Saturday, 7 May 2016

Disaster avoided, but success is still to work for

In the end, it didn’t happen. 

Predictions of a Labour wipeout in yesterday’s UK local elections weren’t fulfilled. The reports of Jeremy Corbyn’s execution by a disdainful electorate turned out to be premature at least. Labour lived to fight another day.

It wasn’t for any want of wishing. A great many people were longing for his crushing rejection. Sadly, a disappointing number of them were in leading positions in the Labour Party.

In local councils up and down England, seats were being contested that were last fought in 2012, something of a high point in Labour’s standing in the councils. Even yesterday morning, the BBC was reporting the likelihood that the party would lose “dozens” of seats. In the end, the number was 23 – so just short of two of those dozens. They won 1291, which is just short 108 dozen. So they came close to a historic high.

A point not made as loudly as it might since the elections is that, if Labour clung on to most of its gains from the surge it enjoyed in 2012, the Conservatives were able to advance little from their lamentable levels of that year.

In Wales, they lost one seat leaving them one short of half the total, but still very much the largest party in the principality.

Labour’s worst result, of course, was in Scotland. A nation that Labour once dominated has now gone over massively to the Scottish National Party. Labour’s historic defeat there was still more strongly underlined yesterday when it was overtaken by the Conservatives, a party that went into decline in the 1950s and has led a rump existence north of the border for half a century.

There’s no denying the seriousness of the blow. On the other hand, it’s no bad thing to see Labour gradually being weaned of its dependence on Scottish votes. Especially with the still strong likelihood of Scotland separating from the United Kingdom, Labour needs to learn to win in England.

Which takes us to the best of yesterday’s news: London. We’ve had eight years of Conservative rule in the capital, and by Boris Johson, perhaps embodies pure privilege with all its arrogance and entitlement more than any other. Yesterday Labour has won both the Mayor’s office and the London assembly back – electing as Mayor Sadiq Khan, the son of a bus driver, educated not at Eton and Oxford, but at a local comprehensive (state) school and the University of North London.

Sadiq Khan, son of a Pakistani bus driver, new Mayor of London
Symbolically, the victory is most important for being the first time a Muslim has become Mayor of a major Western city. That’s significant for two reasons. At a global level, it matters because it shows Muslims everywhere that the extremists are wrong, that we are at last beginning to reach a place (despite the Trumps of this world) where a Muslim can pursue the most exalted of careers.

It also makes an important point about the value of immigration.

At a more local level, the Khan win shows that a racist campaign need not succeed. Khan’s Tory opponent tried to brand Khan a companion of extremists, playing into the racist narrative that any Muslim, merely as a Muslim, must be suspect in the Western world. That slur was massively rejected by an electorate that gave Khan the largest personal vote ever received in British history. There had also been a last-minute attempt to smear Labour as anti-Semitic, which may have cost the Party votes in the capital with its relatively large Jewish community. Khan has made it absolutely clear that he holds no such views, and it was encouraging to see him winning in spite of the attack.

So, overall, where do we stand? As Jeremy Corbyn put it, Labour hung on. Obviously, hanging on is nothing like good enough. We have a long way to go to unseat the Tories. That will only happen when we learn to do better than in the past, rather than more or less doing as well. However, yesterday’s results were anything but disastrous. They form a good launchpad for improvement.

Certain things have to happen now. The Party has to learn to take on the Tories far more effectively. Above all, it must learn to stop its own infighting. In that context, it’s sad to see two Labour MPs point out in the Guardian that they were wrong to nominate Corbyn for the leadership. Corbyn is the Labour Party leader; attempting to replace him would be distractive and disruptive; it would almost certainly fail since the membership massively backs him. So – get on side, focus on the real opponents and get the Party moving forward – for the country’s sake, as well as our own.

Yesterday shows we can do it. With a government that is destroying the health service, education, even the police, we know it’s time. Let’s now find the will.

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