The Labour Party faces, in this General Election, its gravest crisis, at least since the formation of the National Government in 1931, and perhaps in its entire history. Labour trails the Conservatives by about 20 points in the polls. Its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, trails Theresa May by 35 points on the question of who would make the best Prime Minister. Its position on Brexit, set to be the defining issue of the campaign, has been muddied and uncertain. Many Labour MPs expect a slaughter on 8th June. So what will the Labour campaign look like?
It looks to be a re-heating of Ed Miliband’s 2011 “predatory capitalism” speech, with sharper rhetorical edges and railway renationalisation thrown in. The theme will be bland party unity. In that cause, Brexit will be studiously avoided. Labour’s 10 pledges only briefly mention leaving the EU. Jeremy Corbyn’s speech today touched on Brexit quickly, and contained no references to immigration, the Single Market, the Customs Union, or tariffs. Leadership is also a deadly issue for Labour, both because it divides the party, and because it plays right into the Conservatives’ campaigning strategy.
Jeremy Corbyn did try once more to reinvent himself with some Trump-style rhetoric attacking elites and a “rigged system”. As with previous attempts to recast Corbyn as the pitchfork-populist, this one probably won’t last. It doesn’t come naturally to Corbyn, or to the bulk of Labour MPs, whether moderate or Corbynite. The leader and the party are most comfortable in the Miliband zone – talking generally about the NHS, a “decent society” or “fair society”, and public services. The string of relatively minor, reasonably popular policies around school meals, social care and the minimum wage announced around Easter indicate Labour’s direction for this campaign.
It doesn’t feel like a winning formula, but the Labour leadership wants to win on its own terms, not the “establishment’s rules” as Jeremy Corbyn called them. For most Labour MPs, the priority is survival, not victory. As years in the wilderness threaten to stretch out before Labour, Ed Miliband’s 30.4% of the vote, and 232 seats would be manna from heaven.