While Labour may be taking some initial comfort from the Conservative leadership hopefuls, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt, trying to outspend each other, there should be a realisation that the political ground is moving from underneath them. Since David Cameron and George Osborne started the drive towards austerity, Labour has had the spending agenda to itself. It could portray itself as the only ones looking to invest in the public sector, who could be trusted with health and education, and who look after communities.
But Johnson and Hunt are now edging back onto that territory but with the added benefit of being trusted to run the economy. That lack of trust both in terms of economic competency and in the leadership of the party makes it vulnerable to the Tory change in tack.
Through this prism, Labour’s failure to deal with anti-Semitism is not just about the impact on its victims, or the racism of its perpetrators, but also how it makes the leadership look to the wider electorate – weak and uncaring at best. As Mike Katz, National Chair of the Jewish Labour Movement wrote recently:
“For as long as the Party continues to trot out its worn words about zero tolerance but fails to take any real action – action against friends and allies – it will show how little the Party actually cares about fixing the problem.”
And then there is Brexit. Constructive ambiguity may have served well for a period but as the other parties offer clear positions – as do the Tory leadership contenders – Labour looks more isolated. This is increasingly an issue where nuance simply doesn’t wash. If you want Brexit, you can have the Brexit Party or the Conservatives; if you want remain then you can have the SNP, Lib Dems or Greens.
Whatever John McDonnell may say in public, the simple fact that he was talking openly of a change in Brexit policy that then didn’t arrive has undermined his position. It also shows that an obvious gap has opened in the leadership that did not exist before.
Labour’s worries about upsetting working class constituencies who voted Leave could well impact on their ability to attract voters in urban areas, particularly London. In Scotland, the electorate don’t look like returning to Labour any time soon and if London is risked as well then the chances of a Labour Government fades to almost zero.
It should also be remembered that Jeremy Corbyn is not universally appreciated by working class Labour voters. If you talk to them and those who represent them, there is some distrust of the London elite and of Corbyn’s views. His style of socialism is not always theirs.
To give McDonnell credit, he appears to appreciate that Labour is being squeezed on several fronts. By recently trying to grab hold of the climate change agenda, he obviously appreciates that the Conservatives are weak. But even here, the Green cut through will always be more and the Lib Dems too have long championed a more environmental approach.
When voting takes place, people are choosing a bundle of policies, some more highly prioritised than others, mixed with their impression of the party and its leaders, all wrapped up with a ribbon of tradition. That ribbon has become frayed as tradition has declined as a reason for voting leading to greater volatility.
Now that the other parties and the candidates are articulating clear positions on a range of issues, the electorate can have the bits of policy they want – spending on the public sector, tax cuts, Brexit, Remain – but without all the unnecessary unpleasantness that seems to come with Labour.
So far from Hunt and Johnson simply being opportunistic, anti-Semitism being a ‘side’ issue and the party having time to undertake more discussions over Brexit, it may not have the time. The squeeze is already on.