Peter Kenyon reviews the prospects for one of the biggest upsets in British political history
Top marks to Labour for being ready. Tories are so vain. The idea that they would honour the Fixed Term Parliament Act 2011 was never believed by party leader Jeremy Corbyn and his close allies. With opinion polls pointing to a 20 point lead for Prime Minister May, no prospect of a quickie divorce from Brussels, and a strong whiff of Welsh air on an Easter walking holiday, the scene was set for a snap election. Mrs May has much to hide.
She dithered over going to the polls on Thursday 5 May, which was possible if she had declared on 29 March when Article 50 was invoked to apply to leave the European Union. Why burden those voters with another election on Thursday 8 June? Hopes of voter fatigue in the all too cynical decision mix to try and mask Britain’s hopeless negotiating position to leave the European Union?
Rightly, Labour has not wasted a moment hitting the road with its own narrative. The speed with which Corbyn responded to the news clearly upset some of Labour’s naysayers who thought a parliamentary war of attrition should have been fought to wipe that smirk of Mrs May’s face. The vast majority of our elected representatives had the good sense to recognise 99% of the electorate would have thought they were being denied their democratic rights. So they promptly repealed the Fixed Term Parliament Act clearing the way for a snap election. The Prime Minister says she needs a fresh mandate. Her will be done. “Trust me”, she purred in the Evening Standard (Editor: Former Conservative chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne). “Crush the saboteurs”, screamed the pro-Brexit headline in the Daily Mail (Prop: tax-dodging, offshore aristocrat Lord Rothermere).
Within days the demarcation lines were drawn. This is a ‘them’ and ‘us’, the people versus the establishment’ election. Mrs May parachutes into constituencies in a helicopter, refuses to debate, shuns the press, and silences invited audiences. Meanwhile Corbyn’s been taking the train, talking to everyone and anyone, and even finding time to sit down in a reception class and read a story. Not any old story but one that could become known as an election parable. “We are going on a bear hunt” Just in case, you have never heard the opening verse, here it is:
We’re goin’ on a bear hunt
We’re going to catch a big one,
I’m not scared
What a beautiful day!
Utterly brilliant. How better to draw attention to the growing clamour from school heads to parents to put their hands in their pockets to pay for books, because Conservative budgets are starving the state education system of money for essentials, such as books? Labour is going to need lots more of that sort of messaging over the next six weeks to have any hope of delivering the upset required to unseat Mrs May from Downing Street. The first week should been seen as being very good for party morale. The essential problem is that Corbyn remains unelectable in too many voters’ minds. Labour’s job is to change that perspective.
The Tories have a remarkably consistent record for major blunders when it comes to governing Britain. The challenge is now how many times can they be tripped up with headline grabbing stories that could bring their term in office to a glorious end
In the first instance it can only be done by keeping the focus on the Tories themselves and what they are doing to British society. The naysayers within the Party remain. Wild ideas about mass deselections before the next General Election have been ruled out by the party’s National Executive Committee. Sitting MPs and prospective parliamentary candidates who lost in the 2015 General Election are being given an automatic right to reselection. This sticks in the craw for us democratic socialists, but needs must. The conduct of our Labour elected representatives begs a question about the idea of Annual Parliaments – the only demand in the Great Charter (1848) not to have been granted. For the moment the naysayers have been silenced. A semblance of Labour Party unity is being displayed. For the wider membership there is an obligation to put aside vengeful ideas of deselection and concentrate on winning everywhere throughout the United Kingdom. Given the state of the party in Scotland, that is rather fanciful – though why isn’t the Scottish Labour Party more confident about beating the ‘get rid of the Tories’ drum – vote Labour. And ditto Northern Ireland, if only we allowed Labour candidates to stand. The Westminster electoral calculus centres on persuading little Englanders that Labour is best placed to get rid of the Tories. And that depends on enough of them wanting to get rid of the Tories fast – about which there is precious little evidence in opinion polls.
Allegations are already being publicised that the Labour Party paid staff are focussed on a defensive campaign to try and hold onto seats rather than a bold approach appealing to voters and known non-voters to power Corbyn into Downing Street. Of course, the existing base has to be consolidated. The main planks of Labour’s 2017 Manifesto were laid down by Corbyn in the run up to and at the 2016 Conference after his second leadership contest. The ten pledges are: Full Employment, a Secure Homes Guarantee, Security at Work, Secure NHS and Social Care, a National Education Service, action to secure our Environment, put the Public back into our Economy, Cut inequality in Income and Wealth, action to secure an Equal Society, Peace and Justice at the heart of our Foreign Policy. But how many people have even heard about them? At the time of going to press the Labour Party has issued a national appeal offering members a say. But the devil is always in the detail.
In the first week both Labour and Conservative got themselves in muddles over tax. Labour’s shadow chancellor John McDonnell got caught out in a BBC radio interview about what level of income made someone rich – and Labour ended up with a £70 to £80k a year millstone round its neck. Then the Conservatives excelled themselves by proposing to drop their No TAX increases pledge from their 2017 manifesto (yet to be published). Visions of a Tory tax bombshell even had the Tory-supporting press railing against Mrs May. By the first weekend of the ‘campaign’, the Mail on Sunday claimed the blunder had already cost the Tories half their lead in an opinion poll. Now this has to be good news for Labour strategists, and those of us with a penchant for Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. But it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. The Tories have a remarkably consistent record for major blunders when it comes to governing Britain. The challenge is now how many times can they be tripped up with headline grabbing stories that could bring their term in office to a glorious end?
The idea still promoted by some dreamers close to Corbyn that this election can be won on the doorstep is ridiculous. Even with some 500 to 600k members, there are still too few who understand that paying a subscription to a political party is not enough to get Labour Party candidates elected. It is a necessary condition of our party democracy, but not a sufficient one to secure election. However, a combination of Tory arrogance, vanity, and pomposity leading to a consistent stream of unfavourable headlines and an effective doorstepping campaign by Labour? That could be a winning formula. For those liking a flutter, it is definitely worth a trip to the bookies given the odds currently being quoted against Labour winning the largest number of seats. Then there is that idea of a Progressive Alliance, much discussed in Chartist passim. Labour’s leadership has already ruled that out. But just in case you are tempted to vote tactically in your own constituency, check out the box below.
Finally, there is an elephant in the room – Brexit. On this issue the leadership has manfully (and they still are mainly men) sought to brush it aside as an election issue. In the first week that was probably wise. But in the run up to election day? Some very serious thought needs to be given to this – some commentators are already persuaded that Mrs May’s main reason for calling a snap election is that her Brexit negotiating strategy is doomed. By seeking an electoral mandate to 2022 she would be giving herself and her deeply divided party some breathing space to continue to con the British electorate that it can trust the Tories. Labour’s contorted position over Brexit offers an opportunity to call Mrs May’s bluff before 8 June. With a snap election, there is no need to wait until the negotiations fall apart for the electorate to see for themselves. All that has to be asked of Mrs May are questions. She is refusing to do TV debates with the other political leaders. Corbyn has to pose rhetorical questions of the ’empty chair’. Of course, the ground has to be laid across the country – Mrs May is hiding the truth. That simple truth is that there can be no access to the EU market, without freedom of movement or financial contributions. To cap her difficulties her closest ally, US President Donald Trump has just shunted the UK to the back of its trade negotiation queue.
God bless America.
Peter Kenyon is a former constituency representative on Labour’s National Executive Committee, who was agent for the Labour Party in the City of London elections in March. Labour won five seats – a fivefold increase