So, here we go again. A late December election offers the Labour Party an opportunity to end the decade just how they started it – in power. In a packed Battersea Arts Centre not far from Number 10, Corbyn launched his latest pursuit of a radical agenda which he says will “transform Britain”. The venue in some ways provided the perfect metaphor for the party – a fire in 2015 badly damaged the top of its structure, and the years since have seen attempts to rebuild.
But another metaphor can be drawn from this. Since 2015 Labour have, by and large, been putting out fires of their own making. Antisemitism has driven a wedge in the party, defections and deselection rows have dominated headlines, their Brexit position takes time to explain (more than any candidate will have on the doorstep), and Corbyn’s personal polling is at rock bottom. Against this backdrop they entered this election tentatively.
Corbyn’s big campaign launch provided the first opportunity to claw back ground and to begin the assent in the polls which shocked us all last time around. Sure enough, the old lines came through. Labour were on the side of the people, not the “privileged few”. Public services are to be rebuilt and funded by “taxing those at the top” (especially the billionaires – they hate those). Labour will nationalise rail, mail and water, and scrap the controversial Universal Credit. But not much new came out of the speech.
Instead, external developments seem to have put pay to some of the immediate bounce that Corbyn was hoping for. Boris Johnson’s tank (or should I say bus?) is firmly parked on Labour’s lawn, with the latest commitment to expand the government’s free childcare programme added to earlier pledges to spend on police and the NHS. And hours after Corbyn’s fans defiantly chanted that the NHS was “not for sale” to the US in any future trade deal, the President confirmed on an LBC love-in with Nigel Farage that it in fact never was. Trump said that Johnson’s deal may actually prevent a future trade agreement with the US, but this has been somewhat drowned out by the sheer amount of material that Trump has offered headline writers.
The campaign has started with a challenge for Labour to set the narrative, in the way that they did so brilliantly in 2017. But Labour cannot re-run 2017. They mustn’t be a broken record. Times have changed, even if Brexit hasn’t. The Conservatives have declared an end to austerity and are promising spending on the level that Labour have done historically. Ambiguity over Brexit risks their fragile coalition of northern Leavers and metropolitan Remainers, with the Lib Dems and the Brexit Party tugging at their voter base. The launch of their campaign has not addressed these challenges. But lessons have to be learned by the other parties too. Labour has been written off before, and anyone who does so now risks an almighty shock on December 12th.