Is this Peak Corbyn?
Party conferences are meant to be shows of passionate unity and a forum for engaging the public with new policy ideas. Immediately after elections, they are also meant to serve as a form of victory party for the winners, and a chance to reflect and change for the losers. The perplexing sight of this year’s conference season is something rather different: Labour, the party that lost the third election in 7 years, is partying and saying that it essentially, or “in principle”, as one member put it, won the election. In contrast, the Conservatives are preparing for a storm at their conference in a few day’s time.
Just a year ago, Jeremy Corbyn survived a leadership challenge, and now he has led the Labour Party to the best election result since 2010, but still falling short. The party has a steady lead in the polls of 1% or so, a long way off winning a Labour majority, but an improvement from where it was just in April, when polls recorded the party as much as 24% behind Theresa May’s Conservative Party. The election result undoubtedly ensured that Corbyn was secure in his position as Labour leader, but now we’re left with the question: is this peak Jeremy Corbyn?
It is clear that the election result has seen the enthusiasm behind Corbyn’s leadership increase and the unity that the Labour Party so lacked has come about in no small part thanks to the positive trajectory that the leader has seemingly placed his party on. But it is also true that the Labour leader has significant challenges both from within his own party, and from the coalition he built over the course of the 2017 campaign. This coalition is one that is notoriously weak: comprising many different groups, remain voters and leave voters, working class and middle class.
Labour had its best result among the middle classes that it had ever recorded, marking a significant shift in the bases of both parties. Labour’s base was now more middle class, more metropolitan than ever before. But Corbyn’s insistence on his message of public investment also ensured that the Labour Party still has appeal to its heartlands, improving its vote in many northern and midland seats, even if it did lose out to the Conservatives in seats like Mansfield. That coalition was brought together by Labour’s Brexit, which seemingly has evolved little since election day.
The acceptance of leaving, while simultaneously calling out the Government’s approach to leaving the European Union benefited Labour on both the remain and leave ends, stemming any flow of support among its working class routes and challenging the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives to a fight in metropolitan areas, which Labour eventually won in seats like Croydon, Brighton and Bristol. It is hard to see how this coalition remains united in the long run, especially when issues like immigration and trade are more prominent issues than the abstract nature of Britain’s withdrawal from the bloc.
The Labour Party also has significant issues surrounding its leadership and the membership. Claims of anti-Semitic behavior are rife, with them being routinely dismissed by Labour figures as “slurs”. Len McCluskey, the Unite General Secretary, dismissed talk of anti-semitism in Labour as an attempt to undermine the leadership. Other members used this claim as a justification for Labour MPs being determined to discuss Brexit as an issue to “beat Jeremy Corbyn with”.
Let’s be clear: any party that turns a blind eye to racism of any kinds is a party that does not deserve to run the Government of this country. Theresa May withdrew the whip from Anne Marie Morris after her “niggers in a woodpile” comment, while Jeremy Corbyn has done little to undermine the anti-Semitic abuse within the Labour Party. This week’s conference has been an even bigger show of this problem, with leaflets and pro-Palestine groups attacking Jews. One Jewish Labour member said she felt “more safe at an NUS conference”, a group known for its anti-Semitism.
The anti-Semitism reflects badly on Jeremy Corbyn, and he must begin to challenge it just as much as he calls out the abuse facing Diane Abbott and other MPs on his front bench (though, suspiciously, not Jess Phillips?) Jeremy Corbyn, if he is to avoid peaking early, must find a way to repair his party’s internal struggles over Brexit and over abuse, while also ensuring that there is a way for his voter coalition to remain in tact. So far, he is failing on both parts. What is keeping Corbyn in the lead is that Theresa May is still unpopular and in office. Don’t expect that to last much longer.