Notes from the front – of the week 27/1/2016

Labour must approach 5 May elections with realistic expectations

The Labour Party is stepping up its campaign for May’s elections in London, Scotland, Wales and English local authorities. These will be the first major set of contests since Labour was defeated at the 2015 General Election.

Whilst under Ed Miliband’s leadership Labour managed to increase its national vote share by 1.4 per cent from the previous (2010) General Election, it still only secured 30.4 per cent overall and lost all but one Scottish parliamentary seat.

To significantly increase its electoral support Labour has to replace the policy framework that failed in 2015. Most fundamentally it needs a clear coherent set of policies that can deliver growth and improved living standards.

Jeremy Corbyn was elected Leader in September 2015 on a platform of ending austerity, standing up to racism and opposing war. ‘Better off with Labour’ is the type of slogan that encompasses the framework Corbyn and John McDonnell have been setting out. Clear policies that will improve pensions, deliver housing, raise wages etc will need to be elaborated in due course.

The Tories had a six per cent lead over Labour at last year’s General Election. This May the new leadership will have been in office just eight months.

It is totally unrealistic to expect Labour to instantly transform its fortunes, but the right-wing, including inside Labour, raises false expectations in order to denounce Corbyn as failing. A particular focus of misinformation is the English local elections, because the results could potentially be the least understood within Labour.

Given Labour’s collapse in Scotland, to just a 24.3 per cent vote share at the 2015 General Election (down 17.7 per cent on 2010), it is anticipated Labour will lose all its 15 remaining Constituency seats and only win Regional vote seats. Scottish Labour’s right wing leadership is responsible for this debacle. It strategically positioned the party to the right of the SNP and supported the Tory ‘Better Together’ campaign, so it is widely regarded as indistinguishable from the Tories. Corbyn is clearly not to blame for this uphill battle, and he is offering all possible support to Scottish Labour.

Again, before Corbyn became Leader, Labour support in polls for the Wales Assembly had fallen five per cent below the 39.6 per cent secured at the 2011 Assembly election. So Labour has been expecting to lose seats and effective control of the Assembly.

In London, Sadiq Khan, Labour’s candidate for Mayor has a small lead in most recent polls. The Tory strategy includes dog-whistle politics attacking Khan’s Muslim faith. Their Islamophobic campaign, directed by an advisor from Lynton Crosby’s company, insinuates Khan is ‘extreme’ and ‘radical’. The aim is to focus the agenda on issues of race and security, not on the public services being slashed.

But as these difficulties are widely understood the right is focused on Labour’s likely losses at the English local elections. Labour is defending the seats it won in 2012, when Labour support was at its peak level under the Coalition government. Subsequently that support fell away under the previous Labour leadership.

In those 2012 elections Labour secured a 39 per cent vote share (National Equivalent Vote), which fell to 30 per cent in the 2015 elections, as shown in the chart above. The Tories went up from 33 per cent to 37 per cent. So Labour’s local election support last year was down nine per cent on 2012, with the Tories up seven per cent.

That is, a six per cent Labour lead in 2012 was destroyed and replaced with a seven per cent Tory lead by last year.

Even if the Tory lead is reduced down to one per cent, Labour can expect to lose 200 seats and the control of 20 councils on 5 May. The disingenuous suggestion that Labour should expect to gain an additional 300 council seats is pure rhetoric – in order to prepare another attack on Corbyn. It is not a serious assessment of Labour’s prospects in May.

A right wing Labour leadership challenge is no joke

There is a widespread tendency to dismiss to possibility of the Labour right mounting a leadership challenge. This is a mistake.

It had been widely briefed to a number of newspapers the relatively unknown Michael Dugher may stand after the May elections, although there is a debate on the right of the party about the wisdom of this challenge.

Dugher himself is a minor figure, on Labour’s right. His attacks on Corbyn will be dismissed by many as embittered by his sacking from the Shadow Cabinet. As a result, the plan floated to launch a challenge rapidly sank.

Yet this discussion highlights a number of important facts about the current relationship of forces and some key issues for the Corbyn leadership.

The first is that a large swathe of the Labour right is implacably opposed to the new leadership and its politics. These irreconcilable elements are pinning their hopes on Labour doing badly in the May elections, or exaggerating its difficulties (see above). Their court jester, Dan Hodges says what others cannot, that a Sadiq Khan victory in London and Labour performing well in Scotland, Wales and council elections in England is unwelcome because it will strengthen Corbyn. “The enemy [for the Labour right] is their own leader”, is a verdict which confirms that many, if not all on the Labour right would prefer a Tory victory to a victory for Labour led by the left.

Secondly, the debate on the right is a purely tactical one on timing. There is no strategic opposition to the idea of challenging for the leadership, irrespective of the crushing mandate Corbyn won just months ago. This means that the right will continue to plot, even as the Dugher candidacy disappears without trace. Therefore it remains imperative that Labour’s own rulebook must be altered to clarify the position that the incumbent leader is automatically on the ballot if any MP gets sufficient nominations to mount a challenge. It is not a secret. The attempt at a coup has been widely discussed and may come at some point.

Finally, although Dugher has some union links he is unlikely to get their backing. Unite’s Len McCluskey has already stated that Corbyn will get ‘two to three years’ to prove himself as Labour leader. But the unions remain crucial to maintaining Corbyn’s alliances, alongside the overwhelming support he enjoys among the Labour membership. That alliance needs the cement of clear policies to ensure the mass of the population, including union members, would be clearly better off under Labour.

Labour’s leadership stands firm against racism

Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn and Shadow International Development Secretary Diane Abbott visited migrant camps in northern France on 23 January.

They called on the government to let those migrants in the camps into Britain who already have ties to Britain and pressed for a children’s resettlement programme similar to the 1930s when Britain took in German Jewish children.

This pressure from the Labour leadership helps advance the proposal by the charity SaveThe Children that Britain accept up to 3,000 unaccompanied refugee children, which the government now says it is actively considering.

In total less than 10,000 migrants live in the camps in northern France. That is a very small portion of those arriving in Europe. Germany expects to accommodate around a million refugees this year, but Britain so far has refused to take any who have reached Europe.

It is unprecedented to have a Labour leadership so resolute in opposing the current racist offensive. Corbyn has shifted Labour’s official rhetoric on immigration, away from the negative tone disfiguring its last General Election campaign.

Conceding to racism of course is morally wrong, which ought to be sufficient justification for opposing Islamophobia and attacks on immigration. It is also electorally damaging to Labour, because it strengthens Labour’s opponents and weakens its own support. A significant factor in December’s Oldham West and Royton by-election, ensuring UKIP’s defeat and Labour’s increased majority, was a Labour campaign devoid of the previous concessions to racism. That enabled a broader electoral alliance to be motivated to vote Labour. It also meant Labour’s message did not confer credibility on UKIP and the Tories’ racist agenda, so did not encourage Labour supporters to defect.

For all those resisting the current racist offensive and campaigning against it, having the Labour Party leadership on our side is a significant aid.

* Unite Against Fascism National Conference Saturday 6 Feb 9.30-4.30 London

* Stand up to racism & fascism – National Demo Saturday 19 March Assemble 12 noon London