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The Triumphalism Of Corbyn's Conference

27/09/2017 17:43
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Jeremy Corbyn this week told the Labour Party conference in Brighton that his party was a "government in waiting". Of course he did. Just as with the snap election, Corbyn has no choice but to talk up Labour's chances. A room packed to the rafters with loyal acolytes is hardly going to protest at such assertions implying that the wind is in Labour's sails. The gathering of the faithful had the air of Neil Kinnock's doomed 'victory rally' of April 1992. The election which followed returned the largest ever number of votes cast for the Conservatives - over 14million.

After all, June's snap election showed little decline in the Conservative vote share - with the party netting its best ever share of the vote since the first Thatcher landslide in 1983. Labour of course took 40% of the vote for the first time since 2001, but it was May who returned to Downing Street to form a government, not Corbyn. To win a general election, Corbyn will need to not just coalesce the progressive vote, but take votes off the Tories. There were seldom very few examples of direct Conservative to Labour switching in June's general election - something imperative for Labour to take power.

Even the location of the conference - trendy Brighton (famous for paying host to alternative lifestyles, and Britain's only Green MP) is more of an echo chamber for left-wing activists than the country as a whole. It was in one of the city's three seats where Labour achieved its best English result - in Hove where Labour MP Peter Kyle increased his majority from 1,200 to 18,000 - clearly an area where Corbyn went down well. To bridge the gap between strident opposition leader, and Prime Minister, Corbyn's brand will have to reach out to voters who turned their backs on the party in 2010 and 2015, more often than not these people are to be found in non-metropolitan areas like Derbyshire or Nottinghamshire.

After all, it is these areas which went against the national tide in June. Labour lost the constituencies of Mansfield (Labour-held since 1923) and North East Derbyshire (a Labour area since before World War II). These areas typically voted over 60% in favor of leaving the European Union. The idea that only Corbyn can unite Leave and Remain voters is quite simply belied by the election result in Britain's most emphatically pro-Brexit regions. How else does one explain the result in Ashfield where Labour's majority fell from just short of 9,000 votes to just over 400. Look too at Tory surges in Bolsover (a veritable fortress for Dennis Skinner since 1970). Labour clearly has a long way to go before it wins over voters who voted UKIP in 2015 and Conservative in June.

One should hardly be shocked to see those who joined Labour for £3 with the express intent of voting for Corbyn for leader, and who have travelled to conference to see their messiah speak, chant "Oh Jeremy Corbyn" over and over. The conference may have rallied the faithful, especially in a city full of students and young voters (who overwhelmingly broke for Corbyn in the general election). The conference hall, and the city playing venue to it, could certainly be described as an "echo chamber", or at least, fertile ground for the left - and June's election result has cemented Corbyn's place within Labour and the left more broadly.

Poll leads of 2% or 3%, or even 4% are little to write home about after over 7 years in opposition. It's easy to get caught up by opinion polls that show you what you want to see. However, it wasn't so long ago that one Theresa May was enjoying leads of up to 25% in the polls, and a Conservative landslide seemed assured - the party then went on to lose a dozen seats when it had expected to lose none. At one point in 1995, Tony Blair could boast a 39% lead over John Major - the eventual margin of victory in 1997 was 11%. If a poll lead of 25% can be eroded to one of 3% in the space of 6 weeks, then it's utterly futile to assume that your party is on the road to government because it can claim the slenderest of advantages in the polls.

Neil Kinnock in 1992, David Cameron in 2010, and Ed Miliband in 2015, all seemed on the verge of historic election victories, only to fall short. It is simply too premature to make assertions about being a government in waiting, or to tell the Prime Minister to "Take another walking holiday and make another impetuous decision." It's entirely possible the Lib Dems or even UKIP could revive support under new leadership in a snap election, to assume that it would result in an almost automatic victory for Labour is a very dangerous thing indeed, if recent events are anything to go by.

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