How do you solve a problem like Corbyn?
Here’s a little known fact about me: when the Labour leadership race kicked off in 2015, I was planning to vote for Andy Burnham. Initially I switched to Corbyn because I wanted to avoid him coming last, and the Labour left getting written off forever.
It wasn’t the movement that grew around Corbyn that transformed me from a “person who will vote for Corbyn” into a “Corbyn supporter;” it was the fact that the other candidates ran such astonishingly bad campaigns. At the time it was obvious that the party’s centre-left was collapsing, and that its prominent figures had no idea how to communicate, or really any idea of what they stood for, or why they were even in politics. For some incomprehensible reason, Burnham, Cooper and Kendall kept presenting themselves as a not-Corbyn bloc, which only exacerbated the sense that they were a trio of identikit middle managers who had nothing of import to say.
The Corbyn movement stood for something; it had energy and ideas. It was supported more by working class Labour members than the other candidates. I backed Corbyn because I thought this movement was the only thing that could respond to the political moment. I knew the PLP would hate it and the media would rip him to shreds; I knew electing him as leader was actually kind of absurd. But voting for any of the other three was like consenting to the Labour Party entering a state of managed decline. I remember saying to a friend that the leadership election was like deciding whether to die of a wasting disease, or going into battle knowing that you might not make it back alive. I chose the battle.
So, to Copeland. In many ways, Copeland is a microcosm of the Labour Party’s long-term problems. It’s received a declining share of the vote in every election since 1997. It was represented by an MP who was, I am told (and not by Corbynites), despised locally and had an appalling contact rate. Copeland remained Labour because of antipathy towards the Tories and because constituents voted out of a sense of tradition. Then Brexit came along and upended all political convention — people voted for other reasons, and found they had very few reasons to vote Labour. And so Labour was rejected.
In this respect, Corbyn is a symptom of Labour’s problems as much as a cause. There was always going to be a reckoning; for too long the Party (particularly outside of London) has been a husk. Anyone who argues Labour’s woes are purely the fault of Jeremy Corbyn is living in a fantasy land. However — and here’s the rub — anyone who thinks that Corbyn isn’t transforming an existential crisis into an unmitigated catastrophe is equally delusional.
We don’t need terrifying opinion polls to tell us Corbyn is doing badly. We can just observe his performance so far and come to the conclusion ourselves. The sheer amount of opportunities he’s missed to stand up to the Tories. The easy wins for Labour, like stagnating wages and rights for the self-employed, which have fallen by the wayside. The unbelievable number of self-owns (Mao’s Little Red Book, anyone?). The inability to communicate clear messages on Brexit and the economy. The excessive hostility towards the media. The fact that he seems invisible a lot of the time. The incompetence in the way he treats his own staff. The incompetence generally. Now, let’s offset those problems against his victories, like grammar schools. Could anyone reasonably look at the whole picture and conclude this is going well?
But for me, the worst, most unforgivable element of Corbyn’s leadership is his complacency. Yes, the odds are against him, but it doesn’t look like he’s even trying. He conducts himself as though he’s a dispassionate observer of politics, not one of the main actors. Under Ed Miliband, Labour could have been accused of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. With Corbyn it’s like he’s reclining on a deck chair as he watches the ship heading towards an iceberg. I’ve had a lot of contact with his and McDonnell’s office, and I feel guilty saying this because there are many conscientious, brilliant people working for the leadership (Matt Zarb-Cousin and James Scheider in particular, though others spring to mind who have less public-facing roles so I won’t list them by name). But their talents cannot compensate for the fact that their leader seems utterly disinterested in meeting the challenges that face him.
Writing in the Observer today, the pollster James Morris put it best: “Corbyn inherited a brand that had been steadily alienating its working- class base, and he made it worse.” Ultimately, no Labour leader for the past 20 years has seemed interested in the lives of the party’s working class voters, and as a result the party is now getting exactly the trouncing it deserves. And this is the greatest crime of all, because the main beneficiaries are the Tories — the party created to serve the interests of the landed gentry. In Owen Jones’ first book, Chavs, he quotes an anonymous prominent Tory MP as saying: “The Conservative Party is a coalition of privileged interests. Its main purpose is to defend that privilege. And the way it wins elections is by giving just enough to just enough other people.” By neglecting the working class for so long, Labour has given these people incredible power. It is appalling.
For some months now, I’ve been under pressure to call for Corbyn to step down. More than one editor / TV producer has approached me asking me to do this through their particular outlet. And you’d think, given all of the above, that I would take them up on it. But if I’m going to clarify my position on Corbyn, and I feel I should given the events of the last few days, I want to do it from my own platform and in my own words.
