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HOW is Labour to get out of the doldrums? There is high anxiety as the party’s cash reserves are down to one month’s payroll and a quarter of the staff face redundancy. The loss of well over 50,000 members is a mortal blow to the party’s finances but it is symptomatic of a wider malaise.
The latest poll of polls has Labour on 33 per cent, well below the Tories on 42 per cent. The persistence of this lag is creating a crisis of confidence in the Starmer leadership which the squeaky by-election win in Batley and Spen has barely suppressed.
The last time the two parties were on a level pegging was autumn 2020 and the last time Labour led in the polls was during the 2017 general election campaign.
That was the high point of Labour’s popularity when Corbyn’s leadership and the impact of Labour’s radical manifesto saw a precipitate rise from a 24 per cent rating to an actual 40 per cent vote in the election.
In the end it was Labour’s very startling rise in popularity which impelled a parallel if smaller increase in the Tory vote. This polarisation and the Tories’ final 2 per cent lead in votes translated into 330 seats to Labour’s 262.
The distinctive thing about the 2017 election was the extreme volatility of opinion and the extent to which the sharpening contradictions over policy drove voter mobilisation. Two years of attrition then eroded Labour’s vote share to 32.1 per cent. Turnout in 2017 was 68.8 per cent, by 2019 it dropped to 67.3 per cent. Interestingly, the 2019 Tory vote and percentage barely moved but over two million voters abandoned Labour.
One distinctive thing about the 2019 election was the character assassination of Corbyn. Another was Labour’s volte-face in abandoning its pledge to honour the Brexit result and instead calling for a second referendum.
Increasingly lost in Labour’s present day travails is any sense that it is popular politics that holds the promise of revival.
In as far as it is possible to identify a coherent strategy in the present Labour leadership’s behaviour it seems grounded in the idea that muscular action to excise all reminders of Labour’s most recent high point takes priority.
In policy this is expressed in a studied abandonment of the pledges Starmer made to secure election as leader, followed by a careful framing of economic policy in terms which suggest that mere technocratic adjustments are all that is necessary.
A bipartisan approach to handling the Covid-19 crisis is occasionally modified to include mild criticism of the PM, while nothing is allowed to challenge the main pillars of foreign policy especially in relation to Nato, nuclear weapons and the Middle East.
Then there is this week’s entirely frivolous decision to proscribe several groups and abandon “due process” in party disciplinary procedures. Where the original Star Chamber was supposedly set up to hold those rich and powerful enough to subvert the authority of the courts accountable, Labour’s 21st century version is established to demonstrate just how little power individual members of the party possess.
The ostensible reason for the proscriptions is to eradicate anti-semitism in the party — but one striking thing about the Labour leadership’s approach is just how little it has to do with anti-semitism as it actually exists in British political life as a diffused but substantially right-wing phenomenon most toxic and active on the far right and more widespread in the Tory Party than any other.
Another is how detached it is from the diversity of opinion among Jews, but also how volatile voting intentions can be.
Of course, opinion among Britain’s 300,000 Jews are far from settled or homogenous. The Institute of Jewish Policy Research found that they were evenly split between the main parties as recently as 2010.
Under Cameron and May voting patterns swung substantially towards the Tories. A Jewish Chronicle poll in Spring 2015 showed that 69 per cent of British Jews preferred the Conservatives against just 22 per cent for Labour. The party was then led by Ed Miliband and it was then that growing opposition to the actions of the Israeli state became a more decisive factor.
The Jewish Chronicle reminded its readers that Miliband had just a 13 per cent approval rating and asked how a Jewish politician could make such a terrible fist of attracting Jewish voters.
It answered its own question: “A combination of issues are to blame — most obviously positioning himself as Israel’s chief political critic during last summer’s Gaza conflict and then backing unilateral Palestinian statehood.”
Labour’s 2018 adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of anti-semitism, that is interpreted to depict criticism of Israel and solidarity with the Palestinian people as a form of anti-semitic hate, continues to frame much of Labour’s internal politics — and the latest purge by Labour’s NEC fits this pattern.
The overarching reason for this is not the sensibilities of Britain’s Jewish population but the political necessity — as seen by our rulers — to ensure conformity with Anglo-American foreign policy and back the Israeli state.
Public opinion is a slippery thing. Flash back to the period when Corbyn led the Labour Party. TV personality Gyles Brandreth stopped a group of shoppers in Guildford High Street — a strong contender for the title as the quintessentially middle-class high street in Britain.
The mischievous former Tory MP asked passers by if they supported a fully funded NHS with integrated social care, student grants and an end to tuition fees, rents capped to earning limits, abolition of Trident and tax rises for the wealthy.
Naturally most agreed and when the genteel respondents were confronted by the revelation that these were Corbyn’s policies and that they were secret socialists the gap between illusion and reality, and the disparity between the policies people desire and the perception of which leader represents them best, was revealed.
We can find the same fluidity among North Americans about politics. The Pew Research Centre’s 2019 survey showed 42 per cent of people in the US with a positive view of socialism while 65 per cent were positive about capitalism, with opinion strongly demarcated along Republican-Democrat lines.
Two thirds of Democrats had a positive view of socialism but even among Republicans more than one in eight had a generally favourable view of socialism.
Incidentally, this evokes a 2018 finding in Britain which showed 18 per cent of Conservative voters agreeing that “communism could have worked if it had been better executed.”
US opinion is more or less equally matched for the under 30s while women favoured socialism (46 per cent to 38 per cent). Black people (65 per cent) and Hispanics (52 per cent) leaned towards socialism, as did people with incomes of less than $30,000 (£22,000).
More than a third of the US’s seven million Jews regard Israel’s treatment of Palestinians as similar to racism in their country while a quarter regard Israel as an “apartheid state” and 22 per cent agree that “Israel is committing genocide against the Palestinians.”
Nearly one in 10 US Jews think Israel doesn’t have a right to exist but among people under 40 this figure doubled. These shock figures arise from a survey conducted just after the Israeli assault on Gaza and was carried out by the Democrat-leaning Jewish Electorate Institute.
Of course, expressing such views in the Labour Party would put you on a fast track to auto-exclusion and branded an “anti-semite.”
If we tease out a sense of what might work to change the political thinking of the British people we have to start with where it is at the moment, which is with a widespread distrust of politicians and a substantial disengagement from mainstream politics by working-class people.
The British Social Attitudes survey shows that people retain a sense of class identity but this is increasingly decoupled from political partisanship. 52 per cent of those with a degree or higher education are interested in politics, compared with 24 per cent of those with no qualification. A third of the population does not vote with only the Brexit referendum bucking the trend to abstention.
This is coupled with evidence from the British Social Attitudes survey which shows that people consider Britain to be increasingly divided along class lines, with a plummeting belief in the possibility of social mobility.
Nearly three-quarters of respondents felt that the class divide was “fairly or very wide,” while 73 per cent said it was fairly or very difficult to move between classes, compared with 65 per cent who held this view in 2005.
The gap between the way working people think and the preoccupations of Labour’s leadership could not be more marked.
In the midst of a collapse in spending power, working people face the most difficult conditions at home and at work, intensified by Tory government policies, while Labour’s leadership is intent on policing an increasingly depleted and passive membership and eradicating all opinion that challenges the status quo.
It is no way to win an election as even the right-wing majority in the Parliamentary Labour Party are beginning to understand.
But from the standpoint of Westminster Labour and the leadership clique, a Labour Party campaigning with an aroused popular movement against austerity and war, organised in unity with the trade unions and armed with policies that chime with the real life concerns and basic class interests of working people is an even more threatening prospect.
Nick Wright blogs at 21century manifesto.
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