As the UK careers out of the European Union, Labour’s eyes are trained on the grim prospect of another leadership election. It wasn’t supposed to be like this — a decade of austerity and the multi-year debacle leading to Brexit was heralded as fertile ground for a Labour leader who promised the most progressive, transformative manifesto in a generation. Instead Jeremy Corbyn’s time as leader already seems like a mirage, dispelled as quickly as it appeared.
Labour’s election campaign was an evisceration, handing the Tories an 80 seat majority in the House of Commons and, with no opposition ever having overcome such a deficit in a single electoral cycle, a presumptive decade in power. The party’s heartlands in the North of England were smashed by the Conservatives and the party is bitterly divided on almost every ideological line. How did this become Corbyn’s legacy?
In 2010 Labour had made the choice to elect Ed Miliband over his brother David, endorsing an apparently more left-wing candidacy over a continuation of the Blair-Brown years of centrism, but it failed. David Cameron’s Conservatives swept to an unexpected majority and left Labour licking their wounds.
In 2015 Labour’s leadership race became a contest between ‘hope’ and ‘pragmatism,’ centered on the question of whether its failed general election campaign was much too leftist, or just a bit too leftist. The initial slate of candidates for the 2015 leadership race looked dire, the remnants of the Blair-Brown era dismantled and laid bare with manifestos which were indistinguishable from the Tories.
Enter Jeremy Corbyn, a candidate whose three decades on the back benches and perennial rebellions had made him a thorn in the side of successive Labour leaders. Corbyn’s nomination relied on the beneficence of the party’s Blairite grandes dames whose nostalgia for the left overcame their recollection of marginalizing it in the first place.
That didn’t last long. Corbyn took an early lead in the 2015 contest and kept it, and within days many of his nostalgic backers found themselves on the airwaves warning about the impending destruction of the party. Backed by an agile campaign group, Momentum, and tens of thousands of new party members, Corbyn won in the first ballot with almost 60% of the vote. Hope won, crushingly.
There was instant talk of a leadership challenge, and it became clear that Corbyn suffered from a lack of executive experience. He came to power in unique circumstances — someone without senior leadership experience, with the backing of new members who hoped the party could become something different than it was, but an almost entirely hostile Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) whose MPs were openly plotting to remove him from the moment he arrived.
Peace maker or terrorist?
Almost since his leadership campaign, Corbyn had been accused of sympathizing with the IRA during the conflict in Northern Ireland. As an MP in the 1980s, Corbyn had invited figures from Sinn Fein to parliament, though the party stood accused of being the political wing of a republican complex whose other half was the Provisional IRA, the most active republican group in the Troubles.
Corbyn has consistently argued that his role was to be a peace-maker, inviting the disenfranchised into the political fold, without whom there could be no peace process. This could charitably be described as naive: at the time Corbyn invited them to Parliament, Sinn Fein were openly advocating armed struggle against the British state; there was no peace process at this point, and when it came it wasn’t because of backchannel communications between parties at a far higher level than Corbyn, in which Sinn Fein initially refused a part.
Belief that Corbyn was working to establish peace is grounded in romance, not realism — a fiction whose effects rely on the reader’s disconnection. In my time reporting on Northern Ireland I have never encountered anyone who attributed to Corbyn a role in the peace process, or believed his leadership has made the slightest difference to the fate of the North within the UK.
Other aspects of Corbyn’s foreign policy almost made his opponents work too easy; his support for anything other than British rule of the Falkland Islands, his self-described “friends” in Hamas and Hezbollah. Corbyn is quick to denounce violence, but delights in connections with outré figures whose allure is as much in cordite as conversation. His is the stance of a man without personal risk: an idealist in London far from a world with bullets.
Pacifism may be a laudable goal, but Corbyn’s forays into world events have a retrospectively self-serving air. It’s hard to imagine what self-respecting Hezbollah, Hamas or Sinn Fein representative would have met with an unknown Labour back-bencher during the 1980s wilderness years expecting anything other than publicity for their cause.
Anti-semitism has been a scourge of the Labour party’s image under Corbyn. Numerous activists, many of long standing, have said the party has become inhospitable and faced attacks on social media from other activists. More senior figures have been implicated, too, with former London Mayor Ken Livingston suspended from the party over statements widely criticized as anti-semitic.
