I’ve heard senior Labour politicians insist that nothing went wrong. What, the humiliation of Labour in the Copeland by-election and the narrow win in Stoke Central?
In Copeland, a Conservative winner snatched the popular vote against a Labour candidate who campaigned on a pro-NHS ticket to save the local maternity hospital. And still, nothing went wrong?
And this Conservative winner said she wanted to represent “ordinary working people”. I despair, I really do. Copeland last had a non-Labour MP in the 1930s. Victory for Trudy Harrison represents the first time a governing party has gained a seat in a Parliamentary by-election since 1982 – at the height of the Falklands conflict.
If these facts do not constitute a damning indictment of Jeremy Corbyn’s approach, I don’t know what does.
The constant refrain of “loyalty” we hear from Corbyn’s camp irks me the most. If the Labour Party wants to regain some semblance of credibility, it has to sit down and consider what this word truly means. And be brutally honest with itself.
Here’s the crux. Senior figures close to Corbyn are either in denial or just plain deluded. Shortly after the results, shadow chancellor John McDonnell had the temerity to say “there will always be a few people who won’t accept Jeremy Corbyn as our leader”.
“A few people”? Does he really regard a swing of more than eight per cent towards the Conservatives in Copeland as just “a few people”?
However you spin it, thousands of voters decided not to support Corbyn’s candidate in Cumbria. That’s not “a few” by any means. And their numbers are given extra significance; if this result was to set off a domino effect across the North of England, Labour would be decimated – “or worse”, as an excitable TV news reporter put it.
It is also insulting of Labour’s high command to speak so disparagingly of those who switched allegiance. I know from personal experience how hard it is to even consider voting against your tribal instincts. These are not decisions which come easily to most people.
And let’s not forget that the choice to elect Trudy Harrison, council worker and mother-of-four, is as much a reflection on Theresa’s May’s government as it is a barometer of Corbyn’s Opposition. Labour loyalists scoff at the Prime Minister’s performance to date, but they can’t deny she must be doing something right to persuade an eight per cent-plus swing in a previously secure Labour seat.
Time for some hard truths then. What we have here is evidence of a terrible disconnect between London and the regions, and disbelief from party top brass that Labour people might not be – that word again - “loyal”.
Too often, politicians mix up the party stance with the concerns of millions of voters. This needs some serious thought.
Corbyn talks of this political establishment letting down voters in both Copeland and Stoke. Is he talking about himself? He should be. Loyalty and trust should interconnect. What has yet to be publically accepted is that without the trust of core supporters, there would be no party to lead.
I’ve not heard one comment from a Corbynista which shows that they really understand this. Granted, the nuclear issue has been mentioned as a specific point in Copeland; Sellafield and the submarine shipyard at Barrow-in-Furness are massive local employers. And of course, we have Brexit rumbling away. However, I would contend that whilst these issues are important, there are more fundamental fissures opening wide.
In an attempt to bridge this, Corbyn talks of the problems we face “as a country”. We need no reminder of this. What he should first be concentrating on are the problems he personally faces.
Who is he really loyal to? Himself, his party or the people of Britain? He now says he wants to hear voices from across the country, from the shop-floor upwards. A nice doff of the cap to the trade unions.
However, this kind invitation clearly does not extend to once-towering Labour figures such as Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson, whose interventions before the by-elections were not welcomed by the leadership. It’s a weak party that can’t take criticism from its elder statesmen. To be a serious force when the whole country eventually goes to the polls, it’s going to have to be a lot tougher than that.
Corbyn insists he wants to bring people together. If he truly believes that, he has to listen to all the people, all of the time. He also has to lead the debate on loyalty. And then he has to prove to the British electorate that he has their interests at heart and not his own. Until he does so, his leadership will continue to preside over yet more division, distrust and potential devastation.