Must is not a word used to princes! But Corbyn is no prince
“Treachery, with a smile on its face,” Said Margaret Thatcher of her fall from office. With a characteristic turn of phrase she began a narrative of betrayal that haunted the Tory party through several leaders until the election of David Cameron; that of a leader at the peak of her powers whom her colleagues abandoned. The reality, of course, somewhat diverges: the disastrous Poll Tax had led to some of the most serious riots seen in Britain for years, on Europe she was out of step with a large section of her party, the murder of Ian Gow had seen the government lose one of its safest seats.
Thatcher’s definition, however, fed the dysfunction in the Tory party. When it lost office in 1997, it took eighteen years for it to win another majority at a general election.
Jeremy Corbyn’s story is slightly different. He underperformed his predecessor in local and national elections. His dogmatic approach to leadership alienated his colleagues. In a secret ballot they withheld their support for him. When he refused to take the not-too-subtle hint, two candidates launched bids - within the party rules - to unseat him. Their leadership bids became a “coup”. Dissenters became "rebels" or "traitors". Supporters misleadingly claimed it was the betrayal that had caused the party’s dysfunction not the leader. The myth of the golden age was born.
I feel that Corbyn supporters will just love the irony in the parallel, don’t you?
Jeremy Corbyn has been re-elected Labour leader. He achieved this with a slight increase in his share of the vote. He beat Owen Smith by 23%. His challenger received 193,000 votes, more than the total membership of any other UK party. 63% of pre-2015 Labour supporters voted for him. And the victor called this democracy.
By securing members' allegiance he secured his leadership. By calling it democracy he revealed his ignorance
Think about this for a minute.
In 2020 Theresa May will face an election. She will probably win it. However, imagine if she were to win it because the electorate had increased by 50% some of whom had specifically moved to the country to vote for her. Unlikely. But were it to happen we would not be calling it democracy.
That is not to call Jeremy Corbyn’s victory illegitimate. It is merely to point out that there is nothing sacred about a limited group of people voting in a party election: it is not democracy. Since his ascent to the leadership he has cleverly aimed his leadership at the party membership. By securing members' allegiance he secured his leadership. By calling it democracy he revealed his ignorance. He won by the rules that is all. And yes, he won fair and square.
As he basked in his supporters’ glow it did not matter that even among the youngest demographics he is behind the prime minister in terms of who is best to unite the country. The man who is supposed to be inspiring a younger generation with his alleged radicalism (please stop laughing there) is losing to a leader who is using EU residents as a bargaining chip in her Brexit negotiations. He is actually losing in every single demographic but that didn’t stop the celebrations.
What will happen next? There seems little appetite for a split. The lessons of the 1980s are not only that First Past the Post does not favour new parties but also that defeated parties can claw their way slowly back to electoral relevance. It might not happen again but it provides some hope for those who cannot support Corbyn’s agenda.
Corbyn needs to create the conditions for unity. Members cannot demand loyalty
The logical extension of remaining within the party is unity, yes? This is where the dangerous mythology of the Corbynistas comes in. The extension of their mythology is that Corbyn does not need to earn loyalty. His election, then re-election, is enough. It is a form of convenient democratic centralism which ignores any other mandate. Jeremy Corbyn has to change to unite his party: elections to the shadow cabinet, no deselections, a collegiate and pragmatic style of leadership which acknowledges the limits of his authority. It is no good growing an olive tree in your office if you leave it there to rot. Every leader needs support from colleagues. No leader always gets their own way. Well, Kim Jong Un maybe.
Yvette Cooper and Hilary Benn, both staking out alternative careers off the frontbench, provide a model for opposing the Tories without serving under Corbyn. Others will be willing to serve and support Corbyn with the condition of shadow cabinet elections. Some MPs will be persuaded of his better intent should he reassure them about reselection.
Corbyn needs to create the conditions for unity. Members cannot demand loyalty. When they voted they did so with eyes completely open in the full knowledge that his parliamentary colleagues did not have confidence in his competence. They cannot now complain should the leader not change and unrest continue.
A previous leader once said, “Little man, little man, must is not a word to be used to princes!” But a lot has changed since Elizabeth I: the Enlightenment, the spread of liberal democracy, the invention of the digital watch.
There are a lot of parallels for Corbyn’s leadership. None of them very optimistic ones. The first thing he needs to do is provide proper inclusive leadership. And yes, I told you before to stop giggling at the back.
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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