A fundamentally different approach to this election campaign could be key for the preservation of Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour party, argues a former party caseworker and researcher.
In calling an early general election, Theresa May has done what she has long and ardently argued she would not do. It would risk instability, she claimed. Her government had to see Brexit through and, of course, there was no need for a fresh mandate until 2020.
However, a clear and consistent poll lead in the end proved too tempting for the Prime Minister and with most commentators predicting a crushing victory the calculated gamble could solidify May’s position while putting a rocket under the Labour party’s sleepwalk into oblivion. Given that Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour has lagged well behind Ed Miliband’s offering in the polls, this would seem eminently plausible.
But as Donald Trump, Brexit, and the Great British Bake Off moving to Channel 4 demonstrate we live in strange and unpredictable times. Polls are often wrong and the modern electorate seemingly love nothing more than giving the establishment a good hiding.
The smart money is still on Theresa May waking up on 9 June to a three figure majority but the problem with being in government is having to defend your record. Labour has strong cases to make against the Tories over their handling of the NHS, falling living standards, poor schools policy and funding, and pursuing a destructive Brexit – to name just a few.
It is how the Labour party put forward theit alternative to the status quo that will define how well they do at the ballot box. As the Labour leadership will have hopefully learned by now, it is not simply enough to be seen to be against things. In order to change dire perceptions and poll ratings, Corbyn will have to demonstrate what a government led by him would look like, what its priorities would be, and where it would take the country.
To win the Labour leadership it was enough for Corbyn to be seen to be different. Those who felt disenfranchised and angry projected their hopes and their ideas onto a relative unknown because he was seen to be different. Many of them continue to do so but this will not be enough to carry the country when the common consensus – however it was attained – is that he is not up to the job.
Those who doubt his credentials will not have been persuaded otherwise by his reaction to the election starting gun. He was beaten to the punch by the Liberal Democrats and the Greens. For those who would argue that getting it right was more important than speed, I would wholeheartedly agree. Unfortunately the statement when it did arrive was vague, ambling, and wholly uninspiring.
Tim Farron and the Liberal Democrats were first out of the traps with their clear pitch and call to action aimed at the 48% and those who want to “change the direction” the Tories are taking the country. It may be successful, it probably won’t, but it is something which the party can build a platform on. It is engaging, gives ownership to its intended audience, and echoes a popular sentiment in the country.
On the other hand, Corbyn welcomed the election by announcing that “Labour will stand up for the people of Britain” and offer “real hope.” As someone who has pounded the pavements for several elections and referenda on Labour’s behalf, it is clear to me that these statements mean little and will not cut through with those communities Labour most need to reach.
All this is a shame given that there have been signs in recent weeks that the Labour leadership were starting to find their feet. A number of costed and specific policies have been outlined on a range of areas including the minimum wage, pensions, and support for small businesses. Emphasising economic competence was a key plank of Tony Blair’s winning strategy serving to reassure traditional but dissatisfied Tory voters and cutting down the oft used Conservative argument that Labour will increase taxes, overspend, and can generally not be trusted on the economy.
The Tories are still reaping the benefits of establishing this argument as fact in 2010. In politics, being able to define your opponents in the eyes of the electorate is priceless. Despite encouraging poll ratings, Ed Miliband was never able to shake off his “Red Ed” moniker and the head-start David Cameron had on him in blaming New Labour for the global financial crisis.
Corbyn and Labour find themselves in a similar position: viewed by many of the electorate as divided, incompetent, and irrelevant. It is a long road back and, if winning in 2020 already seemed a long shot, winning in June seems nigh on impossible/
To have a fighting chance, Labour will have to highlight the consequences of the Tories’ time in power and the damage and hardship yet to come. This is natural ground for Corbyn and John McDonnell who love nothing more than arguing for a fairer society.
They must also clearly articulate what the party stands for and not just what it stands against. It is a crucial distinction and it is one which will go a long way to determining the future of Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour party, and the country.