Can Labour dig it?

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Jim McMahon Jeremy Corbyn Oldham Wes

Labour wins a safe seat in a by-election. A collective sigh of relief pulsates across the Labour family estate. We take a moment to say:’ Thank god. It can be done. It has been done. We kept the Ukip wolves at the border. The Tories sank in the swamps and the LibDems didn’t even cross the threshold.’

Some 48 hours later, the various factions within the Labour family wake up and remember they are at war. Not with the Conservative Government but with their own leadership. So the armour goes back on and weapons are picked up and sharpened for the next internal skirmish. The respite was nice while it lasted but rather like a glass of mulled wine, once the sun rose the warmth evaporated. Winter is still coming for Labour’s soul.  

The sheer jubilation that erupted when Labour won was telling. Precisely because the loudest cheers came from within Labour’s walls. Despite the predictions of the mainstream media, external polling and internal angst-ridden reports, Labour held on handsomely. Reports of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership being put to the test didn’t come to fruition. Jeremy wasn’t put in the stocks and pelted with rotten tomatoes anymore then Ed Miliband was in the infancy of his leadership. Labour’s vote share went up and a very healthy number of residents turned out to vote on a miserable, dreary wet day.

While the Londoncentric hacks ponder over their capital-coloured cappuccinos quite what went wrong, a number of things seem clear. The candidate Jim McMahon played a considerable part in holding together Labour’s fortunes. The local council leader, he is a popular, polite and dedicated public servant. Well known and more importantly, well liked he was a credible candidate who showed Labour in its best light.

The flip side to Jim’s positivity coin was fatal warnings that Jeremy as leader of the party had poisoned it and made it toxic. If Labour had lost, Corbyn would have been slated. It would have been a referendum on Corbyn’s leadership.

Instead of the Labour brand collapsing under Jeremy’s leadership, in core Labour areas it is still strong. Labour focused on what it does best. It ran a sharp, local, organised campaign, maximised its strengths, minimised its weaknesses. It called the Tories out on tax credit failures as well as taking on Ukip for its divisive politics.

The mainstream media’s weathervane was off-message though it has considerable influence. The by-election was not about Corbyn or Jim per say, it was about Labour. Even with a leader that the media hate, in core Labour areas, people are still loyal to Labour.

An uncomfortable truth for some is admitting Corbyn has brought something that has renewed people’s interest in Labour. Even if many believe Jeremy has little political nouse, his appeal cannot be denied; he is captivating many people in many places. People we haven’t engaged for years are getting on board. These people are not ‘Corbynistas’ per se, but they seem happier with Labour’s overall message.

How do we harness that re-engagement with the good stuff from Labour’s past? That is what many in the middle of Labour’s political spectrum are grabbling with. 

Another major factor was Ukip’s inability to capitalise on their early giddy successes. Similar to Labour, they are in the middle of a messy internal battle. Their messaging, choice of candidate, the leadership struggles and the misreading of the cultural/social shift in the country saw them come a poor second. Ukip historically regrouped quickly, adapted to challenges and articulated the concerns and fears of many who felt Labour had left them behind. Yet they failed to put up a proper effort in an area where the Conservative vote share went down and they are effectively the main opposition. Ukip’s reputational damage has impacted on them but no one should be complacent, especially Labour for they have form and rejuvenate pretty quickly.

The starkest observation was witnessing what happens when the Labour family works together. It didn’t work for us in May but the machinery of mobilising, organising and keeping the by-election operation going was formidable. Labour put aside its factional differences and came together for the greater good. Those right across the party knocked doors, delivered leaflets and effectively used social media to support Jim and Labour. It can be done.

Hugh Pemberton and Mark Wickham Jones said in a pre-leadership article,

‘One of the key tasks of whoever is elected leader in September 2015 will be to unite the party around an agreed strategy that bonds its different elements together at the same time as appealing to sufficient numbers within the electorate to win the next general election. On the basis of the groupings emerging in the patterns of nominations, that is by no means a straightforward task.’

If Labour can unite around a by-election, it has the ability to do so in everyday politicking. The task may not be straightforward but demonstrates that when fractional differences are put aside and Labour works for a common good it can and does win. The Oldham result will not be Labour’s result in key marginals if it continues to navel-gaze its way into political oblivion. It requires strategy, maturity, intelligence, smart politics and a belief in collectivism over individualism. The very Labour values that many in the party claim to hold now need to be actualised.

Cyrus in the film The Warriors said it best,

‘The problem in the past has been the man turning us against one another. We have been unable to see the truth, because we have fighting for ten square feet of ground, our little piece of turf. That’s crap, brothers! The turf is ours by right, because it’s our turn. All we have to do is keep up the general truce. We take over one borough at a time. Secure our territory… because it’s all our turf!’ I say, the future is ours. Now, look what we have here before us. We got the Saracens sitting next to the Jones Street Boys. We’ve got the Moonrunners right by the Van Cortlandt Rangers. Nobody is wasting nobody. That… is a miracle. And miracles is the way things ought to be. Can you dig it?’

Are Labour ready to dig it?

Amina Lone is Co-Director of the Social Action and Research Foundation and a Manchester City Councillor.

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