Economics and politics - comment and analysis

Labour is gone if Corbyn makes no U-turn

Many Europeans take a special interest in Jeremy Corbyn. No other social democratic party in Europe is more to the left than Corbyn’s Labour. Traditional party political membership is in long-term decline everywhere. Labour is the only exception. Labour gained some 200.000 new members in one year. Corbyn’s policies are to the liking of the European Left: an end to austerity, a public investment program, raising wages, rebuilding the social welfare state, combating poverty, fighting tax evasion, protecting the NHS, the renationalisation of the railroads and water. Many – myself included – hope that if Corbyn wins the political battle, social democracy in Europe will start moving to the Left. There is, however, a very sad problem: Corbyn is becoming his own worst enemy. I explained this before. Now there is proof.

To briefly reiterate, in order for Labour to win the next election (which is set to take place in May 2020) Labour has to win:

  • at least 15 to perhaps 20 seats back in Scotland – Labour lost 40 of its 41 seats north of the border in the last election. How will Labour win even one seat back in Scotland if it continues to support the Brexit?;
  • a large percentage of the votes of the YUMs, the young urban multiculturals, the better or well-educated younger generations, a large majority of which opposes the Brexit. Labour is alienating these voters;
  • a decent percentage of the vote of Britons living abroad, but a large majority of them will not support a pro-Brexit party; and
  • Labour has to win the votes back of ca. 20% to 25% of the voters who went to UKIP or did not vote in the last election and of which a majority voted for the Brexit. This is, basically, the traditional Labour base of the old industrial hinterland, those who have suffered the most from de-industrialisation, falling wages, unemployment and austerity.

This is not a matter of opinion. It is arithmetically impossible for Labour to beat the Conservatives without the significant electoral support of each of these groups. My point was that this is impossible if Labour does not make a U-turn.

Proof

  1. The YouGov poll

According to a last week’s YouGov poll, a hypothetical ‘Stop Brexit’ party would beat Labour and UKIP if a general election were held tomorrow. The YouGov poll of more than 4.500 adults in England and Wales found that 50% of people who opted for Remain during the referendum would vote for a new pro-EU membership party if given the choice. A further 3.9% of people who voted Leave said they would support the anti-Brexit party. This would give the hypothetical party 25.9% of the total vote (see here).

This is, of course, extremely bad news. ‘Stop Brexit’ would push Labour into third place, with the official opposition only winning 18.7% of the vote. The Conservatives would still come out on top with 34.1% (see here). Corbyn does not seem willing to understand that the social and the electoral basis for the Brexit is evaporating. He is arguing for a lost case on the basis of wrong arguments.

  1. The Witney result

There is more bad news for Labour. Last week a by-election in Witney, Oxfordshire, took place. The election result should be an eye opener for the Labour strategists, because there is more to come of the same and worse. The Liberal Democrats enjoy their biggest swing in two decades. They leapfrog Labour and UKIP to take second place. Witney has had a Tory MP since its creation in 1983. The result was still a comfortable win for the Conservative candidate, although he won fewer than half of the votes chalked up by Cameron last year. The Conservatives are down by 15.1 percentage points. The Liberal Democrats, who campaign on an anti-Brexit ticket, are up 23.5 percentage points. Labour got 15% of the vote, 2.2% less than in 2015 (see here).

How can this result be explained? As Leffman, the Lib Dem candidate said, her party won votes because people do not want to come out of the single market, the Tories lost votes because many conservatives are not happy with the party lurching in the direction of UKIP and Labour also lost votes because it supports the Brexit. That seems to be an imminently reasonable explanation (see here).

  1. Other polls and surveys

If Labour continues to support the Brexit, it can as well stop trying to win the next election. Labour has been gaining members for many months, but it is losing voters. Mid-September, the party suffered the worst opinion poll rating it had ever received in opposition. In the September poll, Labour trailed the Conservatives by 11 points – the worst result for a leader since polling began in the 1950s. Another poll three weeks later found Labour was on course to win about just 190 seats at the general election – this is worse than the 2015 result. It would be the worst result since 1935 (see here). Here is the result of the latest poll: opinion_polling_uk_2020_election_short_axis

Figure 1: Opinion polling, 3rd week of October (Source: YouGov). The six parties with the largest numbers of votes in the 2015 general election. Conservative Party: blue; Labour Party: red; UKIP: purple; Liberal Democrats: yellow; Scottish National Party: brown; Greens parties: green. 

