Saturday, 22 April 2017

Week One of the campaign. And five reasons Labour may lose disastrously.

Any hope that Theresa May’s surprise general election would drag Jeremy Corbyn into the real world was cruelly dashed within a few short days. His major launch speech was a spectacular retreat into his predictable comfort zone. To say that the Labour Leader’s fiery socialist rhetoric preached to the choir probably insults the more intelligent of the choristers.

One of the funniest moments was when the prep-school-lad-made-bad listed all the people who should be afraid of him. Philip Green is apparently cowering, along with the bosses of Southern Rail. Tax-dodging CEOs pray at night that they are spared the wrath of Jez’s incoming administration.

The reality, of course, is that no one is remotely scared.

First of all, Corbyn isn’t going to get within 100 miles of Downing Street. And even if he did, he would be so out of his depth that wealthy and powerful interests would run rings around him.

It’s true that civil servants have to go through the motion of preparing for a potential transition. They were instructed to start talking to Jez’s team about the curtain measurements for Downing Street. But some wag on Twitter pointed out this was broadly akin to the host of 80s gameshow Bullseye, Jim Bowen, showing contestants the speedboat they could have won.

The only question in this election is how badly Labour loses.

My hunch is spectacularly badly.

Here are the five factors that will almost certainly lead to a disastrous result on 8th June.

THE LEADERSHIP ISSUE

The first and most obvious issue is Corbyn himself. There’s no point in rehearsing all his extraordinary gaffes of the past two years or his complete detachment from the world of 2017. His sheer awfulness has become common currency. Historians of this period will look back with bemusement that anyone ever thought him credible and will point to the instrumental role he played in shaping the disastrous Brexit result and a period of lengthy Tory rule.

It’s weird, incidentally, how history’s losers can often have a pivotal role in momentous events. Look at Ed Miliband blocking military action against Syria, for instance. His fateful decision (motivated by a desire to distance himself from Tony Blair and New Labour) led to Barack Obama’s embarrassing deal with Moscow. Assad was let off the hook, his murderous regime was emboldened and a vacuum was created which allowed IS to thrive.

Corbyn’s leadership – or lack of it – will be right at the heart of the campaign. He is being presented as the man at the centre of a ‘coalition of chaos’, involving maybe the Lib Dems and the SNP. This will be just as damaging as the accusation that the more competent Ed Miliband was in the pocket of Alex Salmond.

TRUST ON THE ECONOMY

The second reason Labour will suffer a historic defeat is a complete lack of confidence in their ability to manage the economy. This is somewhat unfair, as Blair and Brown had a very credible record prior to the financial crisis of 2008. But the Jezuits have disowned their predecessors’ legacy and never talk about any of the New Labour achievements in the management of the economy or investment in public services.

So, in 2017, we are left with an extraordinary wish list of policies. Renationalisation of the railways and those parts of the health service which are deemed to be privatised. The restoration of NHS bursaries. Free school meals for every child. An end to university tuition fees. An increase in the carer’s allowance. Ending the freeze on public-sector pay.

There is talk of spending half a trillion pounds.  While some borrowing is actually economically very sensible right now, as we can do it at historically low rates, the sheer scale of what Labour is proposing plays right into the hands of their Tory opponents. Most members of the public will want borrowing to be limited, taxes to be kept down and spending to be sensibly controlled. All ideas that are anathema to Corbyn and McDonnell.

BREXIT

The third problem for Labour isn’t entirely of its own making. It’s true that Corbyn’s lacklustre campaigning in the EU referendum was, sadly, probably enough to tip the balance of the vote the wrong way.  We might assume Labour voters would have come out in greater numbers for Remain if Andy Burnham, Liz Kendall or Yvette Cooper had won the leadership contest in 2015, rather than a man who had spent his whole political life opposing the EU. Once the referendum had been decided, however, Labour was caught in an impossible position.

Although the majority of Labour voters supported Remain, a substantial minority didn’t. And these Brexiters are disproportionately concentrated in Labour’s heartland seats. Labour will be too pro-Europe for the Brexiters and too pro-Brexit for the diehard Remainers. A completely impossible bind.

Corbyn’s solution is not to talk about Brexit. The trouble is that the Conservatives are determined to make this a Brexit election. And so are the Lib Dems. And probably the Scottish Nationalists and Plaid Cymru.  Last night, the rambling Labour Leader actually tweeted about rambling. I am not making this up.

DEFENCE AND SECURITY

This hasn’t really featured as an issue in British general elections since 1987, as both parties seemed broadly credible on defence from 1992 onwards. Under Corbyn’s leadership, Labour has become associated once again with appeasement, pacifism and defeatism.

The British public will never accept as Prime Minister someone who believes we could renew Trident nuclear submarines without the warheads. Or keep the warheads and tell people we would never use them. This argument was categorically lost three decades ago, but Jez didn’t get the memo.

For the record, I do not believe there is any military action by British forces that Corbyn has ever supported in his career. And that includes the intervention to stop ethnic cleansing in the Balkans. According to his fans, this puts him on the ‘right side of history’, although the great British public will respectfully disagree.

THE VISION THING

Right at the heart of Labour’s failure to connect with voters is the dismal picture they paint of the UK.

Make no mistake, this is a country with far too much poverty and inequality and Labour’s raison d’ĂȘtre must be to address this. Otherwise what is the party for? At the same time, Britain is still a very prosperous country and many people have some kind of stake in that prosperity, however tenuous. It goes without saying that a good number of them need to vote Labour if the party is to achieve power.

Right now, Labour is full of vitriol about a world of zero-hours contracts and welfare cuts and NHS crises and failing public transport. Like many other people, I want to see stronger employment laws, protection for the most vulnerable, a properly funded public health service and trains that run on time. But I don’t think we are defined as a nation just by our current failings.

The language Labour uses is relentlessly negative and for all the talk of ‘new politics’ under Corbyn, there is absolutely no sense of what British society might be like under his leadership. The overall impression communicated is one of decay and decline. Blair in 1997, by contrast, offered hope, confidence and cautious optimism about the future.

It seems, sadly, as if a cataclysm at the polls is the only way in which the arrogance of Labour’s current leadership and the naivety of its supporters can be shattered.  The tragedy is that it is the people Labour exists to represent who will be hardest hit by the sheer madness of the last two years.