Theresa May will hardly say that her Conservative government has it easy at the moment, what with her being faced with the task of sorting out Britain’s exit from the European Union in the next two years, along with the numerous other problems which constantly plague governments, but one thing she has not had to contend with since becoming Prime Minister is a competent opposition to hold her to account.
Ever since Jeremy Corbyn was elected as leader of the Labour Party in 2015, Labour have been the laughing stock of UK politics. Corbyn has already faced a leadership challenge from Labour’s MPs, with Owen Smith coming the closest to replacing him, but September 2016 saw Corbyn re-elected with an even bigger majority and a stronger mandate than before. Throughout Corbyn’s reign he has seen a host of MPs openly criticise him and no fewer than 34 Shadow Cabinet ministers resigning or being sacked since he became leader. It cannot be denied that Labour is divided and that it has next to no chance of even challenging Mrs May at the 2020 General Election.
Meanwhile, Corbyn’s opposition are doing a very poor job of holding the government to account as all the Prime Minister has to do is make a reference to one of the many failings of Corbyn’s administration whenever she is asked an awkward question in order to deflect the attention back onto her opposition. Despite the fact that one of the key issues of recent months has been the declining state of the NHS – something which Labour has historically been the champion of – Corbyn has never really been able to put the Prime Minister in too awkward a position in Prime Minister’s Questions. As to the reason for this, it is generally accepted that, while Corbyn is a genuinely decent man with strong principles, he lacks the charisma and quick wit to be a successful leader; either of the opposition or of the government.
The latest controversy to befall Corbyn’s Labour has come after a National Constitutional Committee decided to suspend Ken Livingstone from the Party for two years rather than expelling him altogether, despite Livingstone making offensive comments towards Jews. This morning Labour’s Deputy Leader, Tom Watson, said the decision “shames us all” and Corbyn himself admitted that “Livingstone’s comments have been grossly insensitive, and he has caused deep offence and hurt to the Jewish community.” The Labour leader will surely now be cursing his luck, as the last thing he needs at the moment is yet another reason for the Labour Party to be divided.
It really is difficult to see how Labour can recover their situation in time for the next general election. Corbyn currently has approval ratings of -5 according to YouGov and Labour have been damaged heavily by the Copeland by-election result in which they lost their seat to the Conservatives, making it the first gain for a governing party in a by-election since 1982. The fact that they lost a seat which has always been regarded as safe for them is disastrous as it shows just how rapidly the Party is losing ground, especially as it was the Conservatives who were able to win it. One would expect the opposition to be putting the government under relentless pressure as they try to navigate the country through Brexit, but instead they are not even able to hold their own seats.
One thing which Labour can take as a silver lining is the fact that they held onto Stoke-on-Trent Central in the recent by-election. This was seen as another Labour safe seat so would normally be a formality, but the result is made more meaningful because it put paid to UKIP’s ambitions of becoming the new party for the working classes to identify with. Fortunately for Labour, they held the seat, keeping at least some credibility with their core voters, but they will need to actively make some gains if they are to truly make a challenge to form a government and win back the confidence of traditional Labour voters.
I would say that the only way Labour could get back in with a real chance of winning the 2020 General Election is if the Conservative government makes a very big mistake. If this was to happen, it would almost certainly be something to do with Brexit. If Mrs May fails to secure a satisfactory trade deal and the electorate turn against her then it may just be possible for Labour to put in a realistic challenge, but only if they can avoid any further embarrassments between now and then; something that is not necessarily likely. The likes of Diane Abbott will need to unite around Corbyn, and those MPs who do not support their leader will need to accept that he will not be removed before the next election so there is no point in openly challenging him, making the party seem even more divided than it is already.
Personally, I do not think there is any chance of Labour winning the next election, but it is in the interests of everybody for there to be a strong opposition in the meantime and for the Conservatives not to have too much of a free pass in 2020. As we are regularly reminded, a strong opposition is vital for a strong democracy so the best thing which can happen is for Labour to get their act together and put some serious pressure on the Tories to ensure that the British political system is as strong as possible in this important time for the nation. Realistically I can’t see Labour winning an election with Corbyn as leader, but hopefully they can at least make themselves a realistic option when the electorate are voting next time around.