Friday, 24 February 2017

Corbyn notches up just the kind of achievement we expected of him

There isn’t generally anything much that’s epochal about a parliamentary by-election in Britain.

Each returns a single Member of Parliament out of 650, so it’s most unlikely to bring down a government or even have a significant impact on the balance of power between parties. However, they tend to attract a great deal of attention because they can be straws in the wind, indicators of the way politics is trending.

There were two in England yesterday, in Labour-held constituencies. In both cases they were caused by the resignation of the incumbents, to pursue other careers (one as director of a museum, the other as a PR executive in the nuclear industry). This may seem strange – giving up a political career – but you have to remember that most politicians would like to get into government. His supporters treat Jeremy Corbyn, the present Labour leader, with almost religious fervour, and hold fast to a faith (a form of belief not requiring support from evidence), that he will in time be elected prime minister. People whose career depends on that happening, however, take a rather more jaundiced view and it’s less surprising than one might think, that they seek advancement elsewhere.

First the good news. Labour held on to the constituency in Stoke, even if with a small reduction in its vote share. What makes the victory particularly important is that Labour stopped the bigoted, hard right party UKIP winning a seat from another party for the first time: currently UKIP has one MP, but only because he defected from the Tories and hung on to the seat at the last general election (the other defector was defeated). UKIP, which is the British equivalent of the populist authoritarian that propelled Trump to power, may be losing steam: as well as failing in Stoke, it moved backwards in the other by-election, in the Copeland constituency.

There voters delivered another lesson. Corbyn has always been presented as a great mould-breaker, overthrowing political conventions that stifle the electorate and prevent progress. And Copeland certainly is mould-breaking.

Corbyn points the way to a mould-breaking result
If not quite the kind of result his supporters promised us
The boring convention is that governing parties lose by-elections. This is particularly true in seats held by the opposition: the general rule is that the opposition party increases its vote and can point to the win as evidence of surging support, giving it hope of replacing the government at the next general election.

Well, Corbyn’s certainly broken with that tedious convention. Copeland saw the governing party, in this case the Conservatives, win a by-election in an opposition-held seat for the first time since1982. Even the 1982 by-election, in Mitcham and Morden, was special: it was provoked by a Labour MP who had defected to a newly-formed Social Democratic Party and decided to go back to his constituents to see if they would re-elect him under his new colours. It turns out they wouldn’t. As Labour ran against him, the centre-left vote was split and the Tories won.

In Copeland, Labour fought a well-organised campaign with a good candidate, without a defector from its own ranks standing against it, and still lost. It’s a remarkable achievement.

The 1982 loss was a harbinger of the massive defeat Labour would suffer in the 1983 general election. It was at that time led by Michael Foot, a remarkably likeable man, of breath-taking intellectual capacity and firm commitment to principle. Sadly, he wasn’t seen as a potential prime minister by many electors and they gave Labour the fewest seats it had won since the particularly disastrous election of 1935.

Corbyn isn’t quite a Michael Foot. He’s a nice old man who’s nursed a London seat for 30 years in more or less unbroken obscurity. He likes to present himself as principled like Foot, but many of us suspect that he’s not telling us his real views on key political issues such as Brexit. There has to be at least a suspicion that he can’t rival Foot’s honesty.

What he does have in common with Foot is that few electors see him as a potential prime minister (apart, of course, from his fervent supporters). Indeed, the Guardian reported that, as the defeated Labour candidate left the Copeland count, a passerby shouted “Sack Corbyn”. He’s by no means alone in feeling that way, suggesting that Corbyn is well on the way to doing at least as badly as Foot in 1983.

Labour had held Copeland since 1935. Labour’s now lost it on Corbyn’s watch

That may be mould-breaking. Or it may just be mouldy.

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