by Rob Marchant
It all seems so obvious now. But none of us was predicting it over breakfast yesterday, partly because Theresa May had several times denied it was a possibility. In some ways, it might have paid her to let Jeremy Corbyn stay in a few more years and hurt Labour’s polling more.
But the combination of the lack of a decent majority and the lack of legitimacy of a prime minister who has never gone to the polls, combined with Labour’s unprecedentedly awful polling made it a very modest gamble indeed. And leaders, to be a success, need to learn how to gamble when the odds are good.
News correspondents, bless them, for the purposes of unbiased reporting need to now pretend for the next seven weeks that Labour has a chance of winning. But no serious commentator is predicting any such thing. It is simply impossible. The party is in damage limitation in a way it is difficult to imagine it has ever been before. It is fighting for its life.
Its problems can be summarised in four points.
One: this is the Brexit election and Labour has no answers. Its leader pretended to be anti-Brexit but was really pro. He has now even stopped any pretence otherwise and the party’s message is therefore utterly confused. With the result that Labour is now mistrusted by many in both pro- and anti- camps. Worse, current polls show that voters care more about Brexit than they do political colours. So Labour can effortlessly be squeezed by UKIP and the Tories in some constituencies and the Lib Dems or Greens in others.
Two: the snap election means that Labour’s ground war will be its worst ever. This is the first snap election in forty-three years. There are very few staffers, if any, who even remember the last one.
Given the point in the parliamentary cycle, Labour has few new candidates selected, and had to endure hours yesterday of the prospect of the Leader’s office suicidally attempting to enforce mandatory reselections on the sitting MPs. Fortunately this was ultimately abandoned but not before souring relations at the top of the party even further.
The Tories won’t be much more advanced in terms of candidate selection, but in the marginals they should easily be able to find candidates who fancy a spell in Westminster and have a really very good chance of arriving there.
Although Labour has a little more from the influx of new members, it is still strapped for cash and will be easily outspent by the Tories.
Electoral data is two years out of date already and there is no time to update it. Their new, Corbyn-supporting activists will largely not door-knock and their old ones will struggle to motivate themselves.
In short, the party would have been poorly placed for street campaigning if it had the normal five years to prepare. This time it has seven weeks.
Three: policy vacuum, awful media management and far-left skeletons mean that its air war will also be its worst ever.
Even apart from its confusion on Brexit, the party has barely a handful of policies to scrape together. Having had to run two leadership elections in two years, the party has barely begun its normal policy-formation process. The most likely outcome is that it will campaign on a variation of Corbyn’s woefully-vague “pledges” on which he battled the leadership. Nothing firm, nothing costed. The Tories, meanwhile, can run on some variation of their 2015 manifesto, and doubtless someone has been secretly working in No. 10 in recent weeks to tweak it into a professional-looking effort.
The old days of tight media management are also gone. Corbyn ducks hard questions and has spent 18 months blaming the media for his poor performance. One wonders if they will even manage the usual “grid” of campaign stories which Labour has run since Alastair Campbell days.
And then there is the whole of Corbyn’s and McDonnell’s political career. The consensus in the Westminster lobby is that the Tories have wisely been holding back on publishing the most juicy of their attack lines, saving them up for a moment such as this. Anti-Semitism, IRA support, Islamist terrorist support, unilateralism, sucking up to Putin, you name it. At a national message level, it’s shooting fish in the proverbial barrel. There will be a negative story every day about Labour and they will all be impossible to defend against.
Four: the party leader has no resonance outside his own party. General elections are about leadership and Corbyn has polled disastrously since his election. May will not enter the TV debates, why should she?
All of this adds up to it only be a question of the scale of the disaster, just how many seats we are left with. Honestly, why bother? A reasonable party member might ask themselves.
And so we must now make the case for what needs to be done. There is no question there will be a defeat and Corbyn will own it. We are way past any worry about that.
There are a few rays of light on the horizon. We could have a half-decent result with the metro mayors, if not in the locals overall. Len McCluskey might yet fall next week, which would be a game-changer, albeit an unlikely one.
In the end, it’s a question of whether it will be 50, 100 or 150 seats we lose. And that’s worth fighting for.
We can choose to do nothing, and let everything fall apart. Or choose to resist, for what will come after the election. This party has been a great force for good in this country and it can be again. But it is on life-support. It needs help. This election is about staunching the flow of blood out of the wound, so as not to kill the patient. Saving those seats we can. Fighting not just the Tories without but the far left within.
The only sensible choice is to hold your nose and vote for Jeremy Corbyn. He will never become prime minister, so your conscience is perfectly clear. Hold your nose and door-knock. Hold your nose and come out for your decent local councillor or MP, who deserve better than this.
In Hugh Gaitskell’s brilliant, defiant words: to fight, fight and fight again, to save the party we love.
Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour party manager who blogs at The Centre Left