It’s widely agreed, and also true, that the Labour party is in crisis in part because of bad leadership. What’s not sufficiently appreciated, however, is that the bad leadership is not just Corbyn’s. It’s also Cameron’s. Labour is paying the price of his failed policies.
I mean this in two related ways. One is that fiscal austerity contributed to stagnant living standards. And stagnation, as Ben Freidman has shown, breeds intolerance. This has contributed not only to harsher anti-immigration sentiment, but also to immigration becoming a more salient issue. And Labour is regarded as weak on this.
Secondly, it was Cameron who gave us Brexit, not least because his austerity policies increased support for the Leave cause. This has hurt Labour in three ways:
- It has created a perceived division within the party between its young, metropolitan outward-looking supporters on the one hand and more socially conservative working class Leavers on the other. Granted, this division is exaggerated: as John Curtice points out, most Labour supporters even in the party’s “heartland” voted Remain. But the sense of a divide is real.
- It has allowed May and the Tory right to claim to embody the “will of the people”. This has left Labour looking out of touch. And it’s created a dilemma of how the party can claim to be on the side of the people when it opposed a policy they favour.
- Brexit has diverted attention from policy areas where Labour might be stronger. Imagine it hadn’t happened. What would today’s big issues be? Chances are, they’d be the NHS and social care – issues on which voters better trust Labour.
Now, I don’t say all this to complain about an injustice. Westminster politics has little to do with fairness or meritocracy.
Nor do I say so to exculpate Corbyn: the fact that he's been dealt a bad hand doesn't justify him playing it badly.
Instead, I do so to point out that social affairs are complex and unpredictable. Even those of us who have long opposed austerity did not foresee that it would be Labour, more than the Tories, are paying the price of its ill-effects.
We tend to think that bad government policies will boost support for the opposition. It ain’t necessarily so.
Which brings me to my worry. Nick Cohen says that when voters realize that Brexit is a “godawful mess” they’ll turn against the “superliars” who are imposing it upon us. This might be too optimistic. Instead, I fear there’s a danger of a backfire effect which will see even greater hostility to immigrants and experts.
It’s not just truth that does not prevail in politics. Nor, often, does justice.