Is Labour now a zombie party? Too narrow to ever hope to win power again, but too big to die: will it carry on ambling slowly further from Whitehall, eating the brains of anyone on the left with new ideas, arms outstretched to stop any successor progressive parties in their tracks?
The signs are not good. The party now trails the Conservatives by almost 20 points. Just 15% say they would prefer Jeremy Corbyn to Theresa May as prime minister. In a byelection held last month Labour lost the constituency of Copeland – which it had held since the 1930s – to the Conservative party. This was the first time a governing party had gained a seat in a byelection since 1982, which preceded a landslide Labour defeat the following year.
The messaging, too, is far from clear. In Copeland, where the nuclear industry is a key employer, voters were left confused by Labour’s position: the official policy is pro-nuclear, but there are numerous videos of the current leadership calling for the closure of nuclear power plants. On the key national issue of immigration, voters who want to tighten the rules think Labour wants to relax them, while more pro-immigration voters tend to think Labour wants to reduce it.
On Scotland’s future, Corbyn was recently reported to have said that a second referendum on independence would be ‘absolutely fine’, later having to clarify that he was opposed to a second referendum, but that he would not seek to stop one from happening. Just last week, we had the spectacle of the shadow chancellor and shadow home secretary addressing a rally in Parliament Square calling on the government to protect the rights of EU citizens, while Labour peers were ordered to wave through a bill to trigger article 50 which had had such protections removed.
Despite these travails, internal opposition to the party leadership has been muted of late. Many doubt Corbyn’s appetite to hang on to fight the 2020 general election, and the hope for more moderate sections of Labour is that disillusionment – over Corbyn’s handling of Brexit and the party’s dire position in the polls – will eventually set in among Corbyn’s support base. Opponents are hopeful of defeating a proposed amendment to party rules which would make it easier for a Corbyn successor – who would struggle to get significant support among Labour MPs – to make it onto the ballot in any future party leadership election.
The Labour leadership’s own goals – and the party’s overall failure to get its act together – is made all the more frustrating by the fact that the Tories are having a terrible time in government. Most recently, we saw it forced into an embarrassing U-turn over raising national insurance rates for self-employed workers. While many progressives actually praised the move for reducing incentives for companies to outsource work to freelancers rather than bringing them onto the payroll (with all the associated rights and benefits), it went against a key manifesto pledge not to raise taxes, which they used consistently during the 2015 general election to attack Labour for failing to make the same commitment. What is most astounding is that many top Conservative ministers did not seem to be aware they were breaking a manifesto promise until it was pointed out to them by the media.
Furthermore, the UK is now the only advanced economy to have experienced economic growth but falling real wages since the global financial crisis. Moreover, the 2015-20 parliamentary term is set to be the worst on record for income growth among the bottom half of earners. We are set to see the biggest rise in inequality since at least the 1980s. We have a deep crisis in funding for the provision of social care following several rounds of short-sighted cuts to local authority budgets, which is also having a knock-on effect on the NHS. The government has not even triggered article 50 yet. If we do end up with a hard Brexit, reverting to trade with the EU on WTO terms, the economy could be up to 9.5% smaller by 2030 compared to pre-Brexit projections, with households £1,700 worse off.
Labour’s established position within British political culture, the first past the post electoral system which makes it difficult for new parties to gain an electoral foothold, and the uncertainty created by Brexit all serve to prop up the party in difficult times. Frustrating as it is now, this is a source of hope for progressives. Despite everything, the chances of a split are slim. Labour is not a zombie party, it’s just in a coma. When it finally wakes up – as it must – it will be in a position to win once again.