Is it actually sensible to speculate on the results of an election which is four years away on the basis of current polls? According to John Curtice, professor of politics in Strathclyde, it is (see here). As he writes in the Independent, the apparent rule in British politics is that oppositions that fail to establish a poll lead early on are doomed to fail at the subsequent general election. This is, of course, a rule, not an iron law. Being ahead in the polls at an early stage is no guarantee of subsequent electoral success. Miliband was narrowly ahead of the Conservatives in the autumn of 2011, yet he still crashed to defeat in 2015. However, Curtice explains, so far at least, being behind after sixteen months has always been followed by electoral defeat (see here).

At present, Labour is 10 to 11 points behind the Conservatives in the polls. At 30 per cent the party’s average rating is no better than the 31 per cent it secured at last year’s general election. If that would the election result, taking the new boundaries for the constituencies into account, the Conservatives would be likely to secure an overall majority of some 70 seats (see here).

Labour gained a lot of new members, but elections are not being won on membership numbers. In the general population, more than twice as many are ‘dissatisfied’ with Corbyn’s leadership as ‘satisfied.’ No less than 68% feel that that he ‘does not have what it takes’ to be Prime Minister. An unusually large proportion of the electorate are not convinced that the Labour leader is up to the task. The balance of those perceptions is heavily negative (see here).

To conclude, things are looking extremely bad (see also here). There are, without doubt, several reasons for this, but the essence of the problem seems to be that voters belonging to any of the four groups mentioned above that Labour needs to win over see little reason to vote for the party.

Corbyn’s position

Why does Corbyn stubbornly keep supporting the Brexit? It is not a secret that the party leader sees the EU as a dictatorial, neoliberal, implementation machine of austerity and falling wages. There is no doubt that he is right about that. Flassbeck has analysed EU economic governance, the problem of the imbalances in Europe, German wage moderation and German mercantilism and it perilous consequences in numerous publications (see, for example, here). The poisonous cocktail of austerity and ‘structural reforms’ has failed – it is economic madness. The question is what can be done against it. Clearly, a Brexit is not the right strategy. The Brexit brought the most right wing government in power in UK, perhaps in a century, well to right of Thatcher, to the right of Cameron. It is on a par with the most ultra-conservative parties in Europe and with more than a sniff of Front National-like policies on top of it. The falling Pound and the deterioration of the economic outlook will once again disproportionally hit the poorest, the poor and working people. The Brexit changed absolutely nothing for the better. In short, it is all good and well to oppose ‘Europe,’ but what exactly is the plan? The Brexiteers have no plan.

Corbyn’s second argument is that, if he ever becomes PM, EU rules will forbid him to implement his re-nationalisation policies, so it is necessary to drop out. Tariq Ali and others have made the same argument. I explained on two occasions that they are wrong (see here and here).

Corbyn’s third argument might, for the moment, well be the one that damages him the most. His position is that ‘the people have spoken’ and that ‘we need to respect their decision.’ Very few people – and less and less – take this argument serious. It is, indeed, even factually incorrect: the Brexit is not the will of the British people (see here). The social basis of the Brexit is evaporating faster than anyone expected. If Corbyn wants to make the argument that the people have spoken, he should look at the circumstances in which they have spoken. This was by no means a honest referendum. It was characterised by fear-mongering, racism, xenophobia, misinformation, charlatanism, abuse of power and blatant lies. Aside from all of this, hardly any rational arguments were made for or again, left or right, except by a few academics who were subsequently ignored by the media. The Brexit was a circus driven by cheap political opportunism. Let’s not forget that Theresa was solidly in the Remain camp 120 days ago. Boris Johnson campaigned for the Leave campaign for merely opportunistic reasons – he was pro Remain. Jeremy Corbyn campaigned, half heartedly and without conviction, for Remain because this was Labour’s official position. Nigel Farage declared before the referendum that a 48 – 52% result should be considered indecisive. Why should the result of such a referendum be respected? Why is Labour finding itself on the same side as the Conservatives and UKIP? The honourable thing to do would be to stand up and say that the Brexit campaign has been crap from beginning to end, unworthy of democratic decision making. But Corbyn continues to defend it. As a result, Labour is losing support. Left Labour’s position is simple incoherent at this point: a Brexit yes, access to the single market yes, remaining in the customs union yes, restrictions to immigration no. This is not the proper way to serve the interests of the British people.

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Picture 1: the Brexit in pictures: UKIP’s scaremongering about refugees (Source: UKIP).

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Picture 2: the Brexit in pictures: Boris Johnson lying about the NHS (Source Google Images).

