Jeremy Corbyn was intended to be a clever political tool and marketing ploy. Smarting from its crushing electoral defeat the Labour Party was ‘convinced’ to open the leadership contest to a broader conversation – a conversation between Blairites, centrist ‘progressives’, and old school red flag comrades. Corbyn became attractive to those seeking to inject mainstream politics with something approaching ideological debate. Will Corbyn’s politics suffice to overcome 30 years of ferocious internal feuds within the Labour party and be somehow adapted to the new post-Brexit political context?
At the culmination of the 1970s the Labour Party suffered a crushing electoral defeat to Tories helmed by the newly empowered Margret Thatcher. Thatcher’s campaign centred around Labour’s economic failures and ideological deficiency. For the next decade Labour appeared to fade into insignificance as Thatcherism radically changed Britain’s political, economic and social dynamics. The post-WWII era came to an abrupt end with a decimation of the public sector, an assault on Union power, and sweeping changes to social provision. The Labour Party, during this period, was plunged into a deep and divisive identity crisis: torn between sticking to its founding principles or veering toward the seemingly irresistible tide of neoliberal logic sweeping the Western world.
By the 1990s Thatcherism had lost its appeal and de-industrialised areas were hungry for an alternative to the Conservatives and their toxic reforms. Thatcher resigned in 1990 in response to mass opposition to her leadership from the Parliamentary Party and plummeting public approval ratings. In turn, the Labour Party had slightly tempered its differences under Neil Kinnock’s leadership – resolving to a soft-left approach designed to appeal to the disenfranchised without alienating the middle classes. By the 1992 election Labour seemed poised to dethrone the Tories for the first time in over a decade. However, a concentrated attack on Kinnock spearheaded by the tabloid press ensured that John Major’s Conservatives crept back into power.
As it became clear that Kinnock’s leadership proved decisive in the Tory return to government, the Labour Party was plunged into a fresh identity crisis. Young and ambitious members of the Parliamentary Party, led by Tony Blair, viewed the soft-left approach as incompatible with electoral success, and as their voices grew stronger New Labour was born. The rebrand was symbolic in underscoring the shift from the left to the centre ground – envisioned as a modern globalist, neoliberally orientated ideological template that retained the compassionate aspirations of the traditional left. The rebrand was an unmitigated success with Labour romping to victory in 1997. In fact, Labour comfortably held onto power for over a decade as the Conservatives struggled to provide a broadly appealing alternative to New Labour. Blair’s more palatable articulation of neoliberal politics seemed to have effectively capture middle England, and the Tories floundered in their attempts to wrestle it back (it should be noted, however, that this was the era in which Brexit was unearthed as a key Tory vote winner).
Unsurprisingly, Labour were routed in last year’s general election and, once again, descended into a crisis of identity
Despite the mass public outrage at Blair for his role in the Iraq War and his resignation in 2007, it was not until the global financial crisis of 2008 that the Labour Party looked like losing power. The 2010 general election was defined by the crisis, and ill public feeling at Gordon Brown’s use of public funds to bailout banks. The Tories, in turn, had learned from Blair’s success and media awareness. Helmed by the marketable David Cameron, and promising compassionate Conservatism coupled with fiscal prudence, the Tories emerged victorious with the help of Liberal Democrat support: the Coalition was born. For the Labour Party more soul searching ensued. The Blairites were tainted by their heritage, and the traditional left seen as archaic relics of a bygone century. Almost by accident, the meek Ed Miliband (largely viewed as the less ambitious brother to Blairite David) found himself in a leadership role. Desperate to appear appealing to the electorate and distinguish himself from Blair, Miliband veered toward a just about left of centre position that many struggled to differentiate from Cameron’s compassionate conservatism: both advocating cuts to welfare, austerity, and promising restrictions to immigration. Unsurprisingly, Labour were routed in last year’s general election and, once again, descended into a crisis of identity.
Jeremy Corbyn was intended to be a clever political tool and marketing ploy. Smarting from its crushing electoral defeat the Labour Party was ‘convinced’ to open the leadership contest to a broader conversation – a conversation between Blairites, centrist ‘progressives’, and old school red flag comrades. This is where Corbyn was supposed to come in, a voice of the left intended to give the leadership contest the veneer of inclusivity before they ultimately voted for a centrist leader equipped to court middle England. The camera friendly manicured northern type Andy Burnham was the front runner: a Cameron styled media savvy politician with sufficient working-class hue to remind people that this is the Labour Party, and they’re different.
Given the open and flagrant hostility to Corbyn’s leadership – the rebellions, press leaks, and persistent public criticisms – it’s surprising that he has lasted this long.
Things, suffice to say, did not go according to plan. It wasn’t that Corbyn is a particularly charismatic or inspiring personality, or that his politics are innovative or even that radical. Simply, by offering something that was alternative to the neoliberal pro-market, pro-business, anti-welfare, subtly anti-immigrant rhetoric that has dominated both Labour and Conservative agendas for the last decade, Corbyn became attractive to those seeking to inject mainstream politics with something approaching ideological debate. People, primarily young and dissatisfied with contemporary British politics, rallied behind Corbyn en masse, registering as Labour Party members to support the then 66 year old formerly inconsequential backbencher. The rebrand strategy backfired. Instead, of encouraging new members to join the party and get behind a centrist leader capable of out-Cameroning Cameron, the party encouraged a new set of voters determined to re-orient Labour back to the left.
