The Guardian Online of 4 October contained a page of reader’s letters in support of Sir Keir Starmer arguing that the criticism of his performance at the recent Labour Party Conference was unfair and only served the Tory interest. Aside from the fact that the “generosity” of the paper in this regard stands in marked contrast to the way in which it treated Jeremy Corbyn when he was leader, the letters in question throw up an interesting consideration of the role of Labour in opposition.
What the period of Corbyn’s leadership shows is that even in opposition the Labour Party continued to influence the behaviour of the party in Government.
But that influence is not necessarily, or exclusively, the result of the behaviour of the PLP in Westminster. When we look back at the seminal event during Corbyn’s leadership we see that, at the time of the referendum, despite the fact that the membership of the party was overwhelmingly anti-Brexit, the extent of that opposition was not an accurate reflection of the feelings of a significant element among the party’s traditional voters let alone the wider voting public.
There were many inside the Labour Party and outside who advocated a pro-Brexit policy. But that sentiment was not shared by the majority of members. They were not convinced by the argument that it offered an opportunity for the working class. Yet, even when Brexit was endorsed by the electorate in the June 2016 referendum that argument continued to be dismissed as not worthy of consideration. At this point the Party saw its prime mission as the undoing of the results of the referendum and much of the focus of the party became centred on that goal. Such was the determination of the Remain component led by the PLP to reverse the referendum result that it attempted to remove the leader, Jeremy Corbyn – a known agnostic on the issue – rather than adjust to the new reality. That attempt was undertaken in the leadership contest between August and September 2016. Then, with Corbyn’s leadership endorsed by the overwhelming majority of the membership, the PLP resorted to desperate bureaucratic obstruction and exploitation of parliamentary procedure in an attempt to scupper Brexit. There was no mistaking the intent of Labour in opposition at the time. The extent to which such opposition impacted Government policy on this issue was the influence it had on the hardening of Tory policy – a hardening that resulted in the election of Boris Johnson as leader and Prime Minister in July 2019 in order to “Get Brexit Done.”
For that reason, from the Remain perspective, that influence of Labour in opposition was undoubtedly a negative one. But the emergence of Boris Johnson represented much more that a hardening of the pro-Brexit position in the Tory Party. Johnson showed himself to be more than a single-issue phenomenon. Rather, he has built on his Brexit position to develop policies that take the Tory Party to the Labour heartlands in a way that the Labour Party continues to fail to acknowledge.
In essence, what Johnson’s policies have revealed is the way in which Brexit offered a real opportunity for the working class. With Corbyn as leader—while he was never exactly in control of the ship, at least he was somewhere on the Bridge—there remained the prospect that the opportunity might have been taken. Alas and alack, such was the incoherent basis of much of his support (which was incapable of seeing Brexit as an opportunity and only capable of treating it as a disaster) that opportunity could not be grasped.
However, the Labour Party is much more than the PLP and, in the meantime, under Corbyn it developed a series of policies which proved so attractive to the electorate, that, despite an intensive campaign to discredit them in the media, produced a result in the 2017 election that profoundly shocked the establishment.
That Labour showing in 2017 was to stimulate a response from the establishment that was both savage and creative. Not only did the establishment media embark on the most vicious campaign against a leader of the opposition in modern times (central to it all being a doubling down on the antisemitic smear) but it also brought forth a creative response which reflected the Tory Party’s superior capacity to “read” the British working class.
It was as a direct result of the 2017 election that the “Red Wall” became visible to the Tory Party. It was the strength of that visibility within the party that led to the election of Johnson as leader and it was Johnson’s capacity to understand his role by way of policies which won him the 2019 election – all aided by the inability of the Labour Party to understand what was happening.
What happened inside the Tory Party between 2017 and 2019 was just as dramatic as what happened within Labour but, such is the blindness of the membership and the arrogance of its leadership that its significance remains unlearned.
Aside from all the continuing issues surrounding Corbyn and suspensions/expulsions over antisemitism as well as identity politics, the central issue is that the period between 2017 and 2019 showed the influence that the Labour Party, as an opposition party, could continue to have over the governing party.
As indicated, that influence was manifested in the policies the Tories developed in its efforts to win the “Red Wall”. Whether Johnson or the Tories are capable of delivering on those policies remains to be seen. At present it seems that Johnson is holding firm despite a growing body of opinion within the party which is seeking to abandon them in favour of “fiscal probity”.
But it would be a mistake to see the outcome of the present struggle within the Government as being outside the realms of anything the Labour Party is currently doing in opposition. The inept leadership that continues to handicap the ability of Labour to influence these events in opposition will inevitably be a component in the outcome of the struggle currently taking place in the Tory party. The longer that continues the more it will contribute to an outcome that favours traditional Treasury economics over Johnson’s version of One-Nation Conservatism.
From the Tory perspective as long as there remains the “threat” of a genuinely coherent and radical Labour Party emerging from the current turmoil the more that sustains the Johnson position. Should the turmoil continue within Labour or Labour fails to adopt policies that contain a genuine radical component, that will be reflected in how the Tories move towards the next general election.
At present, with Starmer failing to grasp the opportunity provided by the transport and energy crisis to formulate policies that offer some hope of an alternative to these market failures the situation is looking good for Sunak and his allies.
It could be argued that bringing down the Tories is all that counts and ordinarily that would be an understandable argument. But for the Tories to be brought down requires the electorate to bring them down and for that to happen the Labour Party must prove itself an attractive alternative. How attractive is the current Labour Party to the “Red Wall”?
The best prospect for the working class at present is for the Labour Party to recognise what is needed by way of policies that reflect the current popular awareness of market failures. In that way, even in opposition, the party can influence events inside Government. But a failure to recognise that need by a retreat into policies designed around a Blair-light future will not only not result in a Labour government but, in the meantime, will prove an ally to the Sunak “fiscal probity” element within the Tory party as it seeks to dominate Government policies.
A Labour Party that fails to contest the ground on which ordinary people reside (whether it be one dominated by health, housing, transport, re-training or energy) by offering real alternatives to the current market failures will be a Labour Party that has betrayed the working class not only by its failure to provide the next Government but by its failure to provide an effective opposition in the meantime.