In case you missed it the Labour Party were last week celebrating a ‘fantastic win’.
Jeremy Corbyn was in an ebullient mood on Twitter:
However dig a little deeper and the real story behind this ‘fantastic win’ begins to emerge. Back in May UKIP swept to victory in the Thanet Council elections, buoyed no doubt by the Farage Factor. Nigel Farage was the prospective UKIP candidate for the Kent constituency of Thanet South. Despite losing out in the Westminster election to the Conservatives he was no doubt buoyed to see his party sweep to victory in the Thanet District Council election, winning a total of 33 seats and giving them overall control of their first ever council. In the process UKIP gained 22 seats from the Labour Party and 9 from the Tories.
So far so good for Nigel.
And then the wheels fell off. Since May UKIP have suffered a series of major disasters that make the problems experienced by NI21 look tame by comparison. Firstly there was Mr. Farage’s resignation followed by his un-resignation. This prompted actual resignations, personal insults, mutterings of discontent from the party faithful, and the withdrawal of funding from a former party donor. Sole UKIP MP Douglas Carswell (no fan of Farage) commented that “UKIP is credible on Europe and immigration. It’s everything else we need to worry about.”
Closer to home we have seen South Down Councillor Henry Reilly expelled by UKIP only to join Jim Allister’s TUV.
Still at least UKIP still had Thanet. Or at least they did until 4 UKIP councillors suddenly resigned to become independents leaving party control of the council precarious. The majority of one was put at risk when UKIP councillor Vince Munday resigned due to “major family and personal circumstance”. Given the circumstances surely it was a mere formality that Labour would easily reclaim one of the seats the party had lost in May?
In actual fact although the result showed a 14% drop in the UKIP vote from May, Labour registered a mere 0.96% increase. The Conservatives actually managed a marginally greater vote share increase of 1.22%. So not exactly a ‘fantastic’ win but a win all the same. Perhaps more worrying for Labour are Mr. Corbyn’s personal approval ratings. In the latest YouGov poll the Labour leader’s approval rating stands at -39. David Cameron by comparison stands at -6. Optimism is also in short supply amongst those who voted Labour in May 2015. 55% of these voters think that it is unlikely that Labour will win the next general election. Amongst the general public 45% of people say that he has a negative impact on Labour since he assumed the leadership. A few days after Ed Miliband became leader in September 2011 only 11% said he had changed Labour for the worst – yet Miliband’s leadership was heavily criticised in an internal Labour report, obtained by Robert Peston from ITN which described him as “weak and bumbling”.
More worrying for Corbynites and Labour supporters is Peston’s conclusion that “the report appears to say – though it does not express itself in precisely those words – that Labour needs to move back to the centre ground of politics, whereas Jeremy Corbyn has shifted it leftwards”. With Labour consistently trailing the Tories in successive opinion polls by between 4 and 9% there is no sign of a great Labour revival. With much discontent amongst Labour MPs at the direction Corbyn is taking, there has been much speculation of an SDP type split. This however has been discounted by former SDP member (and former Secretary of State for Business) Vince Cable who said he occasionally talks to disaffected Labour MPs about the prospects of a breakaway but “at the moment it’s not happening. There isn’t anyone of the stature of Roy Jenkins. The Labour people I meet are waiting for something to turn up but it’s very unlikely something will turn up.”
Corbyn is obviously a man of principle and speaks with great passion on topics that are dear to the hearts of his supporters. He has been described as a maverick but, unlike his fellow maverick Donald Trump, does not appear to have captured the imagination of the general public (which is perhaps no bad thing). If Mr. Corbyn is not careful his lasting legacy may echo that of Michael Foot. Foot’s 1983 Labour party manifesto has since been described as “the longest suicide note in history” but few remember the details. Incredible as it may seem back then the Labour party were promising a withdrawal from Europe alongside unilateral disarmament, action on bank lending, a ban on fox hunting and the establishment of a minimum wage. The more realistic aspects of the manifesto have since become part and parcel of daily life. Sadly for Michael Foot, considered by many as something of a political guru, the enduring memory is of his parties more outlandish policies, his demonisation by the tabloid press, and the 1983 Conservative landslide victory.
In Northern Ireland we have consistently made the case for a strong and vibrant opposition but the House of Commons needs one as well. With the Lib Dems in seemingly terminal decline (currently averaging 6-7% in opinion polls) and the SNP and other parties lacking the necessary numbers, the onus falls upon the Labour Party to challenge the Conservative party. The Spectator suggests that Mr. Corbyn could learn a lesson from another (former?) political ‘maverick’, namely Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras; namely to “to value pragmatism over ideology; the interests of the wider electorate over the dictates of rigid leftist orthodoxy”.
Can Jeremy Corbyn lead Labour to victory?
As things stand the answer must be a resounding ‘no’.