Friday 14 February 2020 6:30 am

Labour looks destined to sit out the next 10 years in political wilderness

On Monday Lord Michael Ashcroft published a detailed and searingly honest critique of the Labour party’s failed 2019 election. Based on polling and focus groups of former Labour voters, he painted a picture of a party that had drifted so far away from the values and aspirations of ordinary people that its drubbing was inevitable.

In the focus groups, life-long Labour voters who abandoned the party in December last year spoke almost with one voice. They said the manifesto was a joke, that the party was hostile to business owners and that the give-aways and tax rises were just not credible.

On Tuesday, I asked one of the contenders for the Labour leadership, Emily Thornberry, whether she had read this new analysis. “Haven’t had time,” she said. We were guests on the BBC’s Politics Live, and I took the opportunity to give Thornberry an on-air run-down of Ashcroft’s findings.

She looked at me as if I’d just explained my weekend plans. On the matter of her party being too left-wing, she told me “it isn’t an issue of left or right,” which is akin to saying “it isn’t an issue of winning or losing.” 

Thornberry won’t win so perhaps her refusal to confront reality doesn’t matter, but front-runner Sir Keir Starmer should certainly be prepared to learn the lessons of defeat. Plenty of former Labour voters are crying out for a return to centre-left pragmatism.

One such voter was in the audience for a Labour leadership debate on the Victoria Derbyshire show yesterday. To large applause in the studio he lambasted Labour’s 2019 manifesto and the party’s self-indulgent slide into student politics. He then declared that he backed Starmer for the leadership on the grounds that he’d drag the party back towards the centre.

Starmer’s face was a picture. He looked just like a man who knew the chap in the audience made perfect sense but who had, hours earlier, publicly committed himself to Corbyn’s failed agenda of tax rises and sweeping nationalisations.

His main challenger Rebecca Long-Bailey is the true heir to Corbyn but in order to win the leadership race Starmer knows he has to win over the Labour membership which, according to polling, is the only demographic group in the country that thinks Corbyn did a good job.

The other explanation is that Starmer actually believes this stuff. Either way, it’s a pretty depressing state of affairs and anyone who thinks Starmer is going to emerge as a centrist Blairite is due a rude awakening.

As I suggested after the election, Corbyn may shuffle off to his allotment but his influence and hold over the Labour party is set to endure, whether through accident or design.

While it may be premature to say so, the job of the next leader is not to become Prime Minister (it would require an even bigger shock than last year’s election to achieve) but to return the Labour party to political respectability.

The only candidate who could do that, Lisa Nandy, is unlikely to win and so all of us, whether we support the traditional aims of the Labour party or not, are faced with the prospect of a once proud and successful institution remaining stubbornly outside the arena in which elections are won. Truly, Corbyn has inflicted more damage on this party than even I thought possible.

Finally, the City knows what it’s fighting about in Brexit talks

One of the downsides to Sajid Javid’s departure from the Treasury is that he appeared to be the first minister since the Brexit referendum who was prepared to consider seriously the future of the City’s relationship with EU markets. His article for this newspaper earlier this week prompted a direct response (riposte, even) from the EU’s chief negotiator Michele Barnier.

“Don’t kid yourselves,” was Barnier’s message. Despite the apparent finality of his statement, this terse exchange of views is actually a positive development. Under Theresa May and throughout the wrangling of Boris Johnson’s subsequent withdrawal agreement, the City didn’t get much of a look-in.

However, since the foundation of the UK’s negotiating position is now clear (we won’t accept EU rules), each side finally knows the terms of engagement. So, while Barnier says financial services will not form part of the negotiations, wise heads in London have been emboldened to make their own observations.

Incoming Bank of England governor Andrew Bailey, plus two of his deputies (Sir Jon Cunliffe and Sam Woods), made their own interventions this week. They said (in the best traditions of the Bank’s non-political character) that the EU would be crazy not to agree on terms that allowed EU firms continued access to the deepest and most dynamic financial centre on earth.

That these three are singing from the same hymn sheet and that they all spoke within days of each other is not a coincidence. The argument is now clear: the EU’s current system of equivalence (recognising the standards of a third-country’s market regulation) is nowhere near adequate for a relationship with London. This doesn’t make the coming rows any easier, but it helps that each side now understands the issue on the table.

Close ties

Barclays chief Jes Staley flies close to the wind. He was slammed (and fined) for trying to unearth the identity of a whistleblower at the bank and now his association with the deceased billionaire paedophile Jeffrey Epstein has come back to haunt him.

If the Barclays board wanted him out they have been presented with the perfect reason, but they’ve given him their full support. It’s not hard to see why. His strategy is paying off and results yesterday showed profit before tax climbing 25 per cent. The Epstein link is unsavoury but the figures are sweet.

Main image: Getty