Saturday, 3 December 2016

A triumph for the LibDems. A defeat for the Tories. A warning for Labour

It’s always satisfying to see a Tory government being given a bloody nose. 

It’s even more satisfying when it’s a victory for those who don’t accept the Brexit verdict as irrevocable. 

And it’s best of all when it’s administered to an unpleasant individual of thoroughly toxic views.

All that happened this week.

Zac Goldsmith ran an unpleasant Tory campaign to be Mayor of London last year, calling on racist and Islamophobic notions to try – and, fortunately, fail – to beat Labour’s candidate, Sadiq Khan, whose name is probably enough to explain the racism and Islamophobia. Not to justify them, of course, but certainly to explain why an unprincipled candidate would resort to them. 

This year, he resigned from the Conservative Party and from Parliament to precipitate a by-election in his constituency of Richmond Park, where he ran as an independent against the government’s decision to build a new runway at nearby Heathrow airport.

The Liberal Democratic candidate, Sarah Olney, a strong supporter of continued membership of the EU, chose not to campaign on the airport but to focus on Brexit instead. To widespread surprise (including my own), she snatched the seat from Goldsmith, converting his majority of 23,000 votes into her own of nearly 1900.

An excellent result.

The defeated candidate (for local MP and London Mayor)
and the victorious LibDem
If I have a quibble it’s that we had to depend on the Liberal Democrats to win this victory. The main party in opposition to the Tories is my own, Labour. It should be the one challenging the government, and all the more so since the Liberal Democrats were in coalition with the Tories between 2010 and 2015. That was both a betrayal of principle and counter-productive: it reduced the party’s presence in Parliament from 62 to eight. The Richmond Park result may suggest that things are turning around for the LibDems (though one win doesn’t make a resurrection)but it certainly reflects a Labour failure.

Why do I say that?

If Sarah Olney’s win owed a great deal to the LibDems’ position against Brexit, undoubtedly the biggest question for the vast majority of voters, her party was able to make it their own because Labour’s silence on the subject has been deafening. 

Why is it so quiet? Silence is always hard to interpret, but occasionally it gets broken. John McDonnell, a close ally of the party’s leader Jeremy Corbyn, recently described Brexit as an “enormous opportunity”. This seemed to confirm a suspicion many of us felt that the Labour leadership wasn’t particularly comfortable with the party’s official policy of backing continued EU membership. 

Meanwhile, siren voices on the right of the Labour Party are calling on us to address anxieties over immigration in Labour’s traditional voter base. Again, this provokes suspicion, in this case that we are being urged to move rightwards, to counter the challenge presented by the extreme anti-EU and xenophobic United Kingdom Independence Party, UKIP. As another of Corbyn’s allies, Diane Abbott, recently pointed out – correctly – Labour can’t win by being UKIP-lite. If people want UKIP policies, they’ll vote UKIP. Labour doesn’t beat them by accommodating them, but by explaining that turning against foreigners won’t address any of the real problems affecting our supporters, which are poverty, insecurity and joblessness. Instead, we need to tackle the causes of economic decline – not least of which is the decision to leave the EU.

That’s hard to do if you’re not too sure about the EU yourself. Hence the silence.

The problem is that silence isn’t leadership and leadership is what voters are crying out for. Labour isn’t doing leadership right now. There was recently a Parliamentary vote, on a motion advanced by the Scottish National Party, to investigate Tony Blair’s role over the Iraq War and his possible misleading of Parliament at the time.

There are two positions one can legitimately take on the issue. 

The SNP’s would be that Blair behaved unconscionably and needs to be held to account by Parliament. 

The majority Labour position, with which I agree, isn’t simply one of “hands off our former leader” but rather argues that the problem was that Blair had far too much authority, allowing him to commit the country against its will. So it was an institutional issue, not a personal one, and it needs to be tackled at that level. That ties in, for instance, with the calls for Parliament and not just the present Prime Minister to have the final say over Brexit.

A third position is illegitimate. That’s to have nothing to say on the matter. It’s striking that all three of Corbyn, McDonnell and Abbott stayed away from Parliament at the time of the debate.

Silence, like over the EU.

Nature abhors a vacuum. Similarly, voters abhor silence. While it stays quiet and on the fence, refusing to lead, the group that technically controls the Labour leadership leaves the Party vulnerable to attack by those who flow in to fill the political vacuum – whether from UKIP or from the LibDems.

So the Richmond result isn’t just a victory for the LibDems. It isn’t just a black eye for the Tories. It’s also a serious wake-up call to Labour.

The leadership needs to make up its mind: start leading, on the issues that matter to the electorate, or see our support continue to erode. Otherwise – please just stand aside and let someone else take over. 

Someone who has something to say. 

Someone whos prepared to get out in front and lead.

No comments: