By David Osland
Put Labour MPs in front of a television camera or radio mic and almost all proclaim a steadfast conviction that Keir Starmer will shortly storm the gates of Heaven, or at least obtain the keys to 10 Downing Street. But do they truly believe it?
Several – to my certain knowledge – don’t, and their lack of faith is replicated across the party at every level.
Whatever the public protestations otherwise, few serious activists – right, left or centre – are genuinely convinced Labour is on course to win the next general election. That is a big, big problem.
There is no esprit de corps. Morale is shot, low self-esteem pervasive from top to bottom.
Sure, the opinion poll leads are real enough, if modest by mid-term standards. But as Neil Kinnock, Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn can testify, they are no guarantee of impending victory.
Scant progress is evidenced by this week’s local government election results, which leave Labour’s position little changed from the last time the same set of seats were contested four years ago, when loud voices were demanding an inquest into the ostensibly poor performance.
There has been much coverage of the three councils gained in London, and rather less coverage of the three London councils lost. But as the left was repeatedly told under Corbyn, stacking up ever-higher vote tallies in the capital is an entirely superfluous endeavour.
I can only speak for my own borough. Activist turnout for canvassing and leafleting sessions here in Hackney was sharply down, and that may have been a factor in the loss of two seats to the Greens.
Gains in the rest of England were minimal. Perhaps the most important story of the night is that the Red Wall stood firm for the Tories.
There were also small advances in Wales, where Labour is led from the left of centre, and in Scotland. Yet north of the border, it is still ignominiously scrabbling with the Tories for the odd stray unionist voter, as the SNP remains unquestionably dominant.
Starmer’s lack of charisma is now widely conceded, to the point where making the observation is no longer deemed partisan. I’m told he does well on the doorstep, but cannot work a crowd, and makes an extremely dull talking head. Unnamed insiders deride him as ‘a wooden plank’.
It is late for this realisation to dawn: all of this was entirely evident during his leadership bid. And there is little chance that the charisma fairy will pop up out of the woodwork and suddenly endow Sir Keir with compelling animal magnetism.
Starmer is often credited with at least restoring the professionalism of the Labour machine. Given the less-than-deft media handling of the Beergate controversy, I take leave to doubt it.
National political conjunctures are rarely as unfavourable to a government as the current one, beset by multiple corruption scandals and dishonesty. The obvious question is: if Labour cannot make big gains now, when will it make gains at all?
Translate percentage points into projected seat numbers and the most frequent prognosis is that Labour could emerge as the largest single party at the next general election, well short of a majority. That’s assuming the Tories don’t pick up ground in the course of the campaign, which under a new leader, they very likely would.
And into this void of apparent hopelessness steps the fall-back position of a progressive alliance, as if that is the best that can be achieved in current diminished circumstances.
That boils down to a Lib-Lab coalition, augmented by three or four Green or Plaid Cymru MPs to give it slightly wider sex appeal. On the upside, this would GTTO, to cite the popular Twitter acronym for Get The Tories Out.
The introduction of proportional representation would probably be central to the deal. Whether you see that as a plus will depend on your attitude to PR. I’m broadly supportive.
After that? It’s hard to envisage a Starmer-Davey administration in possession of the radicalism Britain needs to tackle its housing crisis, or child poverty, or food bank dependence. Or anything much else, come to that.
If the recent Labour attack ads on the Lib Dems for favouring such entirely sensible policies as drug decriminalisation and nuclear disarmament are anything to go by, Labour might not even be the left wing of any lash-up.
The term ‘existential crisis’ is widely misused, in ways that annoy people who have studied philosophy. But Labour is now going through one in the precise sense.
Shorn of socialism – and there are indications that the expulsion of Campaign Group MPs is back on the agenda – what is the meaning of its life?
Labour would become just another ‘progressive’ party, no different in class basis or outlook than the Lib Dems, the Greens or even arguably the One Nation wing of the Tories. When distinctions shrink to that extent, why even maintain a separate organisation?
It isn’t remarked on often enough how central intellectual self-confidence in a basic project is in politics. But unless Labour can conjure some up from somewhere, the vista of indefinite Conservative government stretches endlessly before us.
Until Labour believes it can win, it won’t.
David Osland is a member of Hackney North & Stoke Newington CLP and a long-time left wing journalist and author. Follow him on Twitter at @David__Osland
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