Copeland was a disaster, Stoke an apocalypse too narrowly averted for comfort. Both byelections pose existential questions for a Labour leader whose name was offered on doorsteps as reason for not voting Labour. But Jeremy Corbyn wasn’t here today to talk about holding himself accountable for failure, he was here to talk about holding the Tories accountable for Brexit. He has his script, and he’s sticking to it. Boy, is he sticking to it.
There was a brief, grudging allusion to the byelections; voters, he explained, were angry because they felt “let down by the establishment”. Yup, that’ll be why they voted for the governing party in Copeland: rage against the establishment. But then, having gingerly tiptoed towards the elephant in the room, he ran away from it into the warm embrace of a speech about something else.
There was nothing objectionable in what he said about how Labour could help Britain carry on playing a proactive role in Europe, although some may feel the day after shedding votes in two heavily leave areas wasn’t the obvious time for a speech appealing to terrified remainers, and which barely mentioned immigration. Corbyn is right that Brexit is too important to be left to the zealots; he was right that we deserve a wider and more expert debate in which everyone gets a say. He is right, too, that the threat to turn Britain into a low-tax, deregulated sweatshop would be disastrous for public services, and right to be sceptical of Theresa May looking to Donald Trump for help.
But the great unanswered question was what his floundering, failing opposition party is going to do about it. You don’t put the fear of God into a government that doesn’t listen by losing byelections to it. You don’t show voters that you get the message, that you can change, by delivering a speech full of exactly the same things you were saying before. Jeremy Corbyn is right: some Brexiteers are out of control, behaving as if they can do what the hell they like. But the awful truth is they’re right. They can do what the hell they like – for as long as Labour proves itself as incapable as this of stopping them.
While Brexit divided the country, fairly evenly, on crude and final terms, our electoral map is more complex and enduring. Those who pretend navigating that dislocation in a principled and effective manner isn’t fraught with challenges are simply not being honest about the situation. Similarly, those who think the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has risen to those challenges are not being honest with themselves.
Central to Corbyn’s appeal among Labour members was his ability to speak in unvarnished, moral terms about the party’s fundamental purpose, and thereby reframe its messaging around a clear, focused and energised opposition to austerity. On both counts he is now failing on his own terms.
On Brexit he has failed to provide a clear, strategic alternative to the current government line. He says he is against it. But he has thus far ordered his MPs to vote for every part of it, and has yet to spell out how he can make his opposition count. Today’s speech didn’t remedy that. On austerity his message is not only not being heard; beyond platitudes it is barely being made. It is great to see that Labour membership has been growing, but if that cannot be converted either into electoral success or to provide the basis for a more sustained movement then what use is it?
For those who never agreed with the terms on which he was elected there is, of course, considerable schadenfreude. But while they have always seen Corbyn as the problem, their solution extends no further than getting rid of him. They understand this not as a moment of historic crisis for social democracy across the western world but the flaws of one man in one party in one country.
It could have been worse. We could have woken this morning to news that Paul Nuttall was the MP for Stoke and Ukip was an ascendant electoral force. Given what is happening elsewhere in the world we should be relieved that we have, thus far, escape that calamity.
But the fact that the most catastrophic scenario has not taken place does not mean that a more enduring catastrophe is not unfolding. One of the reasons Ukip has done so badly is because when you have a government as anti-European and craven to bigotry as this one, they are no longer as necessary. The Ukip emperor has no clothes in no small part because the Tories have stolen them.
A government this shambolic, divided, clueless and heartless should not be winning byelections. And a Labour party devoted to anti-austerity, internationalism and anti-racism should not be losing them.
Corbyn supporters should not be putting lipstick on this pig.
The world’s press was crammed into the Stoke-on-Trent count. Imagine if Ukip had won: the story would have sent another shudder across the western world, fearing a rightward sweep in French, Dutch and German elections, in the shadow of Poland and Hungry’s authoritarian turn. A Ukip victory would have boosted Marine Le Pen and every other neofascist movement.
Seeing them off was the vital event of the night, killed stone dead on their most fertile turf. Paul Nuttall, the fantasist who was not to be a PhD, professional footballer, Stoke resident or bereaved at Hillsborough, is the epitome of Ukip chancers who try their hand at scum politics, stirring hate for the hell of it. They will fade in a faint hiss of sulphur, as did the National Front and BNP – because in this Conservative era, Theresa May has stolen all their clothes, making immigration her flagship priority. She can take unpleasant pride at pollsters finding Ukip voters now defecting to her, which saved the Stoke result.
Labour losing Copeland, a rare feat for an opposition party, is no real shock. With the party at a phenomenal 18 points behind, the relief is that they just held Stoke, and you have to pinch yourself at that thought. Stoke, for God’s sake!
The true disaster of Copeland is that here, where NHS cuts and closures are forcing angry rural voters to travel miles, Labour lost its ace card. Extraordinary that pollsters now find the Tories most trusted on the NHS, even as May lets it fall apart, with trolleys packing hospital corridors and ambulances stacked outside A&E. If not to be the best on the NHS and degraded public services, then what is Labour for?
No one was holding their breath for Corbyn to resign: he was never in politics to win anything. Could the problem be him, he was asked. No, he said. The blame, says his dwindled coterie, lies with anyone who points out what a calamity he is. If only a united party sang his praises, he’d soar in the polls.
His response today was to change the conversation, attempting to reclaim territory he has shockingly abandoned on Brexit – far too late, too unconvincing, to beckon the 48% to his banner. He was still arguing “another Europe is possible”, when he has failed so miserably to rally support for the actual existing Europe under an onslaught from the right everywhere.
“Have you looked in the mirror and asked yourself if the problem is you?” Without hesitation, Jeremy Corbyn lunged at the microphone with a clear, one-word response: “No.” He answered with a sort of “have some of that” tone. And a slight feeling of satisfaction ghosted across his face at being able to give so emphatic a retort.
But I just imagined everyone in the room thinking to themselves, “Huh? Really? Not once?” Many of the world’s great philosophers regard self-critical vigilance as the source of wisdom and self-knowledge. And it would be a very odd person, having lost a byelection like Copeland, not to ask themselves if they were part of the problem – especially as so many on the doorstep apparently raised the issue of his leadership time and again. But Corbyn doesn’t do emotionally layered or existentially complex.
He began his speech with a typically charismatic reference to his father’s work on electrical semiconductors, and proceeded to work through a speech that had me staring out of the window and noting what a lovely day it was, and how much I wished to be outside. And worst of all, he had a pop at “fake patriotic posturing” when he should have been persuading people that he understands the need for communal solidarity. The new MP for Stoke got it in the neck from a few southern progressives for putting the St George’s flag on his election literature. But that was exactly how he defeated Ukip – by making ordinary people feel he was on their side.
But Corbyn can’t go yet. The transformation of the party is incomplete. The very worst scenario is that his going would be an opportunity for the Blairites to return. So we will have to put up with this for a while longer. Until a leader emerges who may not even be in the Commons right now. These are the wilderness years for Labour. And they need to be endured. To coin a phrase: there is no alternative.