Does Labour have to wait out Brexit?

Despite a recent rise in the poll numbers, Labour still looks set to be heading into an electoral defeat. Theresa May has called for an early general election on 8 June, betting that she would maintain a large lead against Labour and that she is much more popular than Jeremy Corbyn. May should capitalise on the current lead in the polls and increase her rather tiny majority to a much more comfortable one. Polls have shown more people, even Labour voters, think Theresa May, or even ‘other’ would be a better Prime Minister than Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. The latter has refused to stand down (including after the election) and even supported May’s call for early elections despite the fact that the party is almost guaranteed to lose seats. As the election approaches, and with Labour still trailing in the polls, the question of what to do with the Labour party must still be asked.

The UK political scene continues to be dominated by the biggest political event in recent memory – Brexit. Since the referendum and the change of PM, Labour has more or less hemorrhaged votes and has tried and failed to find some sort of middle ground between ‘Leavers’ and ‘Remainers’. It’s easy to criticise party leadership over this fact, however the party’s support base is split between Remain voters in large urban areas, especially Greater London where the party has made significant gains in the past decade, and Northern England, which mostly voted to leave the EU, often with wide margins. With the loss of its Scottish seats (and no sign of them returning), Labour cannot afford to lose another part of its support base or else it it becomes completely irrelevant. The party has tried to find some kind of middle ground between its two largely opposing (at least on Brexit) groups of supporters by backing Brexit but pledging to hold the government ‘accountable’. This is set to get extremely difficult if the Tories are to get the larger majority that is predicted.

In this conundrum, is there anything Labour can do besides wait out Brexit? With the early election, the party’s next chance for a comeback might not be until 2022. The different scenarios of what could happen between now and then are endless and it is futile to try and make a prediction, but perhaps it is in the longer-term best interests of the Labour party if Brexit can be concluded quickly so the party can try and get a winning strategy to seriously challenge the government in elections. The party might be better off in an election that focuses on domestic politics as many of the party’s standpoints are popular with the public. Many blame Corbyn for the party’s woes and while Corbyn has certainly had enough time to try and save Labour’s reputation and standing in the polls, any Labour leader would have the same problem with the biggest issue facing the country.

The party is being attacked on all sides. Many of its Leave voters are tempted to go Tory after the collapse of UKIP, meanwhile the Lib Dems are now the only major party in England that are full-blown Remainers. The Tories pose a significant threat to Labour in its former strongholds of Northern England and in the Midlands. There was even some talk of a Tory wave in Wales, where Labour has not lost an election for nearly 100 years. This has since died down as the polls have tightened, but the fact is that the Tories are pushing into areas once thought to be completely safe for Labour. Meanwhile the Lib Dems are a challenge in younger and urban areas, particularly places with a high student population (Cambridge is one of the Lib Dem’s top targets).

The Labour party platform was generally well received, even though it appears to spend much more than it would save. Its policies such as the re-nationalisation of the railways and the axing of tuition fees are popular with the public. The Conservatives manifesto experienced its fair share of issues and has been criticised for being light on details and actual policy. In fact Theresa May is being accused of running the party herself with a tight-knit close circle, ignoring the advice of the party or MPs, particularly in drafting the manifesto. May might also be betting that she is more popular than the party and thus doesn’t need many details, or to even attend a debate.

All this to say that when Brexit is taken out of the equation, Labour starts to finally look like an actual challenge to the Tories in England and Wales (it can still forget about Scotland). Its proposed policies are popular, Jeremy Corbyn has finally started to reduce the gap between his own and May’s popularity, and the party appears to be more unified than the past few years.

Perhaps once Brexit has finally finished (nobody knows how long this could take), the Labour party can once again focus on policies that both groups of its supporters can get behind. The party has no other option but to try and keep these two groups and bring in other English voters that are in the centre of the political spectrum. The party has very little room to maneuver as it has been relegated to near irrelevance in Scotland thanks to the rise of Ruth Davidson and the Scottish Tories as the opposition in Holyrood. With the release of its manifesto and an increase in popularity of Jeremy Corbyn, albeit from a low base, Labour can see a light at the end of the tunnel, but that light might not be reached until Brexit is dealt with.

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