20 May 2021
Labour withering on the vine
By Paul Branch
Those of you long enough in the tooth to remember the General Election of 1979 will probably need no reminding of possibly the greatest campaign poster of all time. Designed by Saatchi & Saatchi for initial use in 1978, it showed a queue outside an unemployment office with the caption “Labour isn’t working”, updated the following year to “Labour still isn’t working”. Allegedly it won Maggie Thatcher her thumping 43-seat majority, removing Jim Callaghan from office and leaving Labour with a wait of 18 years before returning to government.
In 2019 the election gave Boris Johnson a far more secure hold on his job at Westminster with an effective majority of over 80 seats. The recent by-election in Hartlepool added to his majority; local elections across the country have enhanced his and his Party’s grip on power for goodness only knows how long. The Labour party looks to be in a suicidal free fall as Keir Starmer tries to rally what’s left of his senior troops and mend the holes in his own reputation. Amid the venomous bile and bitter infighting, a ray of perceptive insight emerged with the observation that the last thing the Labour party needs right now is a dose of Long Corbyn.
So where will it all end for Labour? Their fall from grace has been precipitous and perhaps final; soothsayers are suggesting the end of the Labour Party after more than 120 years as a major political and social institution. There were a few bright spots for left wingers, with the Welsh elections and some mayoral results bringing them good news. Mark Drakeford’s stickability in Cardiff was somewhat unexpected; it looks as if his calm and measured approach to the pandemic stood him in good stead. Sadiq Khan keeping his job as Mayor of London was another plus.
The surprise of the week though was in the Cotswolds where a brick in the usually solid Blue Wall crumbled. Oxfordshire County Council has been staunchly Conservative seemingly forever, but their majority evaporated thanks to some strategic voting, leaving the door open for a Labour/LibDem/Green coalition to try and run the show. As one example of the power of the voter, the former leader of the Council lost his hitherto safe-as-houses seat in Woodstock, home to Blenheim Palace, the birthplace of Winston Churchill, over plans for huge housing developments where the need for supporting social and amenities infrastructure had either been forgotten or ignored. Given a good enough cause, it seems that voters can indeed rise above the usual dross and inexactitudes fed to them at election time; perhaps now, in Oxfordshire at least, they will have the leadership they really deserve.
Many on the extreme right regard Labour and socialism as their sworn enemies, to be defeated at all costs and trodden into the dust of oblivion if at all possible. Others of a more considered demeanour might take the view that any democracy worth its salt needs an effective Opposition, with a reasonable chance of winning an election at some point. A perpetual ruling party with token opposition or even none puts us in the same league as China or Russia. And we don’t really want to be forever in the position of forcing many voters to scan the ballot paper looking for the non-Tory or prolonging the “anyone-but-Boris/Jeremy [delete as appropriate]”philosophy. Far better to encourage a positive approach. So hope for Labour’s future is an imperative, or at least hope for something else which fulfils the role of a genuinely electable alternative.
Those waiting for predictions of a hard left Corbynesque Labour Party to rise sphynx-like from the ashes of too many recent failures might wish to look away now. Neither do the prospects for a reinvigorated and dynamic party with universal acclaim, appealing especially to the voters of the freshly-painted Blue Wall towns, look too promising under Keir Starmer. Such gentlemen cannot match the appeal of a Boris Johnson or a Donald Trump character, but maybe charismatic leadership isn’t an essential ingredient. Some successful previous Labour leaders have not necessarily been blessed with such talents – Clement Attlee was a dour soul who managed to defeat the wartime hero Winston Churchill in 1945, bringing the country back from the ravages of World War Two with a social and economic plan that provided work for returning troops, investment in industry, and of course our glorious national health service. Harold Wilson inherited a lame duck economy and a faltering currency in 1964 but still managed a period of growth and relative prosperity. Both lacked the personal appeal of a Thatcher or a Blair (look where that got us) but by setting clear and relevant objectives, sensible planning, effective management and dedication to their nationwide constituents they achieved significant improvements in our collective wellbeing and lifestyle. They more than made up for paucity of pizazz with straight talking, clear messaging (although it probably wasn’t called that then), and a principled outlook which set public service above ego.
The objectives that seem to be lacking urgency today in government, over and above the imperative to vaccinate anything on two legs, are probably simple enough to enumerate: combatting climate change with new attitudes and proper funding for new technologies; supporting affordable medical and social care for all; and recognising that our society relies on unfair and discriminatory practices (returning to a world where food banks are no longer necessary would be a good start).
Analysis of the Oxfordshire election results may provide some clues as to what constitutes an effective political opposition movement. Of the 64 total Council elected seats, 23 went to the Conservatives (with 37% of the votes), 21 seats to the Liberal Democrats (26%), 14 seats Labour and its derivatives (21%), 3 Green Party seats (12%) and a smattering of Independents (3 seats, 4% of the votes). Considering the three main objectives postulated above (and of course not for one minute suggesting that the Tories don’t subscribe in some form to environmental protection, social care and social justice), a partnership between the three main losing parties would have garnered a majority with 38 seats and 59% of the votes cast.
A structured approach to strategic alliances is a possible way to achieve effective opposition, as is the establishment of a new, united party. Admittedly the latter has been tried in the past without great success, but those attempts did not enjoy the existing support of a mainstream party, rather the opposite. In either case it would take hard work and a willingness to listen and compromise. But would individual candidates sacrifice their own career aspirations for the greater good? Maybe, if they believed firmly enough in the cause and managed to suppress their own egos. Perhaps not quite in the terms of Wilfrid Owen’s plaintive “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori”, but hopefully enough to excite some passion and get the juices flowing.
Mea culpa: last week’s article describing opposing naval forces in The Channel contained inaccuracies for which many apologies: HMS Tamar, one of the RN river patrol boats referenced, was misspelt (chubby fingers on a fading keyboard coupled with lazy spell-checking don’t help); this vessel of course carries two machine guns but only one small cannon, as a prominent local military defence expert has pointed out.