Before last June’s general election the overwhelming Westminster consensus was that a Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn stood no chance of winning. History (1983, Foot and all that), countless polls and some seemingly telling by-election results (Copeland in particular, the first gain by a governing party since 1982, in a seat Labour’d held since 1935)—all appeared to indicate that an unreconstructed left-winger like Corbyn couldn’t win. No way. And he didn’t, either. Given the post-election triumphalism found among some of his supporters that much must be acknowledged.
That said the Labour leader still achieved a quite remarkable turnaround, in that despite losing he emerged from the election with his reputation greatly enhanced. Meanwhile, deprived of a majority and facing calls to resign, Theresa May was left fighting for her political life. Whichever way you look at it this was a stunning reversal of fortunes. A moral victory even, that’s all the more impressive when considered alongside the state Labour was in when Corbyn became leader and the wall of hostility he’s had to contend with ever since.
Corbyn, it must be remembered, took over a party that was fast becoming a bureaucratic, power-obsessed husk of itself, afraid even to defend its own record in office. The moral crusade Harold Wilson said Labour must be had been replaced with managerial listlessness, empty slogans and timid acceptance of the Conservative narrative on austerity. The party had lost its soul, and as the infamous ‘EdStone’ seemed to attest, its brain, too. A fresh approach was needed. Consecutive election defeats, a dwindling membership and the humiliation of losing Scotland to the SNP made that clear, at least to the Labour rank-and-file.
Yet what started out as a rebellion against a party elite intent on trading values for votes but ending-up with neither thereafter transformed into something much bigger. In face of a largely dismissive commentariat, concerted Tory smear campaign and numerous enemies within, Corbyn has shown that another way is not only possible, but popular. His kinder, gentler, more principled style of doing politics—together with a unreservedly redistributive economic programme grounded in humane notions of fairness and basic decency rather than impersonal considerations about book-balancing—has resonated widely. With the young in particular. And with young women above all.
In what represents a clear vindication of the ‘movement from below’ philosophy he’s long advocated, under Corbyn’s leadership widespread disenchantment with a stale, image-obsessed and increasingly morally-bankrupt Westminster Realpolitik has been channelled into a confident, vibrant, and yes, at times decidedly pugnacious expression of mass democracy. It’s a refreshingly inchoate development that, though it borrows some of the language and attitudes of the old socialist left Corbyn hails from, also contains the seeds of something qualitatively different, not least because of how the internet has been used to both organise and proselytise.
As the man himself would doubtless recognise, Corbyn’s as much product as cause of this movement. However he’s played the part of figurehead with admirable resolve and skill, weathering all that’s been thrown at him, and for this deserves great credit. Those who mocked and dismissed him, hostage to the idea that he was leading his party towards certain oblivion, have singularly failed to understand both his unique personal appeal and that of the kind of distinctly British and mild radicalism outlined in the Labour manifesto. Corbyn’s supporters were written off as irrational cultists and naive dreamers, as ideological lepers outwith the rest of the electorate, all because they had the audacity to think it better to vote for what you want and not get it, than to vote for what you don’t want and get it. Yet what his critics missed was that it was precisely because the Labour leader offered a positive alternative, precisely because he transformed anger over austerity and inequality into hope that a better world was possible, that he was able to get people to turn out for him at the ballot box in numbers that come election night left many seasoned political analysts amazed.
Corbyn did all this, it should be noted, at the same time as dodging several bullets. Labour is a party caught between a rock and a hard place. Several of them in fact. In order to get into power it must come up with a programme that appeals to both pro-Brexit, anti-immigration white working-class northern voters, as well as to anti-Brexit, pro-immigration southern voters from a more diverse range of ethnic and social backgrounds. In addition to this conventional wisdom has it that Labour also needs to move left in order to recover Scotland, yet shift right if it wants to make progress in the Home Counties. And if that wasn’t enough the party must also find a way to square the circle of having a leader elected on an anti-Trident ticket with the fact that most of the affiliated trade unions which fill its coffers favour renewal.
Mission impossible maybe. Yet through a big dollop of finesse and a pinch of sophistry Corbyn kept these contradictions from coming to the fore. Perhaps most significantly for Labour’s long-term fortunes there was no repeat of what happened after the Scottish independence referendum. The widely touted UKIP challenge in Labour’s northern heartlands failed to materialise, in no small part because despite edging towards remain Corbyn’s studied indifference towards the whole issue did not alienate pro-Brexit voters during and after the EU referendum. (Unlike his predecessor Ed Miliband, that is, who in happily campaigning with the Tories over Scottish independence severely damaged Labour’s standing north of the border.) More significant again, by doing better than expected but not winning Corbyn arguably delivered what from a certain perspective can be considered a very good—maybe even the best possible—outcome for Labour. The Conservative government’s been left to carry the can for Brexit while Labour waits in the wings, primed and ready to play the role of national saviour.
