Corbyn must win, but can’t stay long.
Corbyn is obviously going to win, barring the shadiest of shady shenanigans. Even Owen Smith never actually thought he had a chance. The people who wanted him to be ousted thought it would all be over with the no confidence vote, and when that didn’t work were locked into a course of action that was badly timed and ill-judged and has resulted in a deep wound in the body of the Labour Party.
Among their biggest missteps was the fatal misunderstanding of believing that this was somehow actually about Jeremy Corbyn. It wasn’t, and still isn’t. While they might take umbrage at it, it was about a rejection of them: of their “tack to the right” strategy whenever the breeze picked up, their rudderless lack of a guiding philosophy that made them appear ramshackle and disjointed as a party, their eagerness to throw marginalised populations under the bus in order to win “middle england,” their cultural isolation within the Westminster bubble, and their patronising taking for granted of working class populations.
A year ago Jeremy Corbyn never thought he could win. The Labour Left put up a candidate every leadership election, and this time it happened to be him. It just so happened that when his turn came around that the membership had reached a tipping point and were sick of what had come before. It’s one thing to claim that Labour have to play at Tory lite if you actually deliever the votes. It’s something totally different if you sell out and still get trashed in the general election.
There are no doubt some people who really believe that Corbyn, personally, is the saviour of the Labour Party. I don’t know any of them, but sure, let’s say they exist. But from my experience, listening to people and reading what they have to say, I would suggest that they understood the political implications of this election. No matter Corbyn’s flaws either personally or politically, ousting him after a year would have been to give the managerialist, PPI-loving, immigrant-denouncing wing of the party carte blanche to say “see, look, we told you so, England is a right wing country so Labour must be right wing in order to win votes. Now gather round while we say we’ll cut more than the Tories in order to exude a sense of strength and competence.”
Voters are rejecting that. It’s not a cult of Corbyn, it’s a rejection of the Cult of Blair: against the idea that a man who won an unlosable election against a Tory Party that was beset by scandals and government ministers getting their toes sucked, has presented the only way for Labour to be forever and ever amen. It apparently baffles some people to suggest that a political strategy will be perceived differently by the electorate when it is new and relatively untried than after 12 years of direct experience under it when the bloom is definitely off the rose.
Its definitely notable that even the most vociferous “you’ve ruined the party you entryist trots” Labour members still can’t bring themselves to utter the words “Owen Smith is a good candidate and you should have voted for him.” The media soft-soaped him throughout the leadership election because of their “lol communist” hatred of anyone who reminds them of the left in the 1980s when they were backing Thatcher and Reagan, but nobody with even a passing association with our media could doubt that as soon as the election was over that they would absolutely monster him in the press. For all the criticisms of Corbyn’s “leave me alone I’m making jam” approach to hostile journalists, he was at least relatively unflappable. Perhaps too unflappable, some might argue. But replacing him with Smith would have given the pirhanas in the media a flapping drowning bleeding 400lb ox calf in their pool and it would have been brutal. You think David Miliband with his banana or Ed Miliband’s bacon sandwich was bad? I think Smith must be honestly relieved that he dodged that bullet.
That being said, now we’ve made that point, I would hope everyone can sit down and be a little clear-eyed about it.
Corbyn’s “personal brand” has been permanently defaced by this episode. Some of the utterly deranged commentators on this situation have compared him to Donald Trump, but in reality the closest comparison is Hillary Clinton. Clinton is a better statesperson and a more adept user of power, but what they both share now is a hard core of vitriolic opponents who wouldn’t vote for them if the only alternative was, well, Donald Trump. Gary Younge described Corbyn as doing “retail politics well: one person, one conversation, one handshake. The bigger issue is whether he can do wholesale.” I think that’s a pretty reasonable summary. By all accounts he’s a decent enough constituency MP and single issue back bencher. That’s probably not enough to be a good leader of a party. But even if he was, people have decided that he’s a Hezbollah IRA Communist now, and that’s going to stick. Someone as skilled as Clinton can work through the irrational hatred to win an election, but even for her, even against someone like Trump, it’s closer than it ought to be. Corbyn realistically lacks the capacity to do that, and we have to acknowledge that even though it’s a weakness rooted in people’s reflexive “gut sense” based on a drip feed of bullshit, it’s real and it matters and it’s not going away.
However, the solution is not for the right of the party to have another knock-down “let’s do the Tories work for them” fight where they brief against the party and call another leadership challenge, as they are threatening to do. Such a strategy would be an admission that they are prepared to fight a war of attrition and burn the party down so long as they can end up being in charge of the ashes.
They must be prevented from doing this by the moderate middle of the party, those who think Corbyn is just a bad chance for winning an election but don’t buy the line being sold by the Blairite old guard that the only way to win against Theresa May is to be more like Theresa May. However, while the only people offering an alternative to Corbyn are those bitterites, their frustrations will build up and the middle of the party will find themselves on the right’s side again.
So here’s what I, from my position of nobody ever asking me and who the hell am I anyway, strongly suggest.
