You can only play with fire for so long before being burned
Labour is rather fortunate. Rather than looking on at a mere disaster, its members and supporters could have been witness to the electorate having smote the ruin of a once-great party unto the dust.
Despite Boris Johnson having led the Tories to their highest vote share since 1979 – and their sixth successive increase in share, the last three in government – there was surely the potential to have polled even more strongly had the Tory leader had the confidence and ability to face media and public scrutiny. Margaret Thatcher would not have ducked an Andrew Neil interview, never mind hidden in a fridge. Perhaps for Boris, those manoeuvres were the right tactical choices but sceptical voters can’t have been impressed.
But the Tories can only ever be rivals to the Labour Party; existential threats must come from the left-of-centre. Outside of Scotland and Wales, that means primarily the Lib Dems. Over the course of the election campaign, the Lib Dems lost more than a third of their support, mostly to Labour. The last five polls before the vote for the early election all put the Lib Dems in the 18-20% range and Labour between 21-26%. Had that campaign-period swing not taken place then not only would Labour’s losses would have been far, far worse but the Lib Dems would themselves have made solid gains – and that swing was not guaranteed.
In the event, Labour ran a sufficiently dynamic campaign, while avoiding public infighting, to be able to claim the mantle of being best-placed to oppose the Tories and Brexit. They also ended up being the more moderate Remain option, despite the logical difficulties of their policy and Corbyn’s own position. The Lib Dems would have been better, in retrospect, to have maintained their Second Referendum policy, putting – and backing – Remain against Johnson’s deal. But without a stronger, more heavyweight leader, the Lib Dems would probably have suffered whatever their policies.
What the election did show was just how weak the bonds between voters and their party now are, outside a few ultra-safe areas, and how rapidly they’ve dissolved. This problem isn’t unique to Labour of course – the Tories’ EP election result shows a similar breakdown on the right – but it was they who suffered the worse this time. And the Tory Party in 2019 once again showed its willingness and ability to dump a failing leader; Labour demonstrated their inclination to protect theirs.
Where does this leave Labour going into the next parliament? Well, on the one hand, it has a field of opportunity. Johnson’s ratings took a hit during the campaign but he was given the votes both to complete a task and to keep Corbyn out. Both tasks are likely to be complete within a year at most. Unless Labour elects a similarly extreme and incapable leader (which given the membership and current Labour front bench has to be a possibility), he will not find votes so easy to come by in 2024 – if indeed he is still Tory leader by then.
Indeed, the Tories, having undermined their own voting coalition of generations in order to build a new one round the transient issue of Brexit will find their own base decidedly wobbly unless they can firm up Brexit into a wider values-based alliance.
However, oppositions will only be given so long to challenge a government, especially one that hits trouble. The 2017-19 parliament showed the strains within Labour but memories of the 2017 election must have stayed some hands that now wish they’d acted. If Labour does elect a new leader in the old one’s image, they will be playing with fire.