Despite a year of warnings, Labour has walked right into Theresa May's trap

The Conservative party has been signalling for more than a year its plan to destroy the Labour Party.

Today, Prime Minister Theresa May sprung the trap.

With Labour on just 23% in the polls, on course to lose all but 159 seats in the Commons, we might be looking at the historic end of Labour as a functioning organ of government and the beginning of a generation of one-party Conservative rule.

The only surprising aspect is how well telegraphed May’s plan was, and the compliancy with which Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters went along with it.

Even under former PM David Cameron, the Tory plan for Labour was clear as early as 2015: Steal as much of the centre-left rhetoric as possible, and let Labour wander off into the wilderness of left-wing infighting.

The Conservatives took a number of policies from the traditional left playbook, such as increasing the minimum wage to £7.20 (£9.15 in London), keeping the working tax credit (a Labour demand), increasing council tax by 2%, a new 0.5% employment tax to fund apprentice training, no cuts to the police budget (a key Corbyn demand), increasing government-funded childcare provision to 30 hours per week (more than Labour offered at the last election), and an armed response to the fascism of Islamic State (Labour MP Hilary Benn’s position).

You could argue that the government only did these things because of Labour pressure. But that’s the problem with losing general elections — you only get credit for the arguments, not the actual policies.

By July of last year, new PM Theresa May had doubled down on the Blairite centre. She promised to put the government “at the service of working people” with workers’ and consumers’ representatives on company boards, and binding shareholder votes on corporate pay every year. She hasn’t delivered any of that, but that is not the point.

She only had to sound like she might deliver it to scoop votes out of Labour’s share.

In December 2016, my colleague Adam Bienkov reported that Labour officials were expecting May to call a snap election in the coming months. Today, Business Insider’s sources were proven right. And yet the Labour Party is in the worst state possible to fight a general election, despite months of warnings. The Conservatives, polling at 44%, have a 21-point lead on Labour. Corbyn as a leader polls worse than “Not Sure,” according to YouGov:

Finally, at the World Economic Forum in January 2017, May gave a Davos-woman speech that was pure Tony Blair. In the minds of ordinary working people, she said, “It means watching as those who prosper seem to play by a different set of rules, while for many life remains a struggle as they get by, but don’t necessarily get on … at we must heed the underlying feeling that there are some companies, particularly those with a global reach, who are playing by a different set of rules to ordinary, working people. … That means several things. It means businesses paying their fair share of tax, recognising their obligations and duties to their employees and supply chains, and trading in the right way.”

The Conservatives stole the centre ground by borrowing the left-wing rhetoric that used to be the province of the Labour party. Every month they kept at it, Labour sunk further in the polls.

Clearly, at some point between 2015 and now, the Labour Party ought to have realised what was going on. The difficult task would have been for Corbyn to resign in favour of someone younger, fresher, more electable, and more capable of claiming that centrist territory. (Even Ed Miliband would be better placed to deliver in a snap election than Corbyn — he added 740,000 votes to Labour’s total in the 2015 general election, despite not winning.)

But Labour bucked the big decision.

Offered the choice of a new start, with a new leader, in September 2016, Labour’s members went with Corbyn again, on principle. 

Tellingly, the Tories were absolutely delighted at the result. They now cheer Corbyn when he stands for Prime Minister’s Questions in the Commons, and shout “more, more!” when he stops talking. Corbyn, by contrast, becomes visibly angry, snapping at TV reporters who ask if he takes any personal responsibility for his party’s fate.

Now May has pulled the trigger. The trap drops shut on June 8.

Never say never, but it will take a miracle for Labour to escape.

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