Floundering Corbyn is Drowning and Sinking Labour With Him
The history of political relaunches is not a happy one. Ask John Major or Gordon Brown. When The Quiet Man turned up the volume, his party turned off the television. However, I think we can all agree Jeremy Corbyn’s is going swimmingly.
In a week when the government has come under heavy fire for its mismanagement of the NHS, Corbyn managed to u-turn twice in one day over a wage cap, while offending both Brexiteers and Remainers with his muddled stance on free movement. On immigration Labour, in 24 hours alone, revealed more positions than a knocking shop in Marrakesh.
Referendum voters were promised that money being sent to Brussels would instead fund the NHS. As others have pointed out, an imaginative leader would have connected Brexit with the health service’s sorry state. Where is our money, Boris Johnson? The will of the people demands better funding for those currently sharing hospital trolleys, Corbyn could have said.
That he did not is a demonstration of the flimsy nature of his populism. There is a difference between being anti-establishment and populist.
At least Labour has a tactic, if not a strategy. If Corbyn Mark One coquettishly gave voters a come hither smile, populist firebrand Corbyn 2.0 is fiercely waving at voters, demanding their attention. Corbyn has improved as leader. He is no longer terrible. He is now dire. By the time Theresa May takes Britain out of the European Convention of Human Rights, he may be merely sub-standard.
Aping Trump is revealingly insulting
Anti-austerity economists, such as Danny Blanchflower, may deride a pay cap as economically illiterate but the idea is more popular than Labour’s leader. He may have innocently answered a question on Radio 4 or it may have been his intention all along. He probably knows that it will never become a manifesto commitment. Generating headlines is no substitute for persuading voters that Labour can be trusted on the economy through serious policy. Aping Trump is revealingly insulting.
To make Corbyn’s week worse, Tristram Hunt - one of the few Labour MPs who can be genuinely accused of Blairism - resigned his Stoke-on-Trent Central seat to become director of the V&A. Following Jamie Reed’s decision to quit parliament, it is hardly a vote of confidence in the future of their own brand of leftism. Nor is it a vote of confidence in Corbyn’s Labour and its electoral chances. The rats may be deserting but the ship has already sunk.
MPs of all parties are opportunists. Look at how Theresa May is casting off many tenets of Thatcherism: whatever “the shared society” is, she is acknowledging that there such a thing. She is able to do this because she is popular.
New Labour was always a niche project. Its converts were opportunists lured by Blair’s popularity. (Three elections victories, remember?) Were Corbyn to be popular outside his band of party supporters, many of those who oppose him would attach themselves like limpets to his project. As it is, you might as well try to relaunch the Titanic.
I suspect the reaction to Hunt’s resignation, amongst Corbynistas, will be a mixture of “Good riddance” and “We want to talk about the NHS but Blairites won’t let us.” They seem to want things both ways. In fact, they want everything their way. They give the impression that the only opinion they are interested in is their own.
They cannot blame sinking poll numbers on last summer’s failed challenge. This is what they voted for. They knew it then. They know it now. Hunt was at the forefront of deselection (or as his seat was to be abolished reselection) rumours. It can be of little surprise that he chooses a life outside parliament rather than wait for the inevitable mutiny on the foundering ship.
Loyalty is a two way street. Corbynistas expect consideration when they behave with the bloodlust of a Scylla or Charybdis. Reed and Hunt’s retirement might bring Corbyn closer to his supposed dream of an ideologically pure party but there is a cost.
The Fabian Society has predicted that Labour was on course to lose 4 million of its 2015 voters and slump to 140 seats at the next general election; the only way it might regain power is through progressive alliances. The problem is Labour always used to be that progressive alliance.
May’s dominance cannot last forever
The two by-elections present Labour with an electoral challenge. Reed’s Copeland constituency, the site of the Sellafield nuclear plant, is a Labour-Conservative marginal. His majority was 2,564. It voted heavily in favour of Brexit. Corbyn has been outspoken about his opposition to nuclear power. Labour, hoping the prime minister’s popularity will start to crumble as voters refocus on the economy again, wants to postpone the by-election until May’s council elections. However, by doing so they deprive the constituency of a voice on Article 50. Hunt’s move reduces the excuses for playing it long. They look frit. Whatever they gain by delay, they lose by procrastination.
Stoke-on-Trent, which also voted Leave, is a bit more complicated. Hunt’s majority (5,179) is larger and the opposition split between UKIP and the Conservatives. Combined their vote outnumbers Labour’s but, as a mere 33 votes separated them in 2015, neither will be enthusiastic about withdrawing in favour of the other.
Never look a gift horse in the mouth, but desperation is a powerful motivator. May might wish to demonstrate her political muscle by winning Copeland but she can survive without both or either. Not winning will reduce the pressure on her for an early election. Of the three UKIP is hungriest.
Labour may find a political life jacket in 2017. May’s dominance cannot last forever and there are signs that she will come unstuck over Brexit. Unless she relents on NHS funding she might find herself on the end of voters’ wrath. Trump will add to her difficulties. But it is only a life jacket not a frigate. Relaunch or not (and to mutilate the metaphor a little more), Corbyn is not waving but drowning.
About the author
Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).
A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.
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