May’s shock decision to call an early election will force the opposition party to face the electorate at a moment of extreme weakness. The vast majority of its MPs do not back their leader, the left-winger Jeremy Corbyn. Divisions within the party have contributed to dismal poll ratings. And on Brexit, the party faces a challenging balancing act between its two core groups of voters: metropolitan, middle-class progressives, many of whom would love dearly to see Britain stay in the EU, and working-class voters in poorer areas concerned about jobs and immigration and enthusiastic about Brexit.
In May, Labour faces a rival who, with her interventionist economics and diatribes against global elites, has been accused of stealing the party’s clothes. The problem for Labour is that she wears them well. The party’s internal polling suggests they could be on track to lose around 50 seats, delivering their worst result since the 1930s.
Other commentators reach for a more recent comparison: predicting the kind of Tory dominance not seen since Margaret Thatcher smashed Michael Foot’s left-wing campaign in 1983.
Polling experts agree the situation looks dire. “On a day of an election announcement, no opposition has been in this weak a position,” said John Curtice, professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde and one of Britain’s most respected pollsters.
“They have a leader who hasn’t persuaded many people he’d make a good prime minister, who struggles to maintain his authority over the party, which is itself divided on the issue on which the prime minister wants to fight the election — Brexit.
“If there is a Jeremy Corbyn vision for how to create a better Britain, then he’s got seven weeks to tell us about it.”
The party’s election campaign got off to a bad start. With just under 50 days to campaign for the June 8 poll, several MPs have already thrown in the towel. Respected veteran Alan Johnson and chair of parliament’s business committee Iain Wright were among those who have said they won’t stand, and their colleagues expect others to follow.
One prominent Corbyn critic, Middlesbrough MP Tom Blenkinsop, made explicit that his “irreconcilable differences” with Corbyn had forced him to stand down. Another northern MP, John Woodcock, said he wanted to stand but couldn’t countenance Corbyn as prime minister.
Most others, however, including prominent Corbyn critics, have decided to battle on.
It will be a hard fight. An internal poll reported to POLITICO by party sources predicts Labour could slip to around 170 seats from its current total of 229. The latest public polling average, taken before May called the election, has the party at 26 percent, behind the Tories at 42 percent.
Peter McLeod, vice president of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research (GQRR), which conducted polling for Labour prior to the 2015 election, said the current polls could be pessimistic but predicted that MPs defending a majority lower than 10,000 had reason to be concerned. That’s more than 100 MPs.
“Labour MPs that currently have majorities in the single thousands may be looking over their shoulders,” McLeod said. A “Corbyn factor” could yet see Labour’s rating take a further hit during the campaign, he said. “The Tories are said to have an attack book for Corbyn that is inches thick and I think we will be hearing a lot from it during the campaign.”
Don’t mention Brexit
Corbyn, who was a firebrand campaigner on the left before he became leader in 2015, has already been attacked in right-leaning newspapers for once calling Hamas and Hezbollah “friends.” Former Prime Minister David Cameron has characterized him as a “terrorist sympathizer.” Labour is braced for more of the same, made more potent by the raised political temperature of an election campaign.
When voters are presented with a two-way choice, 47 percent say May would make the better prime minister, compared to 14 percent for Corbyn, according to research by Opinium.
But it is not just the leadership issue that haunts Labour. Unlike the Tories, who will portray themselves as the party delivering Brexit, and the centrist Liberal Democrats, who are unabashedly pro-EU, Labour lacks a clear, direct message for voters on Brexit.
The mood in the leader’s office is more buoyant than might be expected. The party, its insiders say, will try and steer the debate onto bread-and-butter issues like the NHS, living standards and education.
“We are relishing the chance to get out there,” said a senior Labour source close to the leader. “Jeremy is an extremely strong campaigner, as we saw in the leadership elections [of 2015 and 2016.] It’s an opportunity to get out and talk about the way we will transform Britain fundamentally in the interests of the overwhelming majority of people, away from an establishment that has held the country back for too long.”
If May has seized the mantle of populism as prime minister, Corbyn’s team intends to wrest it back.
In a 12-day period prior to May’s election call, the party announced eight new policies, including a pledge of free school meals for all primary school children, a crackdown on big businesses holding back payments to small companies, and a higher £10 minimum wage. Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell on Wednesday said the party would increase taxes on corporations and those earning more than £70,000.
To counter May’s popularity with would-be Labour voters, the party’s campaign messaging will attempt to ignore her role since the EU referendum, and remind voters that she sat in Cameron’s cabinet for five years, linking her to public spending cuts that have hurt many of the party’s working-class core.
“Theresa May has been an integral part of the last seven years of abject failure of this government,” the senior Labour source said. “She is not a safe pair of hands, she is running the country down, and we won’t allow her to hide from her record during an election by making it all about her Brexit negotiation.”
Will he stay or will he go?
Even though the party looks set to lose many seats, some of Corbyn’s internal party opponents welcomed May’s election call, seeing it as an opportunity to get rid of the leader after the predicted collapse. “I’m delighted,” one MP told the Times. “It will bring this crazy nonsense to an end.”
Some MPs fear that even if the party loses a large number of seats, Corbyn will cling on, at least until the next party conference in September, when allies hope to change party rules to make it easier for left-wingers to enter leadership contests. But one veteran MP and friend of the leader told POLITICO: “I know he’d go. He’d see that a message had been sent, loud and clear.”
Rather than dwelling on the likely drubbing, many in the party are turning their thoughts to the day after the election — and a possible third successive summer leadership contest.
At a meeting of the parliamentary party in Westminster on Tuesday night, Corbyn’s own election speech received applause, but it was former leadership contender Yvette Cooper who won the most resounding reception. London MP Chuka Umunna is also touted as a contender from the centrist wing of the party.
The question facing Corbyn, and any would-be rivals for the leadership, is simple: How much of Labour will be left to lead?
Author: Charlie Cooper