Labour's Elephant in the Room

You’d be forgiven for not noticing Corbyn’s response to Theresa May’s recent policy speech on Brexit. Despite his recent Trumpian re-launch where he has attempted to jump upon the populist bandwagon, Team Corbyn has continued to be unable to break through onto the headlines, with his rebuttal confined to an early afternoon Sky News interview, a Daily Mirror and Independent article that regurgitated the same interview, and his own Twitter page – hardly the sort of viral content a Trump protégé would aspire to, but then again, who needs the main stream media anyway?

Fighting On All Fronts

As a Labour member from the supposed Labour heartlands of the North East, it’s disheartening to accept that the party faces a near impossible task having to fight on two fronts. UKIP are breathing down their neck in the heartlands, such as the up and coming Stoke-on-Trent Central by-election (69.4% voted leave in the referendum, UKIP coming second in the 2015 general election). Then on the other side, Corbyn has to keep happy his left-wing Momentum and trade union followers who are essentially bank rolling and propping up the leadership of the party.

With problems on both the left and right, pro and anti-EU, and internally and externally, Corbyn’s response to a Mayist Brexit was about as non-committal as usual. However, he did promise Labour would unveil their vision for Brexit Britain soon, which will provide some welcome content from the leadership that, while many complained about a lack of running-commentary on Brexit from May, has provided next to no commentary whatsoever. JC’s failure to set an agenda gives him zero political room for manoeuvre, constantly having to play catch up – instead of pro-actively opposing, he spends most of his time reacting.

Scoring In an Open Goal

The party could not even keep their responses consistent with one another, even at the top of the Shadow Cabinet. Keir Starmer’s statement to Parliament, given just a couple of hours after the May speech and the Corbyn response, delivered a decidedly different outlook to that of his leader. The shadow secretary for exiting the EU said May had listened to Labour and that many in business and trade unions could now breathe a sigh of relief; yet his party leader said May’s plan was a threat to British jobs and prosperity.

Labour moderates have weighed in, defining their own position, with Pat McFadden arguing that May’s speech was what happens when you allow “immigration policy to dictate economic policy rather than considering these crucial questions of immigration and economics together” and attacked the Government decision to (likely) withdraw from the single market. Perhaps a growing trend of Labour moderates setting out their standpoint away from the leadership.

The only respite for Corbyn is that EU-focused Paul Nuttall faces similar problems to those of Nigel Farage in 2015, given an open door to attack Cameron over discontent with immigration and the EU among core Tories voters, Farage failed to fully capitalise and achieve electoral gain. History may repeat itself as UKIP consistently rides high in the polls and yet fails to turn that into electoral success, perhaps the one thing that could save Labour in these high-profile by-elections.

Immigration Makes the World Go Round

The real crux of the issue for Labour is not Europe, but immigration. The current Labour inability to form a coherent rhetoric or position on the issue gives them little hope of succeeding in their traditional core. Corbyn’s indecisiveness on the issue is again at odds with the moderate outlook. Many of them, such as Brown, Balls and Cooper, particularly in the lead up the referendum, came out to argue for immigration reform regardless of the result. Now that Brexit is here, Corbyn attempted to use a #NewYearNewMe relaunch as a platform to set out immigration policy. Instead, an alleged late night phone call from Diane Abbott softened his stance to what had been briefed the day before, leaving him in a perpetual U-turn.

This allows easy wins for smaller parties like UKIP, with new leader Paul Nuttall looking for quick ways to prove his worth – poised to stand in the Stoke by-election. Their argument of “no real opposition” and “no clue on immigration” gives them instant relatability with a lot of Leave voters. Even the LibDems are trying to get in on the act, with their pro-freedom of movement, anti-Brexit stance.

The key question for the Labour Party is at what point does Corbyn’s inability to oppose the Government force a Labour moderate, perhaps Yvette Cooper, to put their head above the parapet to challenge the Corbyn leadership once again? By the state of lacklustre PLP meetings, that is going to be a long way off. Right now, Labour moderates seem to either be jumping ship, or waiting for the ship to go down, hopefully soon a coherent response to both Brexit and to a Corbyn leadership will keep the party afloat.

Harry Goodwin

Hill & Knowlton Strategies Search