More Denial Will Only Make Labour’s Difficult Path Impossible
On Jeremy Corbyn’s election to the leadership, Disclaimer was sceptical. In the year since our scepticism has hardened. For Corbyn supporters his election was a cause for optimism but for too many ordinary Labour voters it represented an introspective party that wanted the comfort of ideological purity over the hard, and sometimes painful, graft essential for election-winning parties.
Corbyn’s inheritance was not a happy one. But, in accepting the leadership of his party - and then persisting in the face of a damning no confidence vote from his peers - he does bear responsibility for Labour’s performance. The 2015 election exposed Labour’s problem: weak in the south and unable to win swing voters in places such as Nuneaton and Basildon; Scotland was a disaster. The Brexit referendum further demonstrated Labour’s dilemma. While 63% of Labour voters decided for Remain, in its once impregnable Northern heartlands there were heavy Leave votes.
Under his watch his party slumped into third place in Scotland; in by-elections he has underperformed Ed Miliband; in local elections he managed a National Estimated Vote Share of 32%. Labour successes, such as Sadiq Khan’s mayoral victory, were achieved in spite of Corbyn not because of him - the party’s London assembly vote represented a decline from 2015.
The case against Corbyn is strong. Labour exists to be a party of government. His new opponent, Theresa May, is perceived by voters as a steady pair of hands and her emphasis on a Conservatism for the many not the few has temporarily convinced voters. The grammar school row might dent that belief but it will not shatter it. Labour currently lags in the polls and despite her unforced education blunder, there is little sign that the new prime minister’s honeymoon with the voters is about to end.
The reality for his supporters is that Corbyn is not on course for 10 Downing Street
However, Jeremy Corbyn has won re-election, with an increased majority. His internal critics have few crumbs of comfort. Owen Smith was a reasonable candidate and brave to challenge his leader but his attempt to replicate Corbyn left supporters uninspired. It is doubtful whether any candidate could have defeated Corbyn, but Smith even failed to set out an alternative vision of progressive politics.
If an epochal event such as Brexit cannot precipitate his removal there seems no reason to believe “one more heave” will change that situation. That is the reality for his opponents.
The reality for his supporters is that Corbyn is not on course for 10 Downing Street. Nor anything like it. The best assessment of the next election is that he will lose badly and cement Theresa May’s Conservatives in office with an increased majority. Unless that reality is acknowledged, not least by the leader himself, then the problem will persist.
His supporters might cheer his re-election but his position is not as dominant as it first seems. Corbyn only has one pillar to his leadership - the membership. The recent NEC decision to include representatives from the devolved parts of the country, if confirmed, weakens his position on Labour’s main decision-making body: Kezia Dugdale and Carwyn Jones, who both have party mandates of their own, are not Corbyn supporters.
Brexit, of course, changes the political mood. But, even if the worst fears of Remainers come to fruition, it does not follow that Labour becomes the electoral alternative. Jim Callaghan could have won in 1978, despite a sterling devaluation and IMF bail-out, but lost the following year after the Winter of Discontent. John Major famously won against the odds despite a recession. It is dismissively arrogant to assume that, to return to government, a party only has to wait for failure and has no need to prove its worth to voters.
All leaders face a degree of opposition. Even the election-winning Tony Blair had internal critics - his present successor being chief amongst them. Were Corbyn to stand a chance of winning the next election he would find that many who currently oppose him would become more supportive. His poor performance fuels unrest, not the other way around.
It is not sufficient for Corbyn to rely on his mandate from party members. To do so demonstrates a limited understanding of democracy. Labour does not belong just to its members. Every Labour voter has a share in its future. They may not pay member dues but they do something far more significant: they vote for the party at general elections. Betrayal of that sacred trust will not be forgiven.
Denial only gets political leaders so far
Effective leaders succeed because they win over those with differing views by weaving a pluralistic agenda. If Corbyn wishes to succeed, he should now accept shadow cabinet elections. This will allow those critics who resigned to return to the frontbench should they wish. It is not a perfect solution - the lack of confidence remains - but it will allow Labour to begin to oppose the government properly in parliament.
If he wants to succeed he should also make clear that mandatory reselection is off the table and that he opposes mass deselections of MPs. By stirring this unnecessary row he is only fermenting disunity. Labour must remain a diverse party that carries different views on progressive politics. A party built in the image of its current leader would only be, in Britain’s current politics, a recipe for electoral failure.
By re-electing such a divisive leader the Labour party membership, in its enduring wisdom, has chosen a difficult path. This is the most important truth that needs acknowledgement. Denial only gets political leaders so far. Corbyn’s present denial only feeds the idea that he is more interested in internal hegemony over general election success. He and his supporters need to address this criticism immediately. Failure will only result in renewed opposition and he may find that this is just the beginning of Labour’s civil war. He may win that war but history suggests little comfort in such victories.
There are a lot of conditionals resulting from Corbyn’s victory. Beyond platitudes, Corbyn’s campaign gave no indication that the candidate was willing to address his weaknesses. Disclaimer remains sceptical that the election victor will either.
About the author
Disclaimer is a group of writers, journalists, and artists who have been brought together by their desire to tackle serious issues with a light and humorous touch. A mixture of idealists and pragmatists, Disclaimer is socially very liberal, economically less so. The editorial stance is formed collectively, based on the shared values of the magazine. Gonzalo Viña founded Disclaimer with the help of Phil Thornton who oversees the economics coverage. Graham Kirby is the editor.
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