocacy of killing him by the Mail on Sunday (just ten days after the murder of Jo Cox), Laura Kuenssberg, the wholesale resignation of his shadow cabinet, a succession of by-elections that were supposed to be disastrous but weren’t, Owen Smith (who?), accusations of terror-loving and security-risking, resignations from the party in and out of parliament, Margaret Hodge, frontal assaults from his deputy leader (repeatedly) and the party leader in the Lords, the Tory press (including The Guardian), Chuka Umunna, and a general election in which Labour was expected to be obliterated.
No leader has ever been so assailed on all sides. That he remains calm, even serene, says a lot for making your own jam.
Labour has never been in the driving seat during the open-ended melodrama that has been Brexit. The Tories determined that there would be a referendum. David Cameron fought a losing campaign. Theresa May failed to secure a deal to leave. The rise of Ukip and now the Brexit Party has been entirely a response to government failure.
All Labour has been free to do is react and oppose, which is the traditional function of Her Majesty’s loyal opposition.
Labour devised a six-tests response to the developing deal that Cameron negotiated and May renegotiated. It was a credible and reasonable response.
Corbyn resisted the rising clamour from remainers for a further vote, a so-called “people’s vote”, presumably based on the proposal that only donkeys voted to leave in 2016.
While the prospect of a deal sanctioned by Labour remained out of reach, a further vote would only have benefitted remainers because, in a binary ballot, the answer to remain would have been “yes” and to leave “it depends”. By the same token, more than two options on such a ballot paper would never have been acceptable to leavers because their vote would have been split.
But now it’s increasingly feasible that an in-coming Labour government would be able to renegotiate the deal with the EU and then could offer the choice of the new deal or remain in a further vote. Brussels has shown sympathy for Labour’s evolving position, markedly different from the increasing exasperation with the Tories.
There’s every reason to hope that Keir Starmer would come back with an understanding that features the UK staying in the customs union, retaining a cordial relationship with the single market and finding a solution to the Irish backstop that doesn’t need to satisfy the DUP, all of which would leave Britain much less dependent on crumbs from Trump’s table. That’s a good prospect for everyone and it satisfies Corbyn’s democratic instincts.
I’ve always maintained that his devotion to the democratic process takes precedence in Corbyn’s mind over policy. Everyone knows that he has ever been a Eurosceptic, less antagonistic to the EU than his mentor Tony Benn but much less enthusiastic than Tony Blair, Cameron, Starmer and now such Johnnies-come-lately in his shadow team as Emily Thornberry and John McDonnell.
That Corbyn believes he should leave the final decision to the electorate in a stay-or-leave-with-Labour’s-deal referendum is an earnest of his democratic fidelity, not – as is readily alleged by his opponents – weakness or lack of leadership.
I have no doubt that Corbyn will allow his MPs to have a free vote in the proposed referendum. After all, not to do so would surely split the party and lead to more shadow cabinet resignations.
On The World at One on Wednesday, Sarah Montague repeatedly recast Corbyn’s position of presidential neutrality as further indecision by the whole party, an extension of the MSM’s persistent characterisation of Labour as being “all over the place” on Europe. This has been one of the ripest examples of the kind of deliberate misreporting that has accompanied Corbyn’s leadership from the moment he became a candidate.
No other party will be offering something positive to both leavers and remainers, while making a serious attempt to reunite the countries of the UK.
As the social media commentator Sean Hawie put it:
Labour is the only party which has not said ‘up yours’ to either the 48% or the 52%. Every other party has. This wasn’t a fight Labour picked, yet they’re still there, trying to unite this divided country, as well as tackling inequality and the other effects of austerity, which ironically are not unrelated to the reasons the good people of this country voted to leave”
Professional political commentary is fixated on all the ways in which the major parties will supposedly lose votes at the general election. Unless the proportion of votes cast is going to fall into the low teens, all these alienated votes will go elsewhere. And it stands to reason that much of the churn between parties will cancel itself out.
Yes, we can all posit reasons why large numbers of people – some of them indeed adulthood-long Labour voters – will not vote Labour this time. Some will feel that Labour has fatally reneged on its promise to respect the 2016 referendum result, especially when they hear so many Labour MPs claiming that the party at large wants to stay in the EU, even though they, the voters, only know people who wanted to have come out last March.
