For the sake of our democracy, Labour needs to do something about the hole it’s in

Diane Abbott’s confidence that Labour could win an early election, if Theresa May should call one, is not widely shared – and that’s a problem

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Diane Abbott, the shadow Home Secretary, says in an interview with The Independent today that Labour is ready for an immediate general election and that she believes the party “can win”. Her spirit is admirable, but the objective basis of her belief is less evident. 

Also today, we report our exclusive ComRes opinion poll which, as it happens, asked people how they would vote “if there were a general election tomorrow”. Of course, a general election is not going to happen “tomorrow”. If the Prime Minister were to make a dash for it, in defiance of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, an election campaign would take at least three weeks. But our poll suggests that Ms Abbott is expecting something close to supernatural to happen in those few weeks. 

We found that 42 per cent of people intend to vote for the Conservatives, putting them 17 points ahead of Labour on 25 per cent. This is an unusual position for the main opposition party in the middle of a parliament, and not a convincing platform on which leading members of the alternative government can tell Theresa May to “bring it on”. 

Fortunately for Ms Abbott and her ally Jeremy Corbyn, the chances of Ms May going for an early election appear slim. It is hard to see how the Prime Minister would justify changing her mind about an election except by saying that she thinks she could win a large majority, and hence a powerful personal mandate, if she held one now. It would be an unnecessary distraction at the start of the Brexit negotiations. 

That does not mean, however, that the rest of us can regard the current state of British politics with equanimity. It is not good for the country and for the health of its democracy that the opposition is so weak. It means we have bad government. If Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, had faced a credible, confident and popular opposition, do we think that he would have thought he could have got away with breaking the manifesto promise not to raise National Insurance contributions in his Budget? We would be better governed if he had corrected his error before making the speech rather than a week later, leaving his Budget in pieces to be put together again at the second attempt in November. 

The Brexit talks, which are about to begin, would be more likely to produce a better outcome for the British people – and indeed for the peoples of the rest of the EU – if Ms May and her negotiators were to feel the hot breath on their shoulders of a hungry alternative government with the wind of public opinion in its sails. As it is, the Prime Minister is free to interpret her mandate from the EU referendum more or less as she pleases. When it comes to striking a balance between restricting immigration from the rest of the EU and maintaining free trade with the single market, we know which way she will lean, and there is no countervailing force from a strong opposition to dissuade her. 

That is why Ms Abbott should not be allowed to get away with trotting out the platitudes of party loyalty. Her support for Mr Corbyn is admirable but unconvincing. Hardly anyone believes her any more when she suggests that the reason Labour has not done well in the opinion polls is that it “spent the first 12 months of Jeremy’s leadership going from basically one leadership election to another”. Mr Corbyn’s opponents in the party have been subdued for six months now and public opinion is still moving away from Labour.

Everyone can see that Mr Corbyn’s lack of conventional leadership qualities is part of the problem for the opposition. Ms Abbott knows it, but cannot say it in public. Mr Corbyn himself knows it. He has a choice: to do the right thing for Labour, for our democracy and for the country; or others in the party will do it for him, and probably sooner than he thinks.

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