by Frank Schnittger
Sat May 4th, 2019 at 10:57:34 AM EST
Long after the scale of the Conservative defeat in the 2019 Local elections had become clear the BBC was still running with the headline that the elections were a disaster for the major parties and that the Conservatives and Labour had "lost hundred of seats". The reality is that the Conservatives lost 1,334 seats and Labour just 82 compared to the 2015 results.
But there is a sense in which the BBC has (perhaps inadvertently) actually got it right. In 2015 the local elections had been run in parallel with the general election in which Cameron had won an unexpected overall majority. So the Labour performance is actually slightly worse than on a day in 2015 when the Tories won an overall majority and unleashed the joys of untrammelled Conservative rule (including the Brexit referendum) on the nation.
Yes, there are other lessons to be drawn. The Tory performance was the worst since 1995 and the halcyon days of Tony Blair. UKIP lost 145 out of its 176 Councillors. The Lib Dems gained 703 seats, the best performance in their history, and the Greens gained 194 seats putting them on the map as a significant force in UK politics for the first time. So between them the major Leave parties lost almost 1,500 seats while the main committed Remain parties gained almost 900.
But the lesson Conservative and Labour leaders appear to have drawn from this resounding defeat is that "the people want them to get on with delivering Brexit". Labour has managed to allow itself to become contaminated in the public mind with the gridlock in Westminster and tarred with the same brush as the Conservatives. That is a massive failure of leadership on the Labour side.
The British Establishment likes to paint Corbyn as some kind of firebrand, "looney left" extremist, leading the hardcore revolutionary Trotskyite Momentum wing of the Labour party. The reality couldn't be more different. Corbyn supported the establishment line and campaigned for Remain in the Brexit referendum. He then dutifully accepted the referendum result and began to craft the establishment response - a soft, almost Brexit in Name Only Brexit, where the UK retained a close relationship with the Single Market and Customs Union.
If Labour had been in power, that is where we would be now.
Instead, we got Theresa May, who pursued a hard core Brexit outside the Single Market and Customs Union in line with the far right ERG wing of the Tory party. Her January 2017 Lancaster House speech set out the parameters of what became the withdrawal agreement with the EU. She triggered Article 50 in March 2017 without the slightest attempt to "reach across the aisle" and build a wider consensus as to what "Brexit means Brexit" actually meant.
When the electorate rejected her vision in the June 2017 general election, she turned to the hard core protestant fundamentalists and rejectionists of the DUP to shore up her position. When even some "one nation" Tories rebelled she just doubled down and then doubled down some more on her hard line positions, seeking to use the spectre of a "no deal" Brexit to force submission to her will. Only when it became absolutely clear that Parliament wouldn't support her deal did she ask the EU for an Article 50 extension and turn to Jeremy Corbyn for support.
Having been demonised by the establishment for so long, Corbyn probably felt the need to adopt a "statesmanlike" pose and agreed to discuss a compromise Brexit somewhere between May's hard line and Labour's softer Brexit approach. But for the English electorate (minus London) as a whole, this was a case of too little, too late. Fed up with almost three years of wrangling, voters pronounced "a plague on both your houses" and turned to the Lib Dems, Greens and a plethora of independents to represent them on local councils.
The one party they did NOT turn to is UKIP which lost almost all it seats, so the notion that the popular anti-establishment discontent was a mandate for a hard core no deal Brexit is absurd. Obviously the European Elections will be a different test of opinion, more explicitly about Brexit and Brexit alone, and crucially Nigel Farage's new Brexit party and ChangeUK will provide additional outlets for Leavers and Remainers discontented with the major parties policies and performances on Brexit.
The Brexit party is polling up to 30% at the moment, and is threatening to relegate the Conservatives (on 13%) to third or fourth place in the UK party hierarchy. However the performance of the Labour party, in the low 20's, is nothing to write home about, and the prospect of coming second to Nigel Farage must be concentrating minds in the party leadership wonderfully. If the Lib Dems build on their local elections surge, Labour could even come third in the polls.
It will be little consolation to Labour activists if the Conservatives are absolutely destroyed in the Euro elections if Labour, too, is eclipsed by the Brexit party. So what must Corbyn do now?
Up until now he has been the model party leader accepting the development of Labour policy through the correct channels of the party conference and national executive. Although portrayed as a dictator by his detractors, he has tried, increasingly desperately, to keep both Leave and Remain voters in his party on board by a policy of "constructive ambiguity" on a second referendum, and almost complete silence on what he would campaign for if such a referendum were actually called.
But there now seems to be a widespread consensus across both Labour and non labour activists that the Local Elections results mean that that strategy has run out of road. The Euro elections will present voters with a binary choice between the Brexit supporting Brexit, Conservative, and UKIP parties; and the Remain supporting Lib Dem, Green and Change UK parties, and Labour risk being caught in no man's land in the middle.
The ongoing Conservative Labour talks risk further contaminating the Labour party with the failures of the Conservative/DUP government and any prospect of Labour "bailing out" a collapsing Conservative Government (which will probably soon have a "no deal" hard core Brexiteer leader) must be anathema to Labour supporters - Leavers and Remainers alike.
The reality is that the public has changed their minds on Brexit with a 14% majority now in favour of Remain and with an over 50% majority of Labour supporters living in north of England and midlands supporting Remain over Leave. So the time has come for Corbyn to rise above a narrow procedural interpretation of his role and do what the majority of the UK electorate actually want, and that is to take the lead role for arguing for Remain in the forthcoming Euro elections.
Many have argued that Corbyn is a life long Eurosceptic and that he would never argue for Remain with any enthusiasm. But that is to ignore his procedural correctness in always articulating what he considers to be his democratic mandate from the UK peoples and the Labour party membership.
What he needs to do, perhaps for the first time in his leadership, is actually take a leadership position advocating for a policy which is a development of the policies previously approved by the UK electorate and Labour decision making bodies: He needs to argue that circumstances have changed; that the Tories have negotiated a very bad Brexit deal, and that all efforts by Labour to rescue it have failed. He needs to argue that the time has come for a second referendum and that Labour will advocate for Remain when that referendum is called.
Anything less will allow the Lib Dems, Greens and ChangeUK to dominate Remain discourse and support and relegate Labour to a minor place in the popular vote.
There is no shame in admitting that attempts to forge a consensus on Brexit have failed, and it is important that Theresa May should be allowed to own that failure. Part of the popular frustration with Corbyn is that he appears to act as an apparatchik within the Labour party organisational structure and does not speak directly to and for the UK peoples as a whole.
Labour's prospects of winning the next general election and Corbyn's prospects of ever being seen as a credible Prime Ministerial candidate depend on his ability to be seen as able to lead his party and the country in a new policy direction. Ever since Blair lost the plot and committed the party to the invasion of Iraq against the wishes of the vast majority of the party (and peoples of the UK) there has been a fear in Labour of another party leader becoming obsessed with his own ego and acting in a dictatorial style.
Corbyn has now served as Labour leader long enough to have gained the trust of the vast majority of its membership that he will only act in their best interests. If he needs to call an extraordinary Party conference to validate his new policy, then by all means let him do so. But in the meantime, and for the purposes of the Euro elections, he has to take his party forward firmly in a Remain direction if Labour is to secure its position as the leading party in the country and the next government in waiting.
The real question mark over Corbyn is not his economic ideology or democratic credentials. It is whether he has the leadership abilities to pull Labour and the UK out of this mess.