Let’s be clear from the start: Labour’s next leader is never going to be PM

by Kevin Meagher

Sorry to start the New Year with an Eeyorish warning, but it needs saying from the outset. Labour has zero chance – absolutely no hope whatsoever – of winning the next election in 2024 or thereabouts. The glass is definitely half empty – with a crack in the bottom. Short of an almighty calamity – bigger in magnitude to Brexit – Boris Johnson is going nowhere for the next few years.

Forget the permanent revolution nonsense emanating from Dominic Cummings. Boris’s instinct will be to cut an early deal with the EU on our future trading arrangements and then consolidate his position. He would much rather govern as a benign figure that a malevolent force. He will prove formidable if he does. His victory is already seeing the Tories mobilise their tanks on what remains of Labour’s front lawn, in what may become a strategic realignment of British politics.

Rewriting Treasury rules to favour the North? Check. Inflation-busting increase in the National Living Wage? Check. Renationalising Northern Rail? Check. The new political battleground in British politics cuts across large chunks of what used to be safe Labour territory. The Tories already know this and are wasting no time in preparing their fortifications.

Last month’s result was no fluke. It was a long time coming.

So many of the seats Labour lost in unfashionable towns in the north and midlands were places that underwent 20 years of Thatcherite deindustrialisation, followed by a decade of New Labour pumping money into the public sector, but not replenishing decent jobs in lost industries. This was book-ended by ten more years of Tory austerity. Four decades of misery and disappointment. It just so happens that the timeline corresponds perfectly with our membership of the EU, so, for many, their unhappy experience of politics, which only ever seems to disappoint and frustrate, was taken out in the Brexit referendum.

Having forfeited huge swathes of territory, Labour’s search for relevance only gets harder. Not to mention that the electoral cavern from where the party now stands to any prospect of forming a majority government. Labour is 124 seats away from 326+1. Not only is the next leader never going to become PM but given the custom we seem to have alighted on where a losing party leader quits straight after the election, they will be gone by 2024 and we will be searching for their replacement.

We are not picking a Blair or Brown to take us back to power. We are picking a Kinnock, if we are lucky, to first stop the rot and then make incremental reforms so that the party can head back to the centre-ground, but without haemorrhaging support on the left, presaging a schism that would destroy the party.

If, for instance, Momentum quits, taking some of the unions with it, to form a new, truer left-wing party, then Labour’s viability as an alternative government is scuppered. Keeping the party together and avoiding a descent in sectarianism and recrimination must be top priority.

Neither should we assume that Labour has hit rock bottom. There’s a casual belief that last month’s election was a freak result and by removing Corbyn and Brexit from the equation the political cosmos resettles in Labour’s favour, with all those seats that were lost simply returning to the fold.

But what if it doesn’t play out like that? What if Northern England is the new Scotland? Both Ed Miliband with his 35% strategy and Corbyn, with his overtures to the other parties, implicitly gave up on the party ever appealing to the whole country. What if Labour’s days as a majoritarian political party are already over?

In fact, I would go further and suggest there are yet more seats that could be lost – and would have been were it not for the Brexit Party splitting the Conservative vote. (Check out the results in once rock-solid Barnsley).

Yes, Corbyn was unpopular – undoubtedly so – particularly in many heartland areas – but Labour’s continuity Remainers also helped fuel the recent defeat by rescinding the 2017 manifesto commitment to honour the Brexit referendum result. Labour became the pebble in the shoe of a jaded electorate that, well, wanted to get Brexit done.

So, the task falling to the next leader is nothing short of immense.

Labour needs a leader that can break with the failed Corbyn/McDonnell project but keep the left of the party on-board. Someone who can restore Labour’s reputation as a sensible party of government, without returning to the bland, managerial politics of the New Labour years. A figure that carries the country with them, but who appeals most strongly to Labour’s crumbling base.

You will have spotted the contradictions.

The task is too great for anyone. For the medium-term, Labour is a dead duck. The priority is to repair the damage caused, not only by the left’s frivolousness, but by Blairite carelessness. To understand that those core voters who, we were so often told, have ‘nowhere else to go’ have held their noses and backed the Tories and that having done so once, might decide they will carry on doing so.

The first task of a drowning man is not to drown. That’s all we should expect from Labour’s next leader.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Uncut

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