There haven’t been many signs over the last few weeks of people on the Labour side really getting to grips with what happened to them in May. The emotional spasm has produced a surge for you-know-who, and his supporters are engaged in telling anyone who disagrees with them that they are secret Tories who should switch parties.
Against that background, the new pamphlet from the Fabian Society, written by people who lost in marginal seats in England, is a rare ray of light for the Opposition. The following paragraph is striking in its absence as an argument from the leadership debate:
‘Such was the scale of the defeat in Scotland that 29 seats were lost on a swing of over 30 per cent, costing the party some of its key parliamentary figures. This means that the battleground in 2020 will be primarily in England. Of the 94 seats needed to win an overall majority of two, just seven are in Scotland, a further eight in Wales leaving 79 in England, most of them in the small towns and rural areas that are presently a sea of blue.’
The arguments in the pamphlet aren’t all correct, of course, but this identification of England as essential to any prospect of a Labour recovery is a key realisation. They now face four problems in developing it:
1) As discussed here recently, Labour have a problem understanding (never mind embracing) England. There’s a long journey for them to move from a party that ignores England at best or sneers at it at worst to a party that can target the country successfully. Large parts of their party refuse to recognise that it’s even an issue, which is the pre-requisite to starting to address it.
2) The Conservative troops are currently buoyed by the success of the 40/40 strategy – they have high morale and experience fighting a new kind of campaign, the story of which I reported shortly after the election - but Labour have yet to start remodelling their machine. There’s an implicit acknowledgement of the challenge that poses in the Fabians’ reference to Labour’s necessary gains being in “a sea of blue” – the Conservatives now have extra territory from which they can draw troops into target seats (should CCHQ successfully keep up the momentum of its new campaigning operation).
3) The Labour Party looks set to indulge in a bout of purges – if Corbyn is victorious, those impure Labourites branded as “closet Tories” will come under pressure, while if one of the others wins they will be saddled with the question of what to do about the entryists who have joined up from the Greens, the Communist Party and other extreme sects. Neither scenario is a good starting point from which to launch the disciplined targeting campaign required to win back scores of seats.
4) Many on the Left actively hate the very people they now need to win over. If their mantra continues to be not just that they disagree with Tory ideas, but that anyone who voted Tory is an awful person, then they will put themselves out of power for the foreseeable future. Winning by finding new voters is twice as hard as winning by taking voters off your opponent – and yet they seem determined to treat Conservative voters as contemptible.
None of this means that Conservatives should be complacent – our recent victory came about due to a lot of hard work, but also a lot of luck in the right people pursuing the right ideas at the right time (sometimes at the last minute) and a huge lucky break in our opponents’ choice of leader.
Even then, our majority is small, and party membership has only just started to grown again after a decade of decline. We might be fortunate again in our opponents should Labour continue down their current introspective and destructive path – but when it comes to campaigning to hold those seats in England, we still have to make our own luck.