But it has no choiceby Jake Watts / April 19, 2017 / Leave a comment
Today in parliament, Labour will vote to support Theresa May’s motion to trigger a general election. Given its opposition to the current Conservative government and its claim to be a viable alternative, it does not really have a choice. The result will be the pressure of a general election testing Labour at a time when its leadership is weak, its policies—particularly on Brexit—are unclear and its ability to cut through to a divided electorate greatly hampered. All of this makes a Labour victory unlikely. With little prospect of a return to government, Labour has little to gain. The party is, in essence, a turkey voting for Christmas.
However, the way that Labour handles the pressures bearing down on it will be crucial as it moves through the election and beyond. Three key questions in particular will be the most pressing:
Can Labour hold it together during the campaign?
Ever since Corbyn’s election in 2015, Labour has found itself on a rollercoaster. In the weeks ahead, it will be finalising a manifesto. On top of this, the selection of its candidates will need to happen quickly and a row already appears to be brewing over how Labour should go about doing this. These could be thorny processes and prolong its internal strife if not carefully handled.
More broadly, a general election could further expose the divisions within the party over Corbyn’s leadership. As a leader, Corbyn lags way behind in polling against May and he has shown his lack of tact when it comes to dealing with the media. These things will come under even greater scrutiny in the course of the election contest. One Labour MP has already announced that he will not be standing for re-election because of his disagreements with Corbyn. Will moderates be able to resist openly criticising the Labour leader and his policies if things are going south? Will those supporting Corbyn be able to wait until after the election to start the blame game? How Labour holds together will play its part in deciding how low it can go come 8th June.
How far can Labour hold back the tide of a Conservative surge?
Labour will not be fighting the election from a high tide. Its last outing at the polls in 2015 left it almost 100 short of the 326 needed for a majority in the Commons. Many of the seats it is defending are safe. Nevertheless, the loss of Copeland in a by-election, a seat Labour had held since 1935, could be a sign of things to come if the party cannot save face, keep together in the weeks ahead and communicate core messages that respond to voters concerns. Beyond these safe seats, Labour will be contesting a series of marginals where it has slim majorities. Its ability to hold those seats that are closest and stand its ground in seats where it has historical roots will be the difference between a defeat and a slaughter. Internally, the make-up of the parliamentary party and the future of the Corbyn project may turn on how hard Labour falls.
Could defeat dislodge Corbyn?
Corbyn has avoided being drawn on whether he would stay on as leader if Labour were to lose the election. But it is likely this will be a consistent question over the course of the campaign, particularly if Labour’s standing in the polls remains low or slides further as election day approaches. Corbyn has not shown any signs of budging in the face of opposition amongst his own MPs. But can he really cling on if he is rejected by the electorate? All the signs thus far show the Labour leader is not particularly responsive to mandates outside of the Labour membership itself. So we should not to expect him to resign. But a further leadership contest would be likely. In this instance, the mood amongst members after any defeat will once again decide the party’s future and determine Labour’s ability to provide opposition and leadership in a turbulent time in British politics.