Although it is early days to judge the success of the ‘new and improved’ Jeremy Corbyn, the week of his relaunch has provided a good litmus test. A failure to secure a position on immigration, coupled with a somewhat confusing new proposal for a maximum salary cap, produced a calamitous relaunch for Corbyn 2.0. To put the cherry on the top of the cake, Tristram Hunt MP for Leave-voting Stoke Central, resigned to undertake a role with the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
To start with the positives for Corbyn, he produced a confident performance at PMQs, grilling the Prime Minister over the alleged “humanitarian crisis” in the NHS. Granted, it was an open goal opportunity for the Labour Leader, after an unprecedented intervention by the red cross, but you still have to score open goals, which he duly did.
Corbyn’s “day of chaos” on Tuesday however put many question marks over Labour’s commitment to a coherent immigration policy. In his relaunch speech he stated “Labour is not wedded to freedom of movement for EU citizens as a point of principle, but I don’t want that to be misinterpreted, nor do we rule it out.” … Coming soon to an election mug near you.
The questions raised over immigration should have been the headline news, but weren’t. Corbyn’s proposal to impose a maximum salary cap on companies that are awarded public sector contracts dominated headlines from many news outlets. The day of the relaunch may have been music to the ears of Corbynistas, unfortunately for Corbyn these were not the people he needed to convince of his credentials. The doubts of leave voters and the business community about Corbyn, will undoubtedly continue to linger.
Corbyn had time to reflect over the Christmas break about the strategy going into the challenging, and likely to be closely contested, Copeland by-election. Any momentum Labour may have gained going into Copeland has been evaporated by Tristram Hunt’s decision to quit Parliament and thus invoking a by-election in Stoke Central. Both by-elections will provide the first true challenges of how well Corbyn resonates at the ballot box in Labour-held seats.
At the 2015 General Election, Labour finished 5,000 votes ahead of the Conservatives, and 5,000 votes ahead of UKIP in Stoke Central. Stoke however, voted to leave the European Union by 81,000 to 36,000 a rate of more than 2 to 1. Copeland also voted to leave the EU by 60% to 40%. Labour also have a much slimmer majority in Copeland with around 2,500 votes separating them from the Conservatives. With this being the case, it leaves UKIP or the Conservatives in a position of strength to challenge these seats comprehensively.
Expect both the Conservatives and UKIP to throw huge weight behind the Stoke Central and Copeland campaigns. Also expect somewhat of a Liberal Democrat resurgence, although this is unlikely to replicate the result of the Richmond Park by-election with a remain stance unlikely to reverberate with voters. Should Labour suffer a double loss in these by-elections, Jeremy Corbyn’s position as a credible and realistic Prime Minister-in-waiting, will look even more like a distant impossibility, hampering his plan to turn Labour’s fortunes around in 2017.