In just under a week, Jeremy Corbyn will almost certainly be re-elected as Leader of the Labour Party – and, if all the credible indications we have are correct, perhaps by a wider margin than the 60 per cent or so of the votes that he received last year.
Yet less than a couple of months ago, his position looked worse than precarious. His first nine months in office had been marred by laughable debacle after ludicrous gaffe after embarrassing spectacle. Most of the organised, professional Labour Party at the centre were deeply unhappy with Mr Corbyn’s role in the Remain camp’s defeat in the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. He had either under-performed so badly that he was not fit for his office, their argument went: or, in fact, he had actually connived and plotted, along with his office, to help the Leave camp that he so obviously backed in private. Whatever the truth, he had to go. His Shadow Cabinet disintegrated; his Parliamentary Party passed a huge Vote of No Confidence against him – something that would have ended any other leader’s time in office then and there – while large numbers of councillors, the Labour London Mayor and the Party’s Leader in Scotland, Kezia Dugdale, all lined up to condemn his ideas, or his performance, or both.
So what happened? How did the views of the Party’s General Secretary, its Deputy Leader, almost all of its MPs, the majority of its Members of the Scottish and European Parliaments, all of its living ex-leaders, a great big basket of Labour luminaries and celebrities, and indeed almost everyone the wider public has ever heard of within Labour, turn out to be so irrelevant? How could a leader beleaguered on almost every front even hope to survive, let alone lead anything resembling a political party? Well, here’s some thoughts on how the anti-Corbynites got so badly beaten.
They don’t have enough alternative ideas. Mr Corbyn is identified with a very clear world-view. The private market does not provide. The state should spend more. Austerity is unnecessary, punitive and just plain wrong. The United States often acts against the interests of the wider peace. The UK should stay out of foreign conflicts altogether, if at all possible. Now, you may not like those views (or you might find them inspiring), but they’re clear – at least on the surface. The Labour leader’s opponents? Well, not so much. There are elements of a novel Labour agenda floating around that derive from neither of those absurdly over-polarised alternatives, ‘New Labour’ and ‘Corbynism’. But Mr Corbyn’s opponents are both so multifarious, and so stunned both by Labour’s 2015 defeat and the Party’s descent since into full-on existential crisis, that they are struggling to get their intellectual case together. One idea they have got is moving towards a really, really strong localist and devolutionist agenda (as advocated here, as elsewhere) – something ex-leadership candidate Liz Kendall has been talking about over the last few days. But how are they supposed to argue against Labour’s equivalent of motherhood and apple pie: more spending, more intervention, less austerity, more nationalisation? That seems like a lost cause, at least for now.
They don’t have many big hitters. That mention of Liz Kendall gives the game away somewhat: a brave and doughty fighter for her brand of social democracy, she is rather unusual in that she is both a ‘name’ that means anything at all outside Westminster, and is prepared to put her head once more over the parapet. Elsewhere, the long shadow of the Blair-versus-Brown wars has fallen over the Party. There’s just so few convincing leaders left. The Special Adviser class of the 2000s – the Andy Burnhams and the David Milibands – have fallen by the wayside, at least in terms of returning Labour to national office. Other figures that might once have aspired to lead Labour – Keir Starmer, say, or Chuka Umunna – have not exactly been conspicuous by their engagement in the fray. Perhaps they think that more sensible times will one day return; or they genuinely have to taste for the hand-to-hand; or think that the cause is lost anyway. Whatever the reasons, it’s been left to Owen Smith (above) – a perfectly admirable Secretary of State, perhaps, but not a readymade national leader – to carry the banner of the Corbyn refuseniks. He’s made too many mistakes for comfort. Of course he has. He wasn’t oven-ready, or enough of a confidence, experienced power-broker, to expect anything else. And he’s been beaten, fairly easily, by a candidate with better spin and clearer branding.
They haven’t moved with the times. Mr Corbyn’s opponents have been running behind his bandwagon ever since he was nominated for the leadership last summer. At first, they ignored him, because he was a ‘fringe’ candidate who had no chance of winning. Then, they tried to paint him as a loveable-but-muddleheaded outsider who would do quite well, and who had won the right to be listened to, but actually wasn’t all that serious about wanting the job. Then, once it became clear that he’d win, many Labour MPs simply decided to serve their constituents, write reports for think tanks, and appear on the TV – anything to avoid co-operating with Seumas Milne, Andrew Fisher and the like. Simply put, Mr Corbyn himself has been an irrelevant sideshow at Westminster for so long, and his type of Leftism has been dormant for years that are hard to count. So everyone else underestimated him – and his ideas. That has cost them. Maybe if they’d put up Owen Smith last year – a fresh face, and a credibly Left-wing one – they might have won, or reduced Mr Corbyn’s famous ‘mandate’ to the extent that it was easier to get rid of him. No doubt they’ll put up someone more impressive next year, or the year after, when membership churn has made the selectorate even more favourable to Mr Corbyn. Then they’ll lose again, by an even greater margin. If they’d tried that this year, they would have got closer. They’ve been behind the game throughout. Labour’s non-Corbynites are paying the price.
