As I sit comfortably on my flight home from Schönefeld Airport I can’t help but feel slightly irritated. It is not that I am leaving the splendid streets of Germany’s beautiful capital (though it could be that). It is not the irritation that arises from thinking about my phone which was pick-pocketed two days previous (though it definitely could be that). It is instead that the Labour Party is sliding towards defeat. And there’s still three years before the election.
Two byelections in one day proved a tough test for Labour. But leader Jeremy Corbyn had Friday circled in the calendar for weeks, conveying just how ecstatic he was to do battle in the Stoke-On-Trent and Copeland byelections, describing them as “an opportunity to hold government to account.” A largely positive attitude to what was predicted to be a bruising campaign for Labour as they fought UKIP leader Paul Nuttall in Stoke-On-Trent. However, I doubt Jeremy was as enthusiastic when the results came out last night.
While Labour managed to just cling to Stoke-On-Trent Central, they lost 2.2% of their majority from the last election. And the big shock came with Copeland. The results were read, and depicted a shock loss for Labour which cast a dark shadow over the spirits of all involved in the campaign. A gain for the Conservatives and a devastating loss for Labour. Not only a gain for the governing party from one in opposition, which has not occurred in a byelection for thirty-five years, but Corbyn’s main argument in his defence is usually that Labour are performing well in byelections. The fact that Copeland was a Labour heartland safe seat since 1924 just adds to the utter dismay. Moreover, while some point to the fact that Labour’s share of the vote in Copeland has been declining incrementally since 1997, doesn’t this damn Corbyn even further? If Corbyn was the answer to Labour’s problems in Copeland, then shouldn’t he have revived Labour’s vote share there and secured the seat? Instead, he lost them their so-called safe seat.
And if losing a seat that was well entrenched into the Labour family was not in itself a savage indictment of Corbyn’s Labour Party, one will shudder when seeing the latest party polling (shudder that is, if you’re anything other than a Tory). In the last twenty five polls taken by various organisations (according to ukpollingreport.co.uk), Labour have only reached thirty per cent approval or more four times. Meanwhile, the Conservatives have seen a gain in every single poll. Currently (poll taken February 10th), YouGov has the Tories at forty per cent and Labour at only twenty-four per cent. It is clear that there is an exodus of Labour voters among the electorate.
So what have the Labour leadership said in response to their bombing poll numbers? Long standing supporter of Jeremy, Diane Abbott (Shadow Home Secretary), said in September last year that they would close the poll gap ‘in twelve months’. Well Diane, you’re not exactly within reach of Downing Street at the moment, although in fairness it hasn’t quite been twelve months since you made that remark. Still, seven months to go! Abbott also repeatedly makes the case that Labour is now the biggest political party in Europe, with over 540,000 members. That is true, but one must understand the context of this growth in membership. From the offset of the Blair/Brown years, the Labour Party lost some support amongst its left wing following. They left to join the Greens (who recently experienced a ‘Green surge’ in members) and other smaller left wing parties. Some left politics altogether. Further to this, those who were of left wing influence simply remained on the outskirts of the political sphere, feeling unrepresented by Blair’s ‘third way’ centrist brand of politics.
Now that Labour is headed by a figure that embodies these left wing views, the lost left demographic have returned to the party that they either once resided in, or now feel speaks for them. This is why Labour’s membership is so high. But Corbyn and his allies must be wary; increased membership does not equate to an increase in seats. While Jeremy may possess the ability to summon huge crowds of supporters in Liverpool, and have flocks of lefties joining the Labour Party, his supporters are missing the point. Liverpool (Liverpool Central) has been a Labour safe seat since its creation in 1983, and those members who are joining the Labour Party in huge numbers either voted Green before, or Labour already. So effectively, Jeremy and his supporters like Diane Abbot, are arguing that they will close the polling gap and win the election, by preaching to the converted. This delusional thinking must end, or Labour faces existential decline alike to the lost decades that Labour spent chasing a dying socialist dream in opposition to Thatcher’s government.
