Another week, another by-election where the Labour Party candidate has seen his vote decrease. This week its Sleaford, where Labour eventually finished fourth behind UKIP and the stirring Lib-Dems.
Should those of us on the left be nervous about this?
Too right we should. Labour is currently embroiled in a slow and painful descent towards irrelevance and that is bad for all of us, regardless of our affiliation or belief.
Labour’s problems are profound, and potential solutions are thin on the ground.
Putting aside, Labour’s leadership issues for now, Labour’s first problem is Brexit. For Labour this issue goes beyond being a tricky political and policy conundrum and is absolutely existential – Labour is, and aspires to be, both the Party that can best articulate the views of the working class and the liberal left. And, on Brexit, the views of these two constituencies are polls apart – broadly speaking the liberal left, are in favour of remain and treat the idea of free movement and immigration as a positive thing. Whereas the traditional working class see the movement of foreigners onto our shores and into our jobs and communities as part of the process which has seen them fall behind in socio-economic terms.
So what should Labour do? Pro-immigration, will see them lose ground to UKIP; pro-Brexit will see them lose their liberal votes to the re-awakening Lib-Dems; do nothing, or fudge it and they are in danger of becoming irrelevant.
I’m hard-pushed to think of a similar situation in British Political history where a mainstream party has found itself so hopelessly squashed by all sides in a debate so fundamental to the age.
Labour has to make a choice.
And, surely, the choice has to be the progressive one, the positive one – it has to bite the bullet and start to put forward the arguments for both Europe and immigration – it must remember that there is a distinction between being a party that is there to articulate the prejudices of the working class (and I’m sorry, not wanting Turks or Albanians in your street, is prejudice) and being a party that is there to garner and encourage the aspirations of everyone, which must include putting into place socio-economic policies that will assist in the education and employment of the traditional working class and the improvement of traditional working class areas. In short, if Labour is to remain relevant, it must become braver than it has ever been, cleverer than it has ever been, it must walk the line between being radical and realistic, popular and pragmatic.
And this comes down to leadership.
Which is Labour’s other problem.
It is a rather tragic irony that at a time when our political climate is possibly the most challenging that it has ever been for conventional parties, Labour are led by people who are singularly not up to the task. I have a certain regard for Jeremy Corbyn, but his politics are one dimensional, his analysis is far too simplistic and his solutions are confused. He doesn’t have the ability or personality to gain the trust of both the liberal left and the traditional working class, whilst the chances of him appealing to former Tory or SNP voters is miniscule.
It seems to me, as an outsider looking in on Labour, that the party is now dominated by a number of very angry and very enthusiastic amateurs (and if that sounds patronising, I apologise but it’s true), who rather cowardly judge everyone by the compassion they postulate than their ability to ask the really difficult questions that Labour now must ask.
Because if Labour continues to dodge the big issue of our age, if Labour continue to be more concerned with intellectual left-wing purity than the concerns of the ordinary man and woman – then the fourth place it managed in Sleaford will be replicated time and time again at the next general election and the result will be devastating for Labour and for our nation.