Some do indeed wish to stay in the EU, reckoning that they weren’t told the truth by Boris Johnson’s leave campaign and believing that Labour collaborated with that and will still take us out, come what may. Some have been persuaded that Corbyn is a terrorist sympathiser, a security risk and/or an anti-Semite. Some have moved to the right as they’ve got older, which happens in every generation.
Equally, no doubt large numbers will not vote Conservative this time.
They’re saddled with a leader whose reputation is as a liar, a buffoon and a Mr Micawber. He’s been rubbished by revered Tory figures, several of them his predecessors as prime minister. Many Tory voters fear leaving the EU with no deal and suspect that Johnson has no means of protecting them against the ramifications that so many predict will result from leaving peremptorily.
Moreover, the BBC, caught between its corporate loathing of Corbyn and its corporate opposition to leaving the EU, has an easy story in Johnson’s troubles and his reputation for being unreliable and, as a result, is discernibly giving him a much harder ride than May or Cameron received.
But the other parties will shed votes too, partly because people who vote to make a gesture in by-elections and local and European elections revert to their preferred parties when the future governance of the land is at stake. Moreover, the Brexit Party, the Lib Dems and the Greens will be widely seen as single-issue vehicles and many thoughtful voters will consider much more than the short-term impact of Brexit when casting their votes.
Jo Swinson has taken her party away from any credible claim to the democratic ingredient in its title of Liberal Democratic Party. In the fantasy position that they were to form a government, the LibDems would simply renege on Article 50 and laugh at the 2016 referendum result.
Swinson may well be underestimating the numbers who voted to remain but who hold to the view that the democratic result should stand. That should cost her party a good few votes in the next election. It also hands a useful argument to Labour. Those who wish to stay in the EU will be much more likely to achieve that ambition if they vote for Labour’s promise of a further referendum than if they pretend that Swinson is going to be the next prime minister.
Further, the Brexit Party and the Greens lack recognisable, credible teams of potential ministers and, while the Lib Dems now have hands-on experience of government and some more familiar faces, few swing-voters are attracted by their well-remembered record in office.
No one should underestimate the appeal of big parties, or indeed these big parties with these leaders.
The Tories have centuries of experience at organising and close-quarter fighting, at propaganda and calling on funds. Many powerful people and organisations would up sticks and move abroad rather than allow any other than the Tory party to form the government.
There is a natural bias in many of the nation’s old-established institutions to the continuity of the ruling class. And the Johnson government can parlay the Brexit mess as the fault of May and the whole of parliament, while the present members of the cabinet mostly argued relentlessly for leaving at once.
What’s more, many voters think, as an ordinary-looking man in the west country shouted at me as I marched past him in protest: “Boris Johnson is the best thing ever to happen to this country”. People vote for preposterously meagre reasons and Johnson’s celebrity – he’s on the telly – will win him votes. Some people think him brave, determined and visionary. And of course people in the States see Trump the same way. There are votes in that.
But Labour has plenty of ammunition too.
They will fight the election across a wide front, with plenty of weaknesses in the Tories’ position to be probed. They can present the mess of Brexit as a creation of the government rather than parliament and, by implication, the opposition parties.
In offering a further referendum, a notion that only now begins to look like a smart move, they can slough off the broad unpopularity of politicians and claim the democratic high ground again (c.f. the Lib Dems).
Corbyn still has a strong personal following that sees him as an honest straight-talker who can’t be spun by advisors. And remember that Corbyn has fought a slew of elections at every political level since he was first nominated as Labour leader, and in every one he has done better than the polls and the pundits predicted. He wows a crowd.
Labour will rise in the polls as they enjoy a balanced share of the media coverage, at least on television and radio. The lies that the Tory press tell will be tolerated by fewer readers as social media gains more and more influence.
I make no prediction about the election result, save that the opinion polls and the pundits will be at best misleading. We will be told a mass of lies.
We’re always told that an election is the most important of our lifetimes, but this one will certainly be the dirtiest these islands have ever seen. It won’t be pleasant. But it will certainly be interesting.