If it suffers a catastrophic defeat, a new progressive project could rise from the ashesby Peter Kellner / April 18, 2017 / Leave a comment
Labour’s victory in the general election campaign should not have come as such a surprise. Indeed, the turn-round was possible precisely because the party had been doing so badly and its leader was hated by so many of its MPs. The defeat in a crucial by-election confirmed the message of the opinion polls. Just five weeks before election day, the leader was forced to stand down. Under new management, the party’s support rose sharply. Labour not only won the election. It stayed in power for 13 years—eight of them under the party’s brand new leader.
No, that is not a prediction designed to induce excessive optimism or despair. My crystal ball is not that clear. Rather, it is an accurate piece of political history. The ousted Labour leader, however, was not Jeremy Corbyn but Bill Hayden; his replacement not Chuka Umunna but Bob Hawke; the date not 2017 but 1983; the by-election not Copeland but Flinders; the country not Britain but Australia.
Were I advising Labour MPs, I would urge them to copy that Australian precedent, for it is the only way I can see of Labour avoiding a catastrophe on 8th June. If the two recent opinion polls showing a 21-point Conservative lead were translated into votes, Theresa May’s party would gain 60 seats from Labour.
Perhaps the gap will narrow to some degree; perhaps the Tories will lose some of the seats they gained from the Liberal Democrats two years ago. There would still then be a significantly larger Conservative majority; and Labour is in danger of dipping below 200 seats for the first time since 1935. If I were a Labour MP, especially if I were defending a majority of less than 10,000, that is fate I would try to avoid, by acting before the election rather than waiting until afterwards.
Enough fantasising. The chances are that we are in for an extended period of Conservative rule. This has huge consequences, most obviously for Brexit and the UK’s future relations with Europe, with the futures of Labour’s leadership, public services, and the constitutional outlook for Scotland and Northern Ireland not far behind.
However, I wonder whether, in decades to come, this year’s election will prove to be a different kind of turning point for progressive politics at Westminster.