Party conference is the opportunity for Labour to pick a side and stick to it
The current situation in the Conservative Party should have been a gift to Labour: opposing a party in power but with no majority that is riven by infighting; two leaders in a row who have struggled to get their policies backed by their own party, never mind the rest of the House of Commons; a complete mess over delivery of Brexit.
Labour could have been romping home to victory in any forthcoming general election. Instead, it is languishing at some of the lowest levels in the polls it has had in the last century.
At a UK level, Labour has gone from taking 40 per cent of the vote at the 2017 general election and polling above the Conservatives throughout the rest of 2017 with a vote share in the 40s, even up to 45 per cent or 46 per cent, down to high 20s or low 30s ahead of the European Parliament election in June – still above the Conservatives.
But since the election, the party has fallen behind the Tories, sitting with a vote share in the mid-20s – 25 per cent in a recent opinion poll by Opinium.
And news for the party has been even worse in Scotland, where its vote share now has dropped into the teens, with the last four opinion polls putting it on 17 per cent, 19 per cent, 17 per cent and 15 per cent support.
For the party that used to dominate the country, it is a turnup for the books that it not only has been beaten to second place by the Conservatives, but now also has the Lib Dems hot on its heels, with the possibility that it might even drop into fourth place if the current trajectory continues.
At the European Parliament elections in June, Labour lost 10 of its 20 seats, including both its Scottish MEPs, with vote share down from 24.4 per cent in 2014 to 13.6 per cent in 2019.
In Scotland, its vote share was even lower: 9.3 per cent, putting it in fifth place, behind the SNP, Brexit Party, Lib Dems and Conservatives.
And recent polls suggest the party may lose all but one of its Scottish MPs in a general election, with only Ian Murray predicted to keep his seat in Edinburgh South, reversing the gains of 2017.
Following the European election, a joint statement from Labour MPs Ian Murray and Martin Whitfield spoke of a “deeply upsetting campaign” and a “deep sense of loss” that the UK’s longest-running MEP, David Martin, had lost his seat, putting the blame for “by far the worst results in Scottish Labour’s long and proud history” firmly at the feet of the party leadership.
While the Conservatives have been riven by deceit and disloyalty, Labour’s predicament has been confusing with mixed messages and contradictions that have left it floundering when it could have been winning.
The party has pursued a Brexit policy that has been dubbed ‘constructive ambiguity’, attempting not to alienate either remain or leave voters by coming down clearly on either side.
Labour’s initial position was to honour the result of the 2016 referendum and pursue a soft Brexit, staying in a customs union and maintaining close alignment to the single market, with a number of criteria to be met for an acceptable deal, but with its first priority being a general election.
But the position became more and more confused as the idea of a ‘people’s vote’, or confirmatory second referendum, began to gain ground.
Party members at the UK party conference in September 2018 overwhelmingly backed a motion saying Labour “must support all options remaining on the table, including campaigning for a public vote” if they could not get a general election.
In June 2019, following a thrashing at the polls in the European elections, the Scottish Labour executive announced that its policy was now to hold a confirmatory vote on any Brexit deal with remain as an option on the ballot paper – and it would campaign to remain.
Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard said: “Scottish Labour will wholeheartedly campaign for a remain victory in such a vote.
“Only Scottish Labour is building a radical platform for investment in people and communities, our industries and our public services.”
But at the same time, Jeremy Corbyn was saying that they were not at that stage yet and “it would be much better if there was actually a general election”.
It wasn’t until July 2019 that the Labour leader confirmed the party would “make the case” for another referendum and would campaign to remain in the EU.
But even this did not put an end to it, with its position widely derided after shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry was forced to confirm on Question Time that even if Labour negotiated a deal, she would campaign for remain against the party’s own deal.
She said: “Personally, I will campaign to remain. I will negotiate, to the best of my ability, a deal that will look after jobs and the economy, but the best way to look after jobs and the economy is for us to remain.”
In trying to do the right thing, the party has been left with Schrödinger’s Brexit policy, simultaneously supporting leave and remain and pleasing no one.
And similar confusion has taken place over a second independence referendum.
Speaking at an event in the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in August, shadow chancellor John McDonnell said the party “would not block” a second independence referendum and they “would let the Scottish people decide”.
This was a position previously expressed by Corbyn, but different to the position held by Scottish Labour.
The Scottish Parliamentary Labour Party (SPLP) responded with an angry rebuttal, saying: “The SPLP support the stance taken by Richard Leonard as our leader and back the policy position that he outlined [to oppose indyref 2].
“We deplore any attempts to undermine the official policy position of the Scottish Labour Party and we express serious concerns about an apparent change in Labour’s position on a matter of vital importance to the future of Scotland and of the Scottish Labour Party itself.”
These contradictions around the party’s position on major issues is clearly damaging, and as the party goes into this year’s party conference, split views remain.
But of 90 motions sent in by local party branches about EU policy, 81 urge Corbyn to support remain in a second referendum with some members, supported by prominent frontbenchers such as Keir Starmer and Diane Abbott, wanting to go further and make it official policy to support staying in.
With the country divided, and with the Tories and now the Lib Dems pushing respectively for the extremes of no deal and revoke, party conference may yet prove Labour’s opportunity to pick a side and stick with it.