Andrew Vine: A red alert for Labour as core voters reject Jeremy Corbyn

Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn at a workers Memorial Day service in Grimsby, as Ken Livingstone was suspended by Labour for "bringing the party into disrepute" following an anti-Semitism row.
Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn at a workers Memorial Day service in Grimsby, as Ken Livingstone was suspended by Labour for "bringing the party into disrepute" following an anti-Semitism row.
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THERE is a photograph noticeably absent from Labour’s local election leaflets in my ward, and mention of it makes the party’s candidate give a tight, uncomfortable smile.

I know him well enough to pull his leg, and innocently asking “Where’s Jeremy Corbyn?” produces a pithy response which isn’t fit to repeat, but is indicative of his frustration.

He’s a long-serving Labour councillor, a thoroughly decent man of moderate views who works hard for his ward. And he’s worried, because the word on the doorsteps a few days out from Thursday’s local elections isn’t good.

People don’t like the Labour leader, at least not here, and having him in place is like dragging a ball-and-chain around for his foot soldiers.

He is undoubtedly a star in Islington, able to pack halls with like-minded acolytes and foster a come-the-revolution atmosphere that wouldn’t have been out of place at a 1970s student rally.

But his Islington might as well be on a different planet from the suburban streets of my corner of Leeds, with their blend of working-class and aspirational middle-class voters.

In common with wards just like it all over Yorkshire, nobody wants a revolution here. They want sensible, affordable left-of-centre policies from Labour. Ed Miliband was too strident for them, and Jeremy Corbyn is simply off the scale.

My ward has consistently returned three Labour councillors for the decade-and-a-half I’ve lived here, but there’s a doubt in the mind of at least one of them whether that will happen again this week.

Hence no photograph of the party leader, who the candidate habitually refers to privately as “a liability”, and a deliberate emphasis on Labour’s record locally.

It’s all very different from the heady days of the late 1990s, with Tony Blair riding the wave of his greatest popularity, and local candidates happily plastering pictures of him all over their pamphlets.

But Mr Corbyn is being treated like a guilty secret by his activists.

They’re busy trying to separate a vigorous and hitherto popular local party from its leader in London.

The trouble is that the pesky public won’t let them. For every question candidates get about nitty-gritty local issues like traffic jams or potholes, there is one about their biggest problem.

And that’s Jeremy Corbyn, his fitness to govern if ever elected, his patriotism, the company he has kept over the years including apologists for the IRA, the dark shadow of anti-Semitism that has befallen Labour on his watch.

What is making it even more difficult is the overwhelming majority of Labour members who catapulted him from 30 years of relative obscurity on the back benches into the leadership.

That is raising questions of candidates if they share his views. Even if they don’t, and their outlook is more in line with traditional mainstream Labour politics, the response is coming back that it stands to reason a good number of their fellow local party members must be Corbyn supporters.

All of which is leaving Labour activists braced for a caning at the hands of voters on Thursday. Analysis of the major parties’ popularity ratings last week suggested that Labour could have its worst local elections since 1982 when Michael Foot was leader, with the potential loss of up to 220 seats.

Given the failure of pollsters to predict the outcome of the general election, such a forecast needs to be treated with caution, but it hasn’t improved the mood of party members.

If true, though, it could mean the loss of a lot of good people with honourable records of service to their communities, like the candidate I know, swept away not by any failings on their own part, but by a leader out of step with voters.

The party only has itself to blame. The past year has seen it retreat into a comfort zone of archaic, discredited hard-left thinking and abandon a conversation with the electorate in favour of talking to itself. The peculiar anti-logic that persuaded members to believe that the best way forward after voters rejected Mr Miliband as Prime Minister because they considered him too left-wing was to elect somebody even farther to the left had to come home to roost at some point.

This Thursday could be when that starts to happen, and Labour’s current bubble is burst.

There has been no real electoral test of Mr Corbyn until now. A proportion of Labour members have convinced themselves that their enthusiasm for him is reflected amongst voters.

But the experience of candidates and activists on the ground simply does not support that and come Friday lunchtime, when most of the votes have been counted, there are likely to be many within Labour in for a very rude awakening.

The pity of that is the casualties will not be armchair revolutionaries in Islington, but conscientious councillors in tune with the hearts and minds of their communities, sacrificed to a political outlook alien to wards like mine.

The Leeds University Pen pal scheme at St Marks Gateway Church. PIC: Simon Hulme

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