For decades we’ve looked back to 1983 as the low point of modern Labour Party history. No more.
It’s not the number of seats that makes 2019 worse than 1983. It’s the fact that there’s no excuse. When Michael Foot led Labour to disaster thirty-six years ago, it was an almost impossible task. He faced a prime minister who’d won a popular war and who could claim – whether accurately or not – that the country was now in recovery, thanks to the bitter economic medicine swallowed in 1979-81. The memory of the Winter of Discontent was still fresh. And there was the SDP/Liberal Alliance with whom to compete.
This time Labour faced not a victorious Margaret Thatcher, but a clumsy, unconvincing Boris Johnson, a man whose brief premiership had thus far been little more than a series of broken promises and humiliating defeats in the Commons and the Supreme Court. And, outside Scotland, there were no serious opposition rivals. The Liberal Democrats shot themselves in the foot before the race began: unwisely rebranding the party in the image of a leader who failed to connect, and adopting an anti-democratic policy to solve a problem of democracy.
Worst of all, this was after nine years of a Conservative-led government that has not impressed in any regard whatsoever. Nine years of austerity, as the Labour slogan had it. A government that had been so comprehensively blown off course by Nigel Farage that it was on its third leader in little more than three years. In the process, it had lost many of its most senior figures – the ones that people quite liked.
What was there for the Tories to boast about going into this election? The promise of strong and stable leadership never materialized. There hasn’t been a big popular policy on the scale of Right to Buy. Economic recovery has been sluggish (and may have come to an end), the size of the national debt is frightening, and there’s little sense of optimism for the immediate future. A recent rise in wages hasn’t been enough to wipe out memories of years of stagnation.
The one solid claim is the number of jobs. Unemployment levels have been kept surprisingly low – but the surprise came some years ago, in the Coalition years. And anyway the rhetoric of zero-hours contracts and the gig economy has taken hold of the public imagination.
And yet, against this, Labour lost.
Lost not just in the sense that it failed to win the election. Lost in the sense that it fell back. It did worse than last time. Much worse.
The official Labour line is that this was a Brexit election, and next time that won’t be a factor. That’s fine, just as long as you think that Brexit was simply about leaving the European Union. Which it wasn’t, and probably still isn’t. For many of those who voted to leave, it was a focal point for a wide range of complaints – almost a metaphor.
The rival interpretation is that it was all about Jeremy Corbyn. Well, yes, of course. It was obvious from his election as leader onwards that he was never going to become prime minister. It wasn’t just the baggage accumulated during the decades on the fringes, it was the fact that he didn’t look like a leader. His closest comrades didn’t think of asking him to run for the leadership until Ken Livingstone, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott had all had a go. And his colleagues in Parliament clearly had no respect for him. If they didn’t think he was up to the job, why should we?
The combination of Corbyn and Brexit was catastrophic. That compromise policy that was cooked up found few takers. It was palatable to neither leaver nor remainer.
But beyond that, insist Corbyn supporters, beyond that… The policies were popular with the people. And for much of the manifesto that’s true. It’s just that there were so many of those bloody policies, no awareness of Nye Bevan’s old nostrum: ‘The language of priorities is the religion of socialism.’
And then there was the stuff that seemed implausible, from the four-day week onwards. On the eve of the election, Corbyn tweeted a list of massive spending pledges, with the strapline: ‘You deserve it, the billionaires and big business will pay for it. That’s our plan for real change.’ Really? That was the plan? Even given the limited number of characters allowed by Twitter, it’s embarrassing.
The Corbyn state may have been not much bigger than that of Germany, but German voters understand that the price of social democracy is higher taxes on average incomes. And so do British voters – the assurance that only the top 5 per cent of earners would be asked to foot the bill was never credible, and looked ever less so as the tab kept growing.
Corbyn’s positive contribution has been to restate Labour core values. And there’s an appetite for that, which is why the Tories have committed to higher spending on public services. Austerity went on too long, trying the electorate’s patience. A fair bit of the coming political battle will be fought on Labour’s ground, and that’s something for his successor to work with. Not much – particularly given the boundary changes and voter ID that will now happen – but something at least.
Except there is no obvious successor who’ll convince the country. Not from the Corbyn wing at any rate. Nor indeed from any other wing. The hot favourite is Keir Starmer, but frankly he’s not that hot. As Greg Dyke said on meeting Tony Blair for the first time: ‘Not another fucking London barrister!’ He doesn’t seem likely to breach the cultural chasm that has opened up between Labour and its former supporters.
And for Starmer to be elected leader assumes that the Corbynites are willing to relinquish control. ‘Will there be civil war in your party?’ Andrew Neil asked Alastair Campbell last night, and Campbell could only reply: ‘I hope not.’ It didn’t inspire much hope.
This is the second time since the war that Labour has lost four elections in a row. The last time round left it out of power for eighteen years. For the current Tory era to match that, Johnson will have to win the next election as well. Given the depths to which Labour has sunk, that looks entirely possible.