Of course, I am by no means a Conservative. Far from it, I too want an end to the cuts to disability benefits and inadequate wage growth. I want investment in our public services and a properly funded NHS. But I don’t want to achieve these things while simultaneously driving the economy over a cliff. Jeremy Corbyn has said he would borrow five-hundred-billion pounds and spend it on infrastructure investment. This is a policy which I accept, is good in principle: we need investment to grow the economy. But five-hundred-billion pounds would add vast numbers to the national debt which is already at an astonishing ninety per cent of GDP. By 2020 it is predicted to surpass two-trillion Sterling. To add yet more to this figure would be a betrayal of my generation. Myself and other young people would have to pay off this balloon in the national debt. And how would we do that? We would be forced to implement austerity to pay for it. That is the irony of Jeremy Corbyn and his followers’ aims. Their programme to end austerity would only result in more of what they want to tackle in the first place, as this would be the only solution to the mess of the public finances, riddled with debt, that Jeremy Corbyn’s economic policy would likely create.
Conversely, I acknowledge that I am by no means an economic expert, nor can I see beyond the present. So let’s look at Corbyn’s reasoning behind this policy. The theory behind borrowing, spending and investing is that the economy would grow to pay for all that borrowing. But the current national debt is already far too large. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, paying the net debt interest rates in 2014-15 cost the government twenty-eight billion pounds (1). That is merely the interest payments on a national debt that was over one-trillion pounds at the time. This figure will be higher still by 2020 when the national debt hits the two-trillion mark. And that is without the five-hundred-billion pounds that Jeremy Corbyn wants to borrow. I don’t believe that any economic growth would be sufficient enough to bring down the tower of tremendous debt accumulated by Corbyn’s borrowing. As a result, the suffering that my generation would have to undergo to pay off the national debt (via more austerity) makes Corbyn’s economic policy morally wrong. If my argument doesn’t convey this already, just think where that money spent on the interest repayments could go. Twenty-eight billion a year could be spent on the NHS or housing. Or, as I advocate, a small scale investment project that would boost the economy and create jobs, without adding heaps to the national debt.
Adopting this policy of blasé spending and borrowing merely broadcasts to the electorate that Labour can’t run the economy. Meanwhile, their vote share is dwindling. As I have already explained, while membership is rising, these members already vote Labour and do not need to be won over by Corbyn. Instead, Labour need to be talking to those who voted Conservative at the last election, in order to win seats. If Labour fail to do so, the results will only hurt working people. A Labour Party losing elections means a Labour Party unable to prevent Tory cuts to education, disability benefits and hospitals. It means a Labour Party unable to build on the remarkable achievements of its past: the minimum wage, maternity rights and tackling climate change. All that they can do in opposition is complain about the government and remain completely powerless to help those they claim to represent.
So what can be done? Well, Jeremy has an enormous democratic mandate from the Labour membership. One that should not be overturned, as I pride myself in being a democrat. Instead, those centre-left voices crying in the wilderness of the Corbyn-era Labour Party should continue to speak up, and not be silenced by the yahoo socialist thinking that has engulfed the Labour leadership. Let us come together to make our case, and chip away at the arguments of Corbyn supporters, so eager are they to maintain that Labour is a ‘success’ under Corbyn. Let us carry on pushing an economic policy agenda of moderate investment while protecting the economy and bringing down debts, that will win back Tory votes and seats. Let us maintain that Britain rejected socialist Labour for eighteen years in the twentieth century, and by these polls they are doing so again. Granted Corbyn is an honest, decent and convicted man. If he was my grandad it would be hard not to love him. But as Labour leader, he is losing us votes. And with this hard-left agenda we may continue to lose out on votes and crucially power, unless we return to centre-left, common sense thinking.
- Photo copyright GettyImages. I do not own this image.