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Picture 3: Labour MP Gisela Stuart campaigning with Boris Johnson, repeating the lie about the £350 million a week for the NHS (Source: Google Images)

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Picture 4: the Brexit in pictures: Boris Johnson lying about the EU (Source Google Images).

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Picture 5: the Brexit in pictures: Nigel Farage pledges an extra £3 bn for the NHS, all you need to do is vote Leave (Source: Google Images).  

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Picture 6: the Brexit in pictures: a representative sample of the daily racism and scaremongering of the Daily Express – day after day, month after month – other tabloids did no better (Source: Google Images).

Looming electoral disaster

There is only one way for Labour to avert electoral disaster. The party has to make a U-turn. According to Labour’s political strategists, this is impossible. It is nothing short of political suicide. Are they right? There is no logical reason why it would be suicidal to explain what everyone knows anyway, that the referendum was not an exercise in democracy, but very much the negation of it. It is not impossible for Left Labour to explain that the Brexit will damage the British economy and especially the poor and the poorest – groups that Labour should stand up for. Besides, everybody knows this already too. It is not impossible to make clear to the traditional basis, the working class, that the Labour party stands up for ALL workers, that it is the consequences of Conservative and New Labour policies which make people hate the Polish worker and the Syrian refugee, that these despicable divide and rule policies need to stop, that Labour is fighting for solidarity among all workers, that problems of unemployment, falling wages, social housing and social welfare have not being caused by immigrants and that Labour has perfectly implementable policies to change the tide and make a real positive difference.

All of this, and more, is in fact perfectly possible, it is the will that is missing. It is a potentially incredibly powerful and electrifying message – the stuff victories are made off. But the problem is that Corbyn does not believe in it, that think tanks affiliated with Labour – which are all very much to centre or to the right – oppose it and that a U-turn would lead to an open war with the pro-Brexit Blairites – people such as Rachel Reeves and Kinnock, who are willing to sacrifice the single market for restrictions on immigration.

Political strategists say that none of this makes sense. They should hang their heads in shame. They are the people who managed to lose the 2015 election. Miliband lost, after five years of brutal Tory austerity. Labour lost 40 out of 41 seats in Scotland. Today, the head of the 2015 Labour Party campaign in Scotland is an influential pro-Brexiteer, an expert in political strategy. He should have lost his job last year. Rachel Reeves should also hang her head in shame. The talk coming out of her mouth is unacceptable for a member of a social democratic party. As the former UK ambassador Craig Murray writes – the title of his piece is ‘I call it fascist – I do not know what else to call it’ – Rachel Reeves’ speech channeled Enoch Powell in predicting violent reaction to immigrants and was in some ways worse than Powell’s infamous allusion (see here). The crucial difference is, as Murray writes, that Powell’s anti-immigrant rant ended his chances of becoming Prime Minister – we lived in a more decent society then. Reeves, on the other hand, is now firmly in today’s UK establishment mainstream. But let’s not make a mistake: this is talk worthy of the Front National, not Labour (see here).

Democracy requires vision

Surveys do indeed show that a U-turn on the Brexit will lead to electoral disaster. But so what, since such disaster is already certain? I do not believe the results of these surveys. They are conceptually wrong. Great people have won historical elections by telling things their electorate did not want to hear. Mandela told the ANC that they were wrong when he got out of prison. Surely, at the time, no survey would have predicted victory. The point is that such principled actions elevate political discourse above and beyond the dominant market concept of politics, which sees politicians as competitors for votes on the basis of the articulation of views which for unquestioned reasons happen to be popular. This is not democracy. Democracy does not exist without a rational discussion in which initially idiosyncratic and subjective positions become transformed into claims which win support through inter-subjective validation: a process of social reflection and public judgment that is based on political speech and persuasion. This has nothing to do with counting noses, political marketing and the usual demagoguery, authoritarianism, sell in and sell out and manipulation. It has to do with the formulation of political principles and social rationality. It is very well possible for people to defend their interests without being blind to the position of others. People do not expect politicians to parrot them, they expect politicians to illuminate problems, take principled positions, show intelligence, vision and commitment. Corbyn has to make a choice. It is possible for him to deliver a message that is truly electrifying, a message that is both pragmatic and principled. If he does not and I am afraid he will not, Labour will lose the election and Left Labour will be history. Given the importance of what is at stake, these matters should not be left to be decided on the basis of what is in the ‘heart’ of someone who is becoming his own worst enemy.