Uncertain times

All of the party’s interventions in the next 12 months should be measured by three tests, writes Progress director, Richard Angell

First published on the Fabian blog

Never has an opposition proved itself so unfit to meet the 12 months ahead of it. Just 12 days into 2017 and two policies have been proposed, critiqued and reversed by the Labour leader himself. In fact, both happened in the same 12 hours.

Whether you see Jeremy Corbyn’s new year relaunch as ‘let Bartlet be Bartlet’ or Trump-lite, it has been laid bare. More importantly it has been found wanting. We had five years with Ed Miliband as ‘his own outrider’. It resulted in him being out on his ear. This cannot last. I predict 2017 will see at least one, if not more, further Corbyn relaunches as the leadership struggles to do enough to show the party it can at least go through the motions.

To end 2017 stronger than it has started might not seem hard but it will require focus. All interventions should meet one of three tests: first, whether it makes the Tories feel the heat; second, whether it changes Labour in the eyes of the voters; or, third and even better, whether it gains Labour new levels of support.

Taking these in turn, the main problem with Tuesday’s speech and associated debacle is that it put the heat on the wrong Jeremy. It was Jeremy Hunt who should have had his feet held firmly to the fire. He was front page news for hinting he might reverse Labour’s extremely popular four-hour waiting in accident and emergency target. On top of the winter crisis facing the NHS, this was teed up nicely for the leader of the opposition. It was made easier by the fact the prime minister had given – just the day before – a speech on mental health, not Brexit. Thankfully Beth Rigby, from the Murdoch-owned MSM outlet Sky News, stepped in to do the opposition’s job for it. When the Tories are on the run, as Rigby shows, we must take to the streets and chase them.

Then there are times when Labour wishes to change the conversation and lead the news cycle. Given the media writing about policy are like small children eating their greens – it helps if it’s the only things on their plate – you have to pick one issue and see it through. It might be Donald Trump-like to have a position and reverse it some time later. It is Trump-lite to do it all in the same day. I am not sure why anyone on the left would want to emulate Trump, but if they do, it is surely worse to do it badly.

Finally, this all has to turn into new support for Labour. Diane Abbott could not have been clearer at the close of 2016. She told Andrew Marr that the leadership aims to close this devastating gap in the next 12 months. Ken Livingstone said he would be ‘worried’ if Abbott is proved wrong. Making it a hat-trick, Len McCluskey said:

‘Let’s suppose we are not having a snap election. It buys into this question of what happens if we get to 2019 and opinion polls are still awful. The truth is everybody would examine that situation, including Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell.’

McCluskey might have a different timescale from Abbott but sees what we all see: that the numbers have to change. We do not just need to close the gap with the Tories, we need to be ahead of them in the polls – as Ed Miliband consistently was at the equivalent point in the last parliament. Considering Miliband was ultimately unsuccessful, it might be advisable to be doing better. As Peter Kellner, then of YouGov, shows, no leader of the opposition has gone on to become prime minister without a 20-point lead at some point. It must at least be an aim to break that target.

2017 will either be a turning point for the Labour party as a whole, or for its moderates. With all Labour members of parliament being either supportive or silent, the stage is all Corbyn’s. The next 12 months are all his. It time to use them wisely.

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