The recent report by the Fabian Society painted a bleak picture for Labour’s future. Not that anyone in the party or its supporters should have had an optimistic outlook anyway, as no real good news has come to the party in a long time. Poll numbers are way down, public tensions between Corbyn and his MPs continue, and the party continues to seem completely confused on the biggest possible topic in British politics – Brexit. Nothing looks good and the path forward doesn’t look like it’ll get any better anytime soon. As the Fabian Society report states, “For the time being Labour has no realistic chance of winning an election outright.” The question is – where can Labour go from here?
One major issue for Labour is the Scottish problem. The party’s collapse in Scotland has resulted in its loss of tens of seats to the SNP and there is no sign of Labour adding to its one single seat left there. The SNP remains very popular in Scotland as does Nicola Sturgeon. With its joint declaration with the Tories concerning the 2014 independence referendum, Labour lost the faith of many Scottish voters and for the time being there seems to be no way to regain this trust. As will be mentioned later, the fact that Scotland voted largely to remain in the EU further complicates Labour’s situation there.
With the SNP cemented as Scotland’s largest party, Labour has to focus on retaining its seats and gaining many more in England, a task that looks very unlikely with the current conditions. While the Tories and Lib Dems have taken advantage of attracting leavers and remainers respectively from the Brexit vote, Labour, with its lack of position on either side, is hemorrhaging voters. The Tories continue their rise in the polls and the Lib Dems are also talking of a comeback after a recent victory in a Richmond by-election.
Labour is essentially stuck in the middle. Its London supporters voted to remain and it wants the Scottish voters who also voted to remain. However, elsewhere, particularly in the northern Labour strongholds, many of its supporters voted to leave. Labour also wants to attract more voters in these areas to win more seats back from the Tories, meaning it will have to win over more leavers. The party has to stick in a strict middle ground or else it risks losing even more support either way. As support continues to decline amongst the public, Labour is in no position to risk alienating even more voters. It’s traditional coalition has started to become more diverse with London and other major urban cities on one side and the “rust belt” areas of northern England on the other. These groups of voters were already different enough but in the current climate of Brexit, the gulf is widened even further even though these voters are all under the same party.
Labour can keep criticising Theresa May on her strategy (or, more accurately, the lack thereof) on Brexit, but the fact remains Labour has no real alternative. Even if the party did come up with one, it would risk turning off a significant portion of its supporters. If it supported a hard Brexit, Londoners would be turned off as would any potential voters in Scotland. But if a soft Brexit, including continued access to the single market and EU freedom of movement, is to be supported, then many leavers in the north would punish the party for not doing anything about immigration. This conundrum surely played a part in the confusion over Jeremy Corbyn’s confusing day on January 10 where it was reported Labour would abandon hope of keeping the freedom of movement of people for the sake of the single market but ended up backtracking. The Lib Dems are able to cement their place, as they always have done, as the pro-Europe party and May has made it clear the Tories are now all for Brexit. Both parties are able to follow this strategy with a net gain of voters.
With little room to maneuver, Labour still could hope for an eventual coalition government. If the party can manage to stop its losses and the Lib Dems manage to gain voters and seats from the Tories, then it could be a possibility. These are big ifs and while the Lib Dems may have won a by-election in London, there’s little evidence at the moment that the party is about to win back all its seats in the Southwest. The elephant in the room is the SNP and if Labour could politically rely on the SNP to pass legislation in parliament. While the party might be able to manage with the Lib Dems on English legislation (English votes for English laws), for UK-wide legislation, the party could need the support of the SNP. While the SNP is very popular in Scotland, it is not in much of England and it remains to be seen how the English voters would perceive a Scottish nationalist party propping up Labour in parliament.
The options for Labour look limited. As an attempt to try and keep itself in the middle ground in terms of Brexit, some MPs recently suggested a two-tier system for immigration from the EU. While it’s just a proposal (and one that would surely be denied by the Europeans), it’s a symbol of the party’s trouble and inability to choose a side. The party must be hoping that May does not call for any snap election as it would certainly result in a surge of MPs for the Tories. But the question remains where can Labour go from here until 2020? The outlook looks dim and options limited, all the while the party is hardly masking its internal divisions over Corbyn’s leadership. Labour must make bold decisions that will go down well with the public to garner some support, and hope that events will roll out in its favor in the coming years as Theresa May starts negotiations with the EU. The party will need several election cycles to recover but it has to be hoping that this is already rock bottom.