As Corbyn claimed victory with the biggest democratic mandate of any Labour leader, Labour MPs began to cry foul. Some backtracked on their original nominations of Corbyn: ‘we’re all for inclusivity, but only if we have the right to define what inclusive means,’ they probably cried. Other senior figures refused to serve as frontbenchers or shadow cabinet members – suspecting that Corbyn’s tenure would be brief and hoping that slipping to the background in the short-term would preserve their long-term careers. Some even started plotting how and when they could oust Corbyn, and get the party back on the right track (boom boom). In an unprecedented series of events, the Labour Party was left with a leader none of them believed they would ever have, and the majority of its serving politicians could not wait to depose.
Given the open and flagrant hostility to Corbyn’s leadership – the rebellions, press leaks, and persistent public criticisms – it’s surprising that he has lasted this long. The consensus, since his election, is that Corbyn cannot win an election and is destined to be a lame duck leader. With so many Labour Party MPs, MEPs, Councillors, and public Party figureheads so adamant that Corbyn would fail, the prophecy could, in truth, becoming nothing but self-fulfilling. Today Corbyn’s leadership hangs on a knife edge with calls from every corner for him to resign and cede control. With an overwhelming vote of no confidence from the Parliamentary Party, mass resignations by Shadow Ministers, disownment in the Commons, and attempts by anti-Corbyn sections of the party to take legal control of the Labour brand name, it appears that Corbyn has no choice but to fall on the sword his colleagues have been diligently sharpening for the best part of a year. However, and this is the kicker, the reason for this dramatic attempt to force Corbyn’s hand is that he would likely win any contest to his leadership. Despite all the bad press, lack of support from his colleagues, and repeated professions of his electoral toxicity – Corbyn remains popular with Labour Party members. In fact, thousands have joined the party over the last few days with the express purpose of saving Corbyn’s leadership. He might have to take on every Shadow portfolio, but if Corbyn wants to remain leader, he can.
The attitude of the Parliamentary Party is that those supporting Corbyn are not real Labour supporters. These are people who took advantage of new party membership and leadership election rules to force in a radical left leader. They are not legitimate members, but a belligerent rabble intent on dragging the Party to political insignificance. The EU referendum cemented this belief. Corbyn let down Labour and the UK by not campaigning hard enough, by not sharing a stage with Cameron, and by refusing to deny that he wasn’t entirely convinced by the benevolence of the EU as it currently operates. Above all Corbyn didn’t connect with traditional Labour heartlands in the North and this spelled disaster for any hope of general election success.
Let’s get the facts straight. The majority of Labour voters voted to remain and, unsurprisingly, the young people who have rallied behind Corbyn’s leadership overwhelmingly voted to remain. The issue, nonetheless, is that these voters are not the current kingmakers in British politics. The Parliamentary Party does not believe that Corbyn can reach the 52% of the population who voted for Brexit, particularly those in working class areas who Labour have depended upon in every electoral success. Corbyn refused to court these voters by joining with Cameron and pushing a pro-neoliberal message for remaining in the EU, and promising a more restrictive attitude to immigration if the UK remained. In contrast, he attempted to present an alternative argument for remaining: one that acknowledged the major problems with the EU as a political and economic body, while, at the same time, looking hopefully at the possibilities presented by European solidarity against the injustices produced by European capitalism. This message, lamentably, does not sell to a disenfranchised British working class who have been spoon fed a diet of immigrant blaming and austerity by successive governments and oppositions. Instead of challenging this narrative and pointing to its numerous falsehoods, the Labour Parliamentary Party has decided to oust Corbyn in the hope of finding someone who can out Tory the Tories in the battle for middle England.
Post-Brexit is a new political ball game and those on the left will no longer vote Labour simply because they are not the Tories
The irony, of course, is that these voters are far more to likely to be swung to the UKIPs than Old New Labour. Boris and the Brexiteers have sold leave voters an impossible lie. None of their Brexit promises like drastically reducing immigration and plunging non-existent funds in the NHS can actually be delivered. Boris knew this, but didn’t really expect to be in a position where he would be expected to deliver. However, these promises are now in the public lexicon: they will linger like a bad smell in impoverished areas who were sold on the ideal of making Britain great again. The only Party willing to attempt any of these promises is UKIP, who have no hesitancy in stoking nationalist flames and offering mass deportation as an electoral bargaining chip. Labour cannot, nor should not, compete with this. Regardless of who their leader is, they will become victims of the anti-immigration narrative they have done nothing to counter.
On the flip side, when Corby is inevitably given the push, Labour will lose the support of young voters desperately looking for the alternative Corbyn was at least trying to articulate. Let’s be honest, Corbyn’s politics are rooted in post-WWII idealism. He is in no way a political visionary or likely to sway enough of middle England to win an election. Yet these are not the voters that a progressive party should be attempting to sway. Rather, they should be focusing on keeping the younger generation, attracted by Corbyn’s idealism, engaged and hopeful about parliamentary politics. These are people who care about the values that the Labour Party claim to espouse, and they will evacuate the Party (and perhaps even their engagement with democratic politics) as soon as Labour abandon them in favour of Britain’s elderly kingmakers. This is an identity crisis, one in which we will discover if Labour has any relevant political identity at all. Post-Brexit is a new political ball game and those on the left will no longer vote Labour simply because they are not the Tories.