Sunday, 2 November 2014

Is Labour in danger of a catastrophic meltdown in May?

It's been a grim couple of weeks for the UK Labour Party. It's begun to dawn on its members that their scores are actually deflating at quite a pace in the opinion polls, that their leader is now perhaps fatally politically damaged, and that some of the fiefdoms they've come to think of as 'theirs' for many decades are under mighty assault.

They're not helped by an apparent crisis of leadership. Their leader, Ed Miliband (above), now has approval ratings even lower than Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg - an almost impossible feat that Mr Miliband has somehow managed via a mix of dreadful, embarrassing non-photo-opportunities, a really, really poor conference speech and a tin ear for some of the more radical ideas coming out of his own policy review. The last few days have just been awful for Labour's leader. His apparent ill-at-easeness while giving money to a beggar, and his donning of a Fawcett Society t-shirt that seems to have been made by women working in the worst type of sweatshop, are just the latest in a long run of media disasters that have left the public just saying: 'you're not up to being Prime Minister'. That seems more than a little unfair, given Mr Miliband's intellectual abilities and episodic bravery - not least in taking on the press over 'phone hacking. But you know what? Life isn't fair.

For a long time Labourites thought that defecting left-of-centre Liberal Democrats meant that they just had to move forward in the next General Election - except that, on closer inspection, we now see more clearly that some Liberal Democrat voters have throughout this Parliament been peeling off to the Conservatives, the increasingly-formidable Green Party, and even (in quite large numbers) to the right-wing United Kingdom Independence Party, a new and surer receptable for some angry 'anti-politics' votes than a party of (coalition) govenrment could ever be.

Nerves are jangling even inside Labour's 'core' fortresses. The recent Heywood and Middleton by-election saw how close Ukip could run Labour where there are lots of disillusioned white working-class voters fed up with being taken for granted. Though Ukip might not take more than two or three seats directly off Ed Miliband's party, that might not matter were they to deprive Labour of lots of swing voters - ex-Liberal Democrats, previous non-voters, 'soft' Labourites - in English marginals.

In Scotland, Labour is facing a life-or-death struggle against a Scottish National Party that seems poised to seize many of their seats in May. If the SNP really can win a majority of the votes and seats in a Westminster contest, then they might be in a position to hold the balance of power in London and insist on another referendum. It's just possible (though still perhaps less than likely) that they might then win that contest, perhaps their last chance to do so before Scotland's oil begins to run out for good: a nightmare that Mr Miliband, so recently on the winning side in September's independence referendum, must have thought had gone away. Here the Labour leader must rely on Jim Murphy, so recently a bitter enemy at Westminster, to ride to his rescue as the party's new leader north of the border: insightful, tough, confident, experienced and above all a political street fighter, only Mr Murphy can mix it in the inevitable punch-up with an increasingly-confident Nationalist leadership. If he loses the present leadership contest, Labour will finally have taken leave of its political senses, and (although recent doomsday scenarios are unlikely) it may well end up with no more than (say) 25 Scottish MPs. Losing 16 seats in your own heartlands - and remember that Labour won 41 back in 2010 - is not a good start to any election night. To say the least.

Put it all together, and there is no doubt: though this is not the most likely outcome next May, there is some danger that Labour will be shoved backwards, and quite a way too - perhaps pushing the party closer to 220 or 230 seats than the 258 they hold now. It will then be facing an existential struggle for survival, against both Ukip in the north of England and the SNP in Scotland. After so many years leading in the opinion polls, and so many months believing that they could somehow stagger over the winning line without ever really enthusing the whole country, that would be a bitter psychological blow. Like the Liberals in the 1920s, the party may struggle to recover.

As we say: this is not the most probable scenario. But it is now something that could happen, and it's a sobering thought that shows just how quickly politics can change.