As an indication of the situation Labour finds itself in, YouGov’s latest poll makes for grim reading. In Wales and the West Midlands, traditionally a Labour heartland, the party is 12 points behind the Conservatives. More broadly, the opposition now sits 24 points behind the government. Labour appears to be a party increasingly under siege.
Blame for this state of affairs has, for some time, been laid squarely on Corbyn – a leader whose views are at odds with much of his own party let alone the wider electorate.
Corbyn’s performance (most notably over the recent vote to trigger Article 50), coupled with consistently poor poll ratings, has led to growing speculation over whether a new Labour leader could be in the offing.
Of course, for this to happen Corbyn would either need to resign or be ousted by a coup. In that unlikely event Deputy Leader Tom Watson MP would become interim leader, presumably steering the party back towards a more moderate stance. However, the Labour left would quickly seek to nominate a new, fresh faced, and camera ready candidate – one who is unlikely to be perceived as controversial as Corbyn, but who would keep the party ideologically tied to the left.
Corbyn may be the controversial leader struggling to mount an effective opposition, but Labour’s problems go far deeper than its leadership.
Labour as a party and as a movement is becoming increasingly split. The Article 50 debate has brought this into sharp focus with 52 Labour MPs voting against the party line and opposing the bill. That the rebels included three Shadow Whips highlights the severity of division within the party.
This rift is deeper than Corbyn, and goes beyond the MPs in Westminster. The Labour Party is trying to represent two wildly different groups. Metropolitan liberals and voters in the socially conservative rural and industrial areas simply do not want the same things. Their MPs are becoming torn between representing these various – and largely opposed – constituencies. Brexit, globalisation and immigration has brought this to a head, exposing fractures between the voter base that can not be easily healed whilst generating the impression that Labour MPs in Westminster are no longer “in touch” with their voters across the regions, particularly on the ever-thorny subject of immigration.
There is a sense that Labour in England is now facing a situation akin to Scotland after the referendum on Scottish independence. In one election they lost their foothold in the region, following months of decline in the polls and a growing distance between the views of the party’s hierarchy and their voters’ concerns.
At the moment, it is difficult to see Labour, increasingly split and seemingly disconnected from voters, regaining strength before the next general election. In a week they face two vital by-elections – in Stoke and in Copeland – with UKIP (in the former) and the Conservatives (in the latter) sniffing a chance of victory. The Party is certainly testing the resolve of its base. In Brexit-backing Stoke, it has selected a strongly pro-EU candidate, whilst in pro-nuclear Copeland it remains to be seen how Corbyn’s long-history of anti-nuclear sentiment will go down.
By-election success and failure is often hugely overblown, but should Labour fail to hold on to either of these seats, neither of which would be classed as marginal, suggestions that the Party is a spent force will only grow.