London Letter: Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour on edge of electoral cliff

Party’s share of vote could fall to 20% in next election

Jeremy Corbyn's attempt at a new year relaunch this week was, like most of his initiatives, widely ridiculed in the press and greeted with contemptuous eye-rolling by Labour MPs.

The Labour leader would, we were told, adopt a more populist tone in 2017, seeking to emulate Donald Trump in communicating directly with voters through public events, live broadcast interviews and social media.

In Peterborough on Tuesday, he was due to signal a shift in Labour’s strategy on Brexit by announcing that the party was not wedded to maintaining free movement of people from the EU. Corbyn delivered that line, but he went on to say that Labour didn’t rule out maintaining free movement either, adding that he did not wish his position to be misunderstood.

The message was further obscured by a new proposal for a pay cap on high earners, including footballers, which subsequently mutated into a call for a ratio to be set between the top earners and the lowest paid in any given company.

Derisive laughter

As the tea rooms of Westminster gurgled with derisive laughter, one Labour MP from the north of England told me her colleagues would be foolish to identify their leader as the source of their party’s troubles.

“I think Corbyn is like the accelerator on a bus that’s going over a cliff. I don’t think he’s causing the problem at all, I just think he’s making it go faster,” she said.

With the party’s poll numbers stuck well below 30 per cent, Corbyn’s personal ratings even lower, and only half of those who voted Labour in 2015 now saying they support the party, few doubt that Labour is on the edge of an electoral cliff.

Opposition parties usually drop about eight points between the middle of a term and a general election, so Labour’s share of the vote could easily fall to 20 per cent when Britain next goes to the polls.

A new analysis by the Fabian Society says that such a result could return just 150 Labour MPs, compared to 231 today. The report suggests that Labour is too weak to win the next election but too strong to disappear, chiefly on account of the first-past-the-post electoral system.

Under its new leader Paul Nuttall, Ukip is targeting Labour in some of its northern seats but the Fabian Society analysis concludes that the Conservatives are a much greater threat.

Theresa May is attracting voters from Ukip and Labour in their hundreds of thousands, as she positions the Conservatives as the party of Brexit.

Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats have emerged since the referendum as the standard-bearers for Remain voters, capturing a seat in Richmond in a byelection last October that saw Labour lose its deposit.

Remain in the EU

Most Labour supporters voted to remain in the EU, and some of the highest Remain votes were in Labour constituencies in London. Some of the biggest Leave votes, however, were also in Labour constituencies, mostly in the party’s working class heartlands in England.

“What happened to Labour in Scotland is happening to us here. If Brexit is the only question, we’re nowhere,” the northern Labour MP said. “We couldn’t out-nationalist the nationalists or out-unionist the unionists and we can’t out-Leave the Leavers or out-Remain the Remainers.”

Many Labour MPs feel they have little choice but to seek to occupy a position in the centre, advocating a soft Brexit with continued access to the European single market but talking tough on immigration in the hope of retaining support among pro-Brexit voters.

The Fabian Society believes the party should accept that it will be unable to form a government unless it is in partnership with another party. But neither should it despair about its electoral prospects, because it remains likely to be by far the biggest opposition party in the next parliament.

Labour's next electoral test will come at a byelection in the Cumbrian constituency of Copeland, whose MP Jamie Reed resigned to take a job at the Sellafield nuclear power plant. His fellow northern MP said that, as the prospect of power recedes, many other Labour MPs are wondering if they should follow Reed's example.

“Very honestly, I think most people are thinking about it, thinking about life after parliament,” she said.