A networked revolt has overtaken them. Once upon a time, what the Mirror thought would have made a big noise in Labourworld. Then, when it joined in the revolt against Mr Corbyn in a way that the newspaper had never come out against Gordon Brown or Ed Miliband, it would have looked even worse for him. But that’s not how things work now. These days, Facebook and Twitter allow Mr Corbyn’s committed supporters to communicate with each other, and like-minded friends, much more than they ever have to listen to unexpected sources of dissonance or dissent. The fantasist clickbait wrongfest that is The Canary website is rapidly growing to rival more established outlets such as The New Statesman and The Economist. Aaron Bastani’s Novara Media and economics journalist Paul Mason’s blog are replicated endlessly on Facebook, to the great consternation and confusion of less politically-active Britons faced with memes, tropes and language that they just don’t recognise from their position within the reality-based community. Mr Corbyn’s Facebook following itself has just completely steamrollered Mr Smith’s. The Labour Party is now the preserve of hundreds of thousands of inter-connected campaigns, blogs and ‘news’ sites that look nothing like The Mirror or The Guardian. If they want to challenge that, Labour’s centrists have to construct their own social network. That will be hard work. It will mean that groups such as Progress and Labour First may have to dissolve themselves and create one single-minded and focused campaign like the Corbynite Momentum group. It will mean that they have to get new ideas, a leader, a set of causes. That they have to really define themselves, way beyond the fuzzy calls of ‘not-Jeremy’ or ‘Jeremy-but-competent’ that we hear today. It’s probably the work of many, many years. It might even need decades to coax moderate, workaday British people into a party that looks increasingly nothing like the country it seeks to lead.
Labour’s just too far gone. Practically no-one believes that Labour are going to win the next General Election outright. A few more perhaps think that they might be able to play some sort of role in rallying non-Conservative forces and forming a majority that could lock Theresa May out of No. 10. But let’s face it: neither group is very numerous. There’s never been a Labour Opposition that’s polled this badly. There’s never been a Labour leader (with the possible exception of Michael Foot) who’s this unpopular with the public. Local government by-elections are going badly. Westminster by-election swings are way down on 2011 – the last proper comparator – and the local election results in May were just very, very poor indeed. Labour came third in Scotland, when it was a key Corbynite claim that a ‘Left-wing’ offer could ‘win Scotland back’ – as if something as momentous as Labour’s rout there had a one-trick-pony answer. The problem this creates for Labour people actually interested in elections is this: they can’t offer electoral salvation. ‘Owen Smith offers you the chance to lose less badly’ is not a great slogan. ‘Owen Smith: you won’t be routed, and one day you might rise again’: it doesn’t set many hearts aflame. So Labour will march on, knowing that the next time we all see an exit poll it will probably be a grisly, icy, tragic moment of blue-lightning clarity, all the while thinking ‘well, if he’s going to fail, Jeremy must be allowed to fail on his own terms. Then we’ll start again’.
They’re not and they weren’t particularly ruthless, the anti-Corbynites. The so-called ‘coup’ launched in June was really an overlapping series of revolts – partly planned among really hard-core anti-Jezites, in all probably, but across the Soft Left and among large swathes of the councillor base, more of a ‘riot of despair’ than anything else. They could have gone even further. They could have collapsed the Whips’ Office and dissolved the official Opposition altogether. The Parliamentary Party might have elected its own leader and just got on with things, daring members to tear them down. They certainly could have come out and told their stories of disgraceful negligence and downright failure much, much earlier – and in a more concerted way. The fact that they didn’t tells you how much of a ‘coup’ there has really been.
We can all see, now, just how perilous previously-mainstream Labour’s position really is. In all likelihood electorally irrelevant well into the 2020s, and faced with a wall of totally convinced certainty on the part of their internal adversaries, many anti-Corbynites are probably on the way out whatever they do. There will very likely be a Corbynite leader in the next Parliament – Emily Thornberry, perhaps, Richard Burgon, or Clive Lewis – and there may not be anything that the Labour rebels can do about it. But they can still still perhaps cling on to a little bit of hope, and hang on in there for the next decade they will have to endure, because before them is a good example of a huge political comeback: just how hopeless things looked, just a few years ago, for the insurgent Left that seemed so irrelevant for so long. By thinking – really thinking – while also coalescing around a plausible Party and national leader, by reaching out beyond politics, and by drawing hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions, of people to the banner of a really inclusive, dynamic, open party that isn’t just for political enthusiasts, they might get a chance to lead again.
For now, they’ve once again been caught in the headlights. They didn’t see any of this coming, and most Labour people would have acted differently if they had. At least now they see the size of their challenge, and they can act accordingly – if they think it’s worth fighting on at all.
This post originally appeared on his blog, Public Policy and the Past.