Principled or Dogmatic, Corbyn Is Failing Labour and the Country

There is an episode of The West Wing where President Bartlet finds an inventive way to call his Republican presidential opponent stupid. Instead of ignoring the smear, the candidate’s team each day demands an apology. By the end of the week the country is debating the candidate’s intellectual merits - or lack thereof. Victory to Bartlet.

It is, of course, refreshing that Jeremy Corbyn has not watched Aaron Sorkin’s popular political drama (or probably any drama by Sorkin). On the other hand, he might have learned one or two things about how politics works. Having been anonymously slurred as Jihadi Jez, instead of taking it on the chin and countering the message with words of his own, he and his supporters demanded apologies, passed around petitions, expected outrage; the offending article may have been taken down but every day he gave the press license to report the story and reinforce the impression he is “soft” on terrorism. Fair? Not at all. The meek may inherit the earth, but they don’t succeed in democratic politics.

Telling the British people they are gullible idiots is an interesting canvassing strategy

A national security crisis is always going to be difficult for an opposition politician, especially one on the left: the government holds all the cards, they are able to act; all the leader of the opposition party can do is make statements. Yet whereas a lot of the flack Jeremy Corbyn has received for some of his early mistakes were trivial, most of the criticism in recent days has been due to his own serious errors and failings. To answer a question about shoot-to-kill policy, after a major terrorist incident, that both reassures people and is thoughtful should not require the wisdom of Solomon. It does, it seems, need a clarifying statement though.

Add to that the appointment of Ken Livingstone as co-convenor of the Trident review, over the head of Maria Eagle, his defence spokesperson; the former’s mental health slur on Kevan Jones (who has suffered from depression); the fact that on shoot-to-kill his Shadow Foreign Secretary cannot speak for him and cannot defend his position; that his Shadow Chancellor first denied seeing or signing a letter calling for MI5 to be abolished, then claimed mere ignorance of the statement’s intent; the fact that the leadership has been unable to agree a position on Syrian air strikes, and I think we can agree that this was not the finest week for the member for Islington North. Worse, it was a terrible week for the Labour Party.

According to ComRes, his party’s standing in the polls has plummeted. Polls come and polls go. However, what should worry his supporters is that the underlying numbers are dire: a mere 17% trust him to keep them safe. This is not because he failed to sing the national anthem, but because people have heard the words from his mouth. Yet die-hard Corbynistas will lay the blame anywhere - the right-wing media, the capitalist establishment, wicked Blairites, Simon Danczuk, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Lucan - except at the door of the man who made the decisions and spoke the words. Telling the British people they are gullible idiots is an interesting canvassing strategy but what do I know, it might work.

Soon the prime minister will put before the House of Commons a vote on whether the UK should join France, Russia and the United States in air strikes on Syria. With a small majority, he cannot do this without some Labour support. At first, Jeremy Corbyn stated that a UN resolution would be cover for a military response; now one has been passed he says it is not the right resolution: air strikes would only make matters worse. He may be right. Equally he may be wrong. The gift of prophecy is one best left to Greek tragedy. What is certain is that he does not have a meaningful substitute strategy. He has become a leader without a policy.


There is a genuine sadness that Jeremy Corbyn may not be right, but he is not wholly wrong either: shoot-to-kill does present problems (Charles de Menenez? Mark Duggan?), military action is not a complete solution. But he lacks the credibility to speak on these issues, and seems unprepared to make the concessions so that he is heard by the British people. Even Len McCluskey has criticised him, but he's just a Red Tory.

Supporters will respond to bad polls by accusing his party of undermining him, ignoring Corbyn’s lamentable record of rebelling against past leaders, and the verbal and logical contortions many are going through to defend him; they will speak about his overwhelming mandate from Labour members, ignoring that every Labour MP has a mandate of their own, collectively from 9.3 million people at a general election; they will defend his principled stances, ignoring that every adjective has a corresponding pejorative. When do principles become dogma? They will defend his anti-war position as true socialism, ignoring that it was the left which fought  - yes, fought - fascism in the 1930s and condemned the Nazi appeasement of the British government. George Orwell? Michael Foot? Perhaps they should have fucked off and joined the Tories.

This is not politics, it is a cult. It would be funny if the country was not in desperate need of a thoughtful and electable alternative. Corbyn is giving neither. His parliamentary party may have a number of people unreconciled to his election, but it also has a more substantial body who have tried to make the situation work. That body is, with every unforced and catastrophic error, diminishing. The country needs Labour right now, not just on economic and social matters, but to ensure as we respond to extremism, we do so in a way which does not inflame the situation. The country needs that. It does not need Jeremy Corbyn.

As for The West Wing, I’ll buy him the box set. Whether he remains leader or not, he might need it.

More about the author

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.

Follow Graham on Twitter.

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