Given all this, it’s hard to see how another leader would have fared any better, though very easy to see how an ardent remainer from the party’s right could have done far worse. That said it’s important not to get carried away. Not only did Corbyn benefit from a bar set so low that he only had to avoid total wipeout to exceed expectations; he also had the good fortune of confronting an opponent who, despite having the odds heavily stacked in her favour, nevertheless managed to undermine herself at almost every turn.
In light of the above it’s not unfair to suggest that Labour could—and perhaps should—have done even better. If nothing else the failure to defeat the mediocre figurehead of a deeply dysfunctional government says something about the limits of Corbyn’s popular appeal. He may have won a moral victory and left Labour in a promising position from which to fight the next general election. But moral victories don’t feed the homeless and when all’s said and done any political party worth its salt should be aiming to get into power, not come a close second. Winning may not be everything but it is still important—and in this respect no amount of adulation can hide the fact that the Labour leader most definitely fell short.
This, moreover, is to say nothing of the other issues surrounding his leadership: The practised disingenuousness Corbyn will adopt when faced with allegations about his past or when pressed on issues on which the party remains divided. Continued problems in terms of preaching beyond the converted, in attracting Tory voters and establishing a decent poll lead in particular. The absence of sufficiently detailed and clearly-articulated policy positions, especially on Brexit, with slogans, whataboutery and virtue-signalling all too often filling the void. Continuing concerns about his credibility as a leader, above all when it comes to matters of national security and economics; in addition to a general lack of professionalism and public relations savvy that at times borders on the excruciating. Lingering questions about the underlying loyalty, commitment to serious party work and general behaviour of many of those he’s drawn to Labour, as well as about the nature, role and purpose of the ‘party within a party’ that Momentum threatens to (and has?) become. The poisonous atmosphere that still exists within the Labour tent, with talk of treachery, de-selections, civil war and possible splits as rife as ever. Persistent accusations that a blind eye is turned towards instances of anti-Semitism.
The list could go on. Suffice it to say there’re a number of issues with Corbyn’s leadership. The trouble with his critics, however, is that they’ve consistently exaggerated these issues while at the same time refusing to reflect on how their own behaviour has exacerbated them. The Labour leader has been damned at every turn, by a coterie of senior party figures who from the start have viewed him as a problem to be solved. It’s a scorched earth policy that’s become a self-fulfilling prophecy, in that the more they destabilise his leadership the poorer the party’s performed in the polls, with poor poll performance in turn used as a reason for further destabilisation. (It’s no coincidence that, following the party’s surprise success at the election, when those who’d previously made it their mission to undermine him temporarily united behind and supported Corbyn Labour enjoyed some of the best poll ratings it’s had during his time as leader.)
In adopting such an unashamedly uncooperative attitude towards his leadership Corbyn’s critics have therefore shown themselves capable only of wrecking. They offer nothing positive, nothing inspiring. The result is that in the eyes of those they most need to influence, the strongly pro-Corbyn Labour rank-and-file, the Labour leader’s detractors have forfeited any moral and intellectual authority they might otherwise have had. Theirs is thus an entirely self-defeating approach, that’s symptomatic of a more widely defective political antennae. Yet because there is at least a kernel of truth in much of what they say Corbyn’s critics within the party will never be fully silenced, even if Labour’s unexpected electoral success left them momentarily cowed. The questions about Corbyn’s suitability/electability simply cut too close to the bone for them to ever disappear completely.
Thus we come to the conundrum of Corbyn’s leadership: Namely, totemic figure that he’s doubtless become, the man who has inspired Labour’s revival—utilising unashamed idealism to rescue the party from the grips of mealy-mouthed managerialism and slow decline—may not be the best person to return it to power. There are just too many concerns about the man, his past and his politics to ever think he’d be able to win a majority in parliament. Even more so if faced with a competent opponent (or at least not one as obviously inadequate as Theresa May proved herself to be).
Yet regardless of whether Corbyn is the best person to take a resurgent Labour Party forward, there’s no going back, no putting things back in their box. In a way which transcends simply winning or losing, his leadership has unleashed something new: A mass politics for the 21st century, in the age of the internet. The question for Labour now is how, with or without him, to turn the groundswell of support and political engagement his leadership has generated into a parliamentary majority.
In this respect it’s not about winning at all costs but winning in the right way. This is the challenges which confronts—and perhaps has always confronted—Labour.