The NHS is in crisis: a “humanitarian crisis”, in the words of the Red Cross. The service is Labour’s invention; at this moment, it should be the party’s focus. A pledge of £350m extra a week for the NHS was critical to the triumph of leave in the EU referendum. It was second in importance only to immigration. As Vote Leave campaign director Dominic Cummings put it: “Would we have won without £350m/NHS? All our research and the close result suggests no.”
I’m not going to join the Twitter outrage over the Labour leadership declaring last night that it was “not wedded” to the right of Europeans to freedom of movement. We on the left sometimes fail to appreciate the distance that exists on immigration between us and the wider population. Name your demographic group: 18- to 25-year-olds, black and minority ethnic Britons, Londoners, Scots – all decisively report a desire to reduce immigration.
Does that mean Labour just blindly tails public opinion? No: that’s not what leadership is. Labour can credibly argue that the economy comes first and membership of the single market is the party’s priority. But it needs, at the very least, a language that reaches a public that overwhelmingly wants less immigration: basically, it must not make most Britons feel as though the party is flashing a V-sign in their face.
But Labour has now shifted the focus away from the NHS crisis, and for what? It is difficult to match what was trailed yesterday and what Jeremy Corbyn has said in his round of interviews today. The leader’s message on radio and TV was not, let’s say, very clear. Many supported Corbyn because they felt he would bring clarity: no more wishy-washy, middle-of-the-road, vacillating leadership. Fists would be swinging, there would be unequivocal opposition to the Tories. Today the leadership has antagonised many of its natural supporters, who are furious about what they see as concessions on freedom of movement; but those who take a different view on immigration will have heard little from Corbyn today that resonates with them.