It has not been a good start to the year for the Labour party. It has lost two MPs: Jamie Reed from the Cumbrian seat of Copeland and now Tristram Hunt from Stoke. Jeremy Corbyn, the opposition leader, could not seem to care less. But he may soon be made to.
On the face of it, both resignations are personal rather than political. Mr Reed has a young family and wants to see more of them; his constituency is large and relatively remote, which means he spends a lot of time travelling to and from Westminster. As for Mr Hunt, he is a distinguished academic and historian. The directorship of London’s V&A museum came up and there is no better berth for such a proud and talented follower of John Ruskin, the art critic. Such a job is available once in a generation and, as Paul Keating, the former Australian prime minister, is said to have advised parliamentary hopefuls: “When the train comes into the station you had better get on it.”
And yet these resignations tell a profound truth about the Labour party: there is no future for talent under Mr Corbyn’s leadership. Mr Hunt chose not to be Eric Varley. Who, you ask? Mr Varley was a talented cabinet member in the 1970s — back when the UK regularly had Labour governments. He was once tipped as a Labour leader but is little remembered because he spent the best years of his political and professional life in the long years of opposition following the election of Margaret Thatcher. Other talented figures, such as Margaret Beckett, John Morris and George Foulkes, held on and became excellent ministers during Tony Blair’s premiership. But they were the exception, not the rule. Messrs Reed and Hunt have seen this movie already and they are rewriting the third act for themselves.
Is it the beginning of something? Almost certainly. It does not take a genius to predict a catastrophe at the next general election for Labour — though, conversely and perversely, it does take the exact opposite to believe that there is any hope of a Labour recovery under its current leadership.
The celebration of Mr Corbyn’s supporters about these resignations is revealing. The left in the Labour party has always been clear over who is their most hated enemy: moderates. For all their outrage, they do not care about Nigel Farage of the UK Independence party or Donald Trump any more than Mrs Thatcher horrified them. For Labour’s left, the Conservative party has always been the opposition, but the enemy has been moderate Labour MPs. Why? Because they can win elections and that is the greatest betrayal — a Labour government can run capitalism in the interest of the many, not the few. And that gives the lie to the fantasies of socialism.
So on Friday Mr Corbyn and his supporters were celebrating. If he had been honest, instead of an insultingly cursory 32-word statement on Mr Hunt’s appointment to the V&A, Mr Corbyn would have simply have tweeted a thumbs-up emoji. The celebration is not just self-indulgent but also premature.
Traditionally, by-elections have been a vehicle for sending the government of the day a message. In the years of Mr Blair’s electoral dominance, they became a means of sending the Tory party a message — change or die the death of a thousand cuts. It took the Tories too long to get the hint but they did eventually. The tables have turned and it is Labour’s turn to be taught a lesson.
By-elections may be able to send a message to Mr Corbyn in a way that opinion polls cannot. For different reasons, Copeland and Stoke-on-Trent Central are potentially rocky seats. Both have working-class electorates which are historically solid for Labour but they are not sold on Mr Corbyn at all.
Election In the words of Jamie Reed it is not that the Corbyn message is failing to get through; on the contrary, on the doorsteps of Copeland they know all too well what the leader stands for.
His opposition to nuclear power would destroy the west Cumbrian economy and his opposition to the renewal of Trident nuclear weapons would effectively shut down the neighbouring seat of Barrow. As for Stoke-on-Trent Central, if Carlsberg did Ukip targets then that constituency would be one.
This is not to say that Labour will definitely lose these by-elections — the party’s organisation is still world-class, as demonstrated in last year’s Oldham election.
But Labour under Mr Corbyn is reduced to clinging on to what it has, rather than advancing in crucial marginal seats. The climate for thoughtful, witty, committed mainstream Labour MPs has got a great deal colder.
The writer is head of international political for PSB and former political secretary to Tony Blair, ex-UK prime minister