Corbyn needs to appoint his new shadow cabinet with the aim of stepping back from it eventually — within 18 months. He should start making the political deals necessary to keep the middle grounders like Nandy and, yes, even Smith, even Angela Eagle, on his side to arrange for a managed succession, even if they’re not in the cabinet. There are already people like Rebecca Long-Bailey and Angela Rayner who, having found themselves elevated quickly to shadow cabinet posts, have begun to shine and thrive in them, delivering very impressive performances in Parliament. Nobody, as of yet, across the whole party, could be said to be a shoe in for the leadership. But there is the potential for shadow cabinet ministers to excel and stand out.
In order for this to work Corbyn has to be better at managing and enabling his shadow cabinet ministers. We can’t have another Thangam Debbonaire/Chi Onwurah debacle. At the same time Onwurah herself demonstrated how Labour MPs can be so close and yet so far to understanding what the issue is and why Corbyn keeps getting elected. In the New Statesman she wrote:
“So you want us to become Ukip?” someone asked. It took me a while to realise it was a serious question until he and others made it clear that Jeremy is the only person they trust not to compromise on key Labour tenets like equality. If Jeremy lost they believe Labour would return to the focus-grouped managerialism of New Labour while moving to outflank Ukip on immigration and xenophobia, fusing Blairite soulless machine politics with the worst of Farage’s populism. Blairrage.
This is not an unreasonable fear of a paranoid group of socialists. In the last couple of days Labour MPs have fallen over themselves to declare freedom of movement for EU citizens a “red line” in the Brexit negotiations, with Chukka Umunna saying that he would be prepared to give up Single Market membership in order to achieve it. Time and again, Labour policymakers have revealed that they think “working class” is synonymous with “white racist,” and the ease with which they return to immigrant bashing is legendary. So no, people do not actually have confidence that they won’t keep doing it, especially if they are given a victory in a leadership election that allows them to declare the Corbyn experiment as a failed attempt by loony lefties to wrest control of the party from the “grown ups.” Labour MPs who oppose Corbyn must understand that these strategies are patronising and toxic and part of the reason they keep being rejected by the membership.
This is, in fact, a tactic in the grand spirit of Blairism but rooted in the small scale world of politics where there’s only a couple of hundred people involved and you can actually find out what people want by asking them rather than by conducting opinion polls. Get the middle to defeat the right.
The deal is, your criticisms have been heard, but so have the criticisms of the members. Get on board with the new direction for the party and you can get your wish of a Jeremy Corbyn safely returned to the backbench where he can’t upset the horses any more. But only if you stop dicking the fuck around.
Tell Tom Watson to stop running his interference plays, because Corbyn isn’t going to contest the next election himself. Get as many MPs as can stomach it to admit that the Cult of Corbyn isn’t an actual thing. People have genuine grievances and desire to change politics for the better, and if you dismiss them as silly little trots who don’t understand how the “real world” works then you’re demonstrating a complete lack of interest in knowing what’s actually going on in politics right now. Empower a new shadow cabinet of ministers who can appear front and centre and encourage those who put in good performances, like Angela Rayner has on Grammar Schools, to stick at it. Run the shadow cabinet not, as it appears to have been run, as an adjunct to an embattled core leadership, but as a proving ground for people to build up their media presence and policy credentials. Make it not about Corbyn, but about the whole of the Labour Party, a wide swathe of people who will come out in front of the cameras and say “actually Grammar Schools are a terrible idea,” “no we shouldn’t try to reduce our commitments to vulnerable refugees,” “the environment actually matters and we need to invest in technology that helps us safeguard it.”
Then in 12–18 months, don’t pick “a successor”. Let’s have two or three. Don’t annoint someone as heir. Simply say “these are all people who have done exemplary work in their role as shadow ministers and I think they are all capable of continuing my work to reshape the Labour Party into an organisation that can both represent the most vulnerable people in our society and also win elections in contested middle england constituencies, because they understand like I do that a nation that impoverishes its worst off impoverishes everyone, and a nation that improves life for its worst off improves it for everyone.”
I have no idea if Corbyn has the diplomatic skills left to do this, or if all his bridges with the party are burnt to a crisp despite calls for unity from prior foes. I have no idea if the hardcore right of the party would be amenable to anything except a bitter fight to the death and would try to scupper such a deal. I do think the only way to stop them is to reach out to the middle and say, “I heard you, it can’t be me who leads the party, but you must accept that the party has rejected a strategy of tacking to the right and shouting ‘immigration’ when we’ve run out of other ideas.”
It all goes to shit if May calls an early election, of course. But then it will anyway. It would have under Owen Smith, too.
If something like this can be done, then perhaps this vicious bun fight will have a positive outcome, by shaping the Corbyn leadership into a more potent political force and empowering a new generation of faces to put forward a genuinely progressive agenda with a cohesive guiding philosophy at its core. It might be optimistic, but I think it can be done, and Labour should aim to do it.