Theresa May and her government are struggling to define Brexit, let alone enact it.
She faces opposition everywhere she turns. From her backbench – and, indeed, her Cabinet. From Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland. From the leaders of the other 27 members of the EU.
From everywhere except, that is, the opposition benches. It was sardonically observed in the Financial Times that the exchange rate was now the UK’s official opposition.
A fair point given the current state of Labour’s frontbench, which under Jeremy Corbyn – after his re-election as Leader – has never looked weaker.
Labour’s inability to be an opposition is not what has dragged it down to poorer opinion polls than even Michael Foot suffered – 16 points behind the Tories. That is a direct consequence of Corbyn.
Westminster voting intention:
CON: 42% (-)
LAB: 26% (-2)
UKIP: 12% (+1)
LDEM: 8% (+1)
GRN: 5% (+2)
(via YouGov / 19 – 20 Oct)
— Britain Elects (@britainelects) October 21, 2016
But if Labour is ever to recover as a political force then it will require politics, personalities, ideas, “edge” – the full range of what a successful opposition shows.
The good news is that, despite all the damage Corbyn has done, Labour still has the elements of success in place. Here are some figures to watch – and why.
First is Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London. His election victory was a study in strategy – stick to the issues, hold to the message (is there anyone in London who does not know he is the son of a bus driver?), get out the vote.
His speech to Labour conference was pointed – the phrase “Labour in power” ran through it like the word Blackpool through a stick of rock.
— Sky News (@SkyNews) September 27, 2016
He was labouring the point to a purpose – he has both power and patronage in City Hall.
He has tasks to do – in housing, policing and transport – but he has the opportunity to do them because he was elected, and his actions, if successful, will set a standard for the country – just as London government always has.
But in a global era the example can cast a longer shadow – and Khan’s recent trip to north America when he visited New York’s Bill de Blasio, and appeared on a platform with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, showed that Sadiq can stride the world stage.
He is, to adapt the Jacobite phrase the “Leader over the water” – literally and metaphorically.
Second is Yvette Cooper. It is rarely observed quite how strong the current crop of women Labour MPs actually is – Jeremy Corbyn’s mistreatment of talented women in his incompetent reshuffles has overshadowed that.
But Lisa Nandy, Liz Kendall, Emma Reynolds, Rachel Reeves, to name but a few, are more than a match for the current Tory Cabinet.
Above them all rises Yvette Cooper – the woman who, in retrospect, should have stood alone against Corbyn in 2015, and would have beaten him.
Yvette has the benefit of having been a Cabinet minister – that experience shows in all her performances on-screen and in the chamber.
But the respect she has in the Commons – shown in her election as Chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee – was been earned on the opposition benches.
She was the first to spot that in the midst of the tabloid anger about the “jungle” in Calais there was widespread public compassion for the child refugees.
By championing the cause of those children she changed government policy – a thing few Labour MPs can claim. Expect her to use her new position as Select Committee Chair to show that intelligent, thoughtful, critical opposition can effect change.
Spoke last night about dangerous, squalid Calais camp & why France & UK shd work together urgently to get all the children & teenagers out https://t.co/xLRNwk2Wwl
— Yvette Cooper (@YvetteCooperMP) October 21, 2016
Third, there are the men. It is not through disdain that I lump them together – simply that so many are as yet untested.
Chuka Umunna looks the part, as does Dan Jarvis. Pat McFadden is ferociously effective on Europe and foreign affairs. But they all lack experience in government.
The difference that makes is shown not just by Yvette Cooper but also by Hilary Benn, whose speech on Syria electrified the Commons.
It was a great speech but its impact was enhanced by contrast with woeful performances of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell at the dispatch box.
A bit of flash and swagger is an essential element of politics, and that has returned to Labour’s front bench with the appointment of Sir Keir Starmer as Shadow Brexit Secretary.
It is not hard to outperform David Davis in the Commons, which Starmer did with his best forensic analysis.
What made Labour hearts beat faster was waking up to hear Keir’s 170 questions on Brexit leading the news.
This was the first time for years that Labour had been the top item on the news for a good rather than a damaging reasons.
— Kevin Rye (@kevinrye) October 13, 2016
Brexit is the defining issue of our times, and for good or ill it will define our politicians too. Starmer has made a great start.
Fourth, and finally, the old slogan of Labour’s Organisation Department was “the victory of ideals must be organised”.
That highlights the two key tasks that face moderate Labour politicians. Out-organising the ultra-left and out-thinking the right. Key to this is backbench MP Alison McGovern, Chair of Progress – the think tank and “do tank”. Often misleadingly described as a Blairite – because of the history of Progress as a New Labour ginger group – she is better described as a Brownite, since she was PPS to Gordon Brown.
Gordon Brown’s influence on her can be seen in the way that she roots policy analysis in economics. From childcare to housing to regeneration, McGovern searches relentlessly for the right economic basis for policy – knowing, as she does, that wealth creation underpins opportunity. Good policy is good politics – look to Progress under McGovern’s leadership to restore an intellectual spine to mainstream Labour.
None of this is to deny the scale of the challenges facing Labour at the moment – they may yet prove mortal.
But British politics is in flux at the moment. These are all Labour figures to watch if Labour is to figure in the future.