These are all questions that have occurred to many of us already. I haven’t been able to answer them all satisfactorily but I think Owen is overly pessimistic about many of these.
1. How can the disastrous polling be turned around?
Prior to the referendum the polls were getting fairly close — an average of 3% lead to the Conservatives. With four years to go to the general election there was plenty of time to address the policy, media and organisational issues that would enable a successful campaign. The poll lead has now widened: UKIP voters returning to the Tories, some frustrated Remainers switching to the Lib Dems, a honeymoon boost for May, and many people thinking Labour can’t govern because of the current civil war in the PLP. To say that a victory in 2020 following the current situation would be unprecedented is to state the obvious — the election of Corbyn, the split in the PLP, the attack by the press, and the increase in membership and creation of Momentum are all unprecedented too.
Polling itself is not disastrous. Losing an election is bad but not disastrous. The only disaster of 1983 was that somehow the lie got out that Labour lost because of policy rather than the SDP and the Falklands war. Jones line of argument risks setting up an equally damaging narrative if Labour lose in 2020 — that the left are incompetent and incapable of winning — rather than what appears to be happening — the PLP sabotage their own party in cahoots with the establishment and press.
That is not to say that the opinion polls aren’t a concern and no one would claim that there isn’t work to be done — so let’s not despair, look at the other questions and address these.
2. Where is the clear vision?
There is a problem here in that current Labour Party policy reflects neither the views of the Corbyn leadership nor the views of LP members (or voters). To resolve this immediately would require either an undemocratic rail-roading of policy by Corbyn, or reverting to neo-liberal policies that don’t appeal to the electorate or the LP base. What Corbyn does have is the perception that he is not part of the Establishment, that he is a normal person, that he is honest, and that he puts his principles above his career. If you doubt that this is enough for political success look at Nigel Farage or Donald Trump — neither said much about policy and traded almost solely on their anti-Establishment credentials. Comparison with Bernie Sanders — an altogether more serious politician — perhaps shows what Corbyn could aspire to, although US politics gives much more freedom to Presidential candidates than the British party structure and cabinet government.
3. How are the policies significantly different from the last general election?
You wouldn’t expect any opposition to have detailed policies four years ahead of the election. Given the current war in the PLP we shouldn’t expect anything soon. A victory for Corbyn will give them more scope to refashion policy on a radical basis. Owen answers his own question: ‘It’s less than a year in to Corbyn’s already embattled leadership: there hasn’t been the time to develop clear new policies. Fine: but surely there needs to be a clear idea of what sort of policies will be offered, not least given what is at stake?’.
4. What’s the media strategy?
Admittedly this has been a weakness. Constantly having to fire-fight negative stories from a hostile press, often coming from within the cabinet, has been a terrible distraction. Is it possible to have a positive media strategy without a supportive cabinet able to appear in the media?
5. What’s the strategy to win over the over-44s?
‘When I asked Jeremy Corbyn in my recent interview what his strategy was, he came up with some sensible starting points: respect for older people (this needs fleshing out in policy terms), dealing with pensioner poverty, and social care. The problem is — that’s the first I’ve heard of it. Where’s the strategy to relentlessly appeal to older Britons who are so critical in deciding elections? ‘
This would be an excellent question for Labour Shadow Minister for Work and Pension until his resignation on 27th June, one Owen Smith. Hopefully his successor will have the time to pursue this free of the distractions of internal LP fueding.
6. What’s the strategy to win over Scotland?
Labour have completely screwed themselves in Scotland. They had the wrong strategy in the referendum and there is no undoing that. Some policies such as opposing Trident will play well with the public but do not differentiate Labour from the SNP. The reason it is so hard for Labour in Scotland is that the SNP are doing everything that Labour should be and doing it better — left wing, large activist base, a popular leader. Labour’s strategy should be to make a deal to compromise with the SNP on electoral reform, the West-Lothian question, Trident, further devolution and independence referendum.
7. What’s the strategy to win over Conservative voters?
This is the wrong question to ask. The way to win support for your policies is to state them clearly and speak to swing voters the same way you speak to your core supporters. Trying to tailor your message for the centre at best makes you appear insincere, at worst you start modifying policy to appeal to your political opponents, lose your core supporters, and, if elected, end up doing little positive while in government.
8. How would we deal with people’s concerns about immigration?
In a word, don’t. People have real issues with housing, jobs and public services. If they are easily convinced that these are the fault of immigrants it probably indicates that they are prejudiced against immigrants. This doesn’t make them Hitler and doesn’t mean we should ignore them. Address the problems of housing, jobs, public services, and concern about immigration will fall into the background. Genuine integration and change in values is a generational process and not primarily driven by political parties. Let’s spend lot’s of money regenerating deprived areas but for goodness sake don’t call it something awful like ‘Migrant Impacts Fund’ which reinforces the idea that migration is the root of all evil.
9. How can Labour’s mass membership be mobilised?
Some clear policies and taking the operation of CLPs away from party bureaucrats will bring a lot more people into activism. There needs to be a consolidation of democratic structures within Momentum and a clear vision that the current battles are not about Corbyn but about the democratic rights of members.
The questions Jones does not ask are significant:
How will the split between the membership and the PLP be resolved?
What should the role of Momentum be?
Is there any scope for a non-sectarian progressive alliance between parties of the left?
What is the relationship between parliamentary politics and grass-roots activism?