Why Didn’t Labour Do Better? Or Worse?

I’m observing the British election results from the capital city of a country which had an inconclusive general election last year, and has just called another. About a year ago the widespread belief was that Britain itself might have been in that position.

But there was no minority government, hung parliament, or mistrustful coalition. As we now seem to know, the Tories bought an election victory, or at least their mates in the hedge funds and off-shore smurfing did. The Electoral Commission must decide what to do, but in the here and now we have a majority Tory government, and an official Opposition, both of which look more than a little battered right now. Why?

The Tories are doing their own battering, with Michael Gove as Mr. Punch beating the hell out of mimsy David Cameron, whilst baby George Osborne wails in the background whilst Owen Patterson and a chorus of badgers with the faces of Nigel Farage look on and cheer, Ingerland-style. That’s entertainment! Or it would be if the potential consequences weren’t so serious for us, and for the whole continent.

And what of Labour? Plainly it is not a party at ease with itself. Or perhaps it is? It’s just that the Parliamentary Labour Party haven’t noticed? I don’t know. These are important questions, but they scarcely account for Labour’s slo-mo fade from Masters of the Universe in 1997 to today’s amateur hour.

Is that unfair? I think not. Jeremy Corbyn and his handful of supporters in parliament could scarcely have expected to win the leadership. They were, in anyone’s book, amateurs when it came to the dark arts of party management and Opposition (as opposed to oppositional) politics. And those around them who were schooled in the Westminster spotlight have done very little to assist their new leaders. It’s as though the executive team of MBAs suddenly found that the new CEO was the old car park attendant. They couldn’t stomach it, and they’re damned if they’ll help out.

In any case, look at Ed Miliband. He had all the attributes of a successful modern leader. Clever, articulate, young, with a full head of hair and some photogenic kids. He often took Dave apart at PMQs. You’d never have known it. The Blairites didn’t quite hire a sniper to take him out, but then they didn’t need to. Mr. Murdoch, no friend of Tony these days, the marriage-wrecker, was happy to stick Ed in a bacon sandwich and leave him out to dry. If Ed couldn’t get loved-up with the press, what chance did allotment man, Corbyn, the man in beige?

And to to the ‘test’ of elections. Local elections, regional ones, devolved elections, dog-catcher polls (that’s PCCs, by the way). Any serious analysis would begin with local, regional or devolved assembly matters, seeing each result in its own terms. Any national conclusions would follow from that. But we don’t have the seriousness or the attention span for that. It’s all a plebiscite on Jeremy. Especially to his own MPs.

It looks to me like there was little ‘Corbyn effect’, positive or negative. I doubt that in current circumstances, with massive media hostility and a BBC with a Whittingdale revolver to its head, any leader could have done very much better. The question is, why, in the circumstances, didn’t they do worse?

My theory, for what it’s worth, is that the political system is out of synch with social cleavages, the changing technological ecosphere, the rise of elites with no meaningful roots in any single polity or economy. We have votes, but we scarcely have a democratic political culture fit for the times.

At the moment this suits the Tories, though they should be warned, they may not be able to buy their right to rule for ever in such chaotic times.

Some of Corbyn’s youthful enthusiasts perhaps pin too much hope on using social media to by-pass the powers of the off-shore press proprietors. But they seem to me to have at least sussed out the direction of travel. That is hopeful.

But realistically, we need institutional change. The different politics of Scotland, which I don’t especially admire, owes much to their electoral system, and the need to understand and embrace cross-party cooperation. Constitutional change is needed across the UK, to our electoral system, our parliament, the powers of the executive, the role and power of local government, and much else too.

Labour came close to learning this lesson in the early 1990s, and might have been a genuinely historic reforming government after 1997 under a John Smith premiership. But too many people fell under the spell of Blair and his dead-eyed allies. They are still around, still up for gaming the system rather than respecting the voters and offering genuine leadership, not poll-chasing opportunism.

So the verdict on May 2016? Sound and fury? Not much of that. But still signifying nothing. Either way.

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