I am not going to call for Corbyn to step down. This is not because I don’t understand the seriousness of the circumstances, or because I’m happy to lose as long as the leadership stays in the hands of the hard left (I’m not). It’s because I think calling for him to step down at this point in time would make everything worse. The fact is there is no plan, and no replacement candidate the membership (which is becoming increasingly impatient with their leader, believe me) has yet warmed to. Thus, the only way someone else could take the leadership is if Corbyn was to step down and endorse him or her. The people who have Corbyn’s ear don’t seem to want this to happen — in fact some of them seem to be living in an alternate reality where everything is going according to plan — so the likely impact of calling for him to step down at this point in time would probably be to weaken Corbyn but keep him in place. Indeed, every time there is a perceived threat to his leadership, his supporters only seem to dig their heels in and harden their stance — you can thank the ludicrous post-Brexit coup attempt for that. Calling for him to step down without a plan would probably wound Corbyn, but ultimately he would just limp along like some kind of maimed animal and Labour’s situation would be even worse.
Furthermore, unless there was some obvious plan in place to replace Corbyn, forcing him to step down would probably play to the advantage of the party’s Blairite wing, which is increasingly small, but vocal and savage. A cursory glance at what its leading figures are tweeting shows that they are already arguing that a return to Blairism is the only answer. Blair was an impressive politician in many ways (yes, I know, Iraq) but it’s now clear that his political vision couldn’t survive in a post-crash Britain. Labour cannot be allowed to return to a state of managed decline; it can’t be handed back to the people who have demonstrated they have zero understanding of the political shifts in recent years or how to respond to them. Few people have been on the receiving end of more Blairite vitriol than me, and I can testify that they do not have a plan — only bitterness and a sense of entitlement. I went to the Progress fringe at the Labour Party conference in 2016, and it was completely devoid of ideas. This was the moment for them to talk about how they would win back the party from Corbyn, and they spent the whole meeting oscillating between memorialising Blair and emphasising that politicians can’t make big changes. I, too, had bought into their electability spiel and was surprised by how lost they seemed.
If Labour embraces a radical, class-based politics communicated in resonant simple language, it has the chance of being revitalised. But if it returns to hollowed-out triangulation, it will collapse in slow motion. Without a bold offer to the working class (which the party’s social democrats do not seem to offer), the party has no reason to exist.
So, if I’m not calling for Corbyn to step down, what do I want?
First and foremost, I want the leadership to get its shit together and face up to its own failings. The hostility of the media and PLP are horrible working conditions; they are not excuses. I also want Corbyn’s base, particularly the people who message me talking about how disillusioned they are, to start putting pressure on the leadership to do better. They could do this either through their CLPs or by writing to the office directly. I think this is an important step, because Corbyn likes to see himself as a leader of a movement, not as a conventional politician. Some in his team have a siege mentality where they interpret any critique as malicious. So the ordinary people who support and organise for him could have a real impact if they were to make it clear they are unhappy with his performance. They could not be written off as hostile; they are the constituency Corbyn seems to pay most attention to. They voted for him, now they need to take responsibility for him.
Secondly, the leadership needs to come up with a long term plan about how it will improve on this situation (I’m not saying “turn it around,” because I think a lot of the damage may be permanent). At long last, it needs to come up with a coherent, resonant story it can tell the country about why wages are stagnating, property is unaffordable, and so many communities have been abandoned. It needs to focus on material everyday issues that affect the lives of its working class base. It needs to repeat its key messages over and over again in the media. Corbyn needs to stop doing things like swanning off to fringe left meetings and focus on attacking Theresa May — there is a lot of material to work with. And for God’s sake, it needs to chase the Remain vote which is currently going to the Liberal Democrats.
Finally, I want everyone on the left with the agency to do so to focus on building leftwing talent elsewhere in the party. This is not to find a Corbyn replacement (or not only that), but to make sure that the fates of the party do not rest on one person. The 2015 Labour intake, in particular, is so impressive — and not just in terms of MPs who consider themselves loyal to Corbyn. Every leftwinger who has any kind of relationship with Labour (and I include myself) needs to stop obsessing over Corbyn and start seeing the Party as something bigger, something which has a stronger and more vibrant leftwing than it has had in years. Those with the means should spend more time nurturing and supporting these MPs, helping them improve their media and campaigning skills so that they can position themselves as leading political figures. God knows the left needs more public voices.
If these suggestions are put in place, I think the Labour Party can be in a much stronger position, and eventually there will be a time when we can think about transitioning to a new leader with Corbyn’s consent. The Labour Party is in perhaps the worst mess it has ever been in, and it’s been a long time coming. But panicking will only make things even worse. There are ways out of this, the Party can bounce back and be an effective political force. But a clear head, a sense of strategy, and some humility is what is needed right now. The silver lining of politics being so in flux is that anything can happen — but there needs to be a plan.