Judged objectively, ignoring the wall of hostile noise from a partisan media and disloyalty from a few self-promoting MPs, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party over the last several months has proven a success.
He has put together a shadow cabinet that reflects talents across the party. His support base in the Parliamentary Labour Party has broadened, his performances at PMQs and on TV have become increasingly assured, the rebellion over Syria was confined to the usual suspects, and the Oldham by-election was convincingly won, seeing off a perceived challenge from UKIP. It is worth reflecting upon the non-appearance of the UKIP threat in Oldham, because the false prediction by the 4.5%ers was based upon their political misunderstanding of the electorate.
John McDonnell as shadow chancellor has performed well, and Labour has shifted towards a coherent and credible anti-austerity economic stance. While the Conservative Party is divided over Europe, the Labour Party is overwhelmingly united, and relations between the majority who wish to remain and the minority who wish to leave are cordial.
Nevertheless, whoever had taken over the leadership of the party would have had a hill to climb. Across Britain, the Conservatives had a 6% lead over Labour at last year’s General Election, including a collapse of the vote in Scotland to just 24.3%, down 17.7% on 2010. The party paid a high price for failing to defend the record of the last Labour government, and paradoxically it seemed like it was often the left that was most prepared to defend the progressive legacy of the Blair and Brown years.
In May, Labour will face a number of electoral tests. In particular, the local government elections in England, as well as the London mayoral elections, London Assembly, Scottish Parliament and the Senedd.
It is therefore necessary to judge Labour’s performance by a realistic benchmark. In English local authorities Labour will be defending seats last contested in 2012, when Labour had a 6% lead over the Conservatives in the national polls, and the coalition government was at its lowest ebb. Electoral politics is cruel, and it is highly likely that some hard working and capable Labour councilors will lose their seats this year, though the results will be hard to predict where the Lib Dems have historically has a strong local presence, which may create considerable local variance from national trends.
It is almost inevitable that the results will be maliciously misrepresented, where Labour does well this will be reported as being despite Corbyn, and where Labour suffers, the blame will be put on the leader.
The key will by London. Some on the left are not enamoured by Sadiq Khan, and may be inclined to support George Galloway. Now I like and respect George. I don’t agree with everything he says and does, but he makes valuable contribution to British democracy because over a number of issues he has been prepared to break from the social consensus, while remaining broadly within the envelope of labourist politics. As George Galloway himself pointed out before the US Senate, over a number of issues the mainstream political consensus has been wrong, and George has been proven right.
George’s expulsion from the Labour Party was, in my view, an injustice, and it is important that the Labour Party’s adherence to the rulebook should be impartial, so that if George at some point satisfies the conditions for readmission, then personal animosity against him from some quarters should not be allowed to colour the decision.
Nevertheless I think that George is making a political mistake by standing against Sadiq. Firstly, there is frankly no prospect of building a coherent electoral space to the left of the Labour Party at the moment, and therefore George’s candidacy is individualistic. But secondly, and more importantly, Sadiq is actually a good candidate that the left should support.
Sadiq Khan has his own strong mandate having been directly voted for by Labour Party members in London to be the candidate. He comes from a working class background, he is a hard working, intelligent and compassionate MP; and he is well liked by the trade unions. One of the strengths of Sadiq is that he has a reputation for simply delivering on his promises, and working behind the scenes in support of his constituents, and for trade union members.
There is no guarantee that Labour can win the London mayoral election, but we do need to make a strong showing; and the party and the broader labour movement does need to unite behind the Labour candidate, to consolidate the gains we have made.