Under Corbyn’s leadership, the party’s response to allegations of anti-semitic conduct has been criticized as sluggish, misguided and at times seeking a cover-up rather than to expel guilty parties. Labour has become the first UK party to be investigated by the independent Equality and Human Rights Commission. Ambivalence from the leader’s office appears to have fostered a climate in which some members feel unable to be part of the party.
Intellectually, the crime of anti-semitism, manifested often in the repetition of conspiracy theories shared with the far right, has accelerated without adequate action from the party’s highest echelons. Conspiracy theories about a global elite have replaced a thorough awareness of social, political or economic concerns interrelate. There ought to have been an unmistakable response to anti-semitic rhetoric, grounded in the need for collegiality and rigorous analysis of social problems leading to decisive political action. Instead there has been foot-dragging and little else.
Brexit, into pieces
Corbyn’s first year saw David Cameron fail to renegotiate a new settlement with the EU, then call a referendum on membership, then lose it, then resign. Labour spent this time fending off talk of a leadership challenge and failing to articulate any coherent message on Brexit — or EU membership as it was then called — the defining issue of the generation, as much for what it means in the future as what it says about the past.
Anyone who claims to be any shade of leftist has ample reason to doubt the EU’s credentials as a project worthy of their time. Its record on human rights, especially those of migrants and refugees, is appalling. So, too, its liquidation of the Greek state in pursuit of banks’ agendas. Then there’s its vast and unaccountable bureaucracy, shot through with commercial interests. Its increasing self-image as a trade bloc first and social movement second. Corbyn’s speech shortly before the 2016 referendum talked of an “overwhelming case” to remain in the EU, but it was never clear that he had accepted it.
In hindsight Corbyn’s approach to Brexit was abject, displaying serious intellectual and political shortcomings. While the PLP was mostly in favor of EU membership, for neoliberal reasons which chimed with many, the leadership lacked any distinguishable view beyond hoping to keep the party base together. It never espoused a mainstream account of how a future outside the EU could enshrine greater human rights protection in law, overthrow racist immigration protocols, prioritize people over profit or engender a more equitable politics.
The referendum result united eurosceptic Tories, who favored free trade, with eurosceptic Labour voters in areas completely removed from the political calculus. In failing to present an alternative, left-wing narrative of Brexit, Corbyn ceded not only his political base to the Tories, but the ideological future.
Over the next three years familiar struggles played out. The Tories’ snap general election in 2017 was a disaster, obliterating their parliamentary majority and necessitating a deal with the hard-line Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland to navigate legislation. By late 2019, after another change of PM, even the DUP deal wasn’t enough — the Tories’ working majority in the Commons sat at -48 and they had suspended rebel MPs including Churchill’s grandson for disloyalty. Only against a historically awful opposition could a party in these straits have secured an 80-seat rout of the opposition as they did in December.
Though the Tories spent this time at war with each other, they did so over something they could pretend to control. Labour had similar levels of infighting, but over something they had no ability to influence and with no cohesive intellectual vision. The thousands of hopeful new members from 2015 couldn’t have been surprised that the Blair-Brown era MPs were predominantly in favor of EU membership, but were disheartened at the lack of a substantive rebuke from the leader’s office.
Instead Labour’s message, as late as December, was that an election win would see it renegotiate a new deal with the EU to leave, then put this to a public vote with ‘remain’ on the ballot paper. This was said to be democratic and accommodating of various views, but it was spectacularly naive: no party can campaign for government on the basis of extending a hideously protracted negotiation process with the EU, before opening itself to the prospect of its policy being voted down within months of the election.
Next to this miscalculation, it was easy to see how voters considered Labour a lost cause. With their thinking on Brexit this cloudy, their social policies had no chance of reaching the airwaves.
Red Wall Breached
The so-called ‘red wall’ which Labour lost this December, perhaps permanently, consists of towns in the North of England dominated by hulking industrial relics of red brick, unused in decades; with rows of terraced houses lining the hills like rivulets crossing a depleted riverbed. Communities left out of the political calculus of every party for just as long, lazily represented by London-centric apparatchiks whose own aides readily acknowledged they knew nothing of the region or its people.
A man from one such town recently explained to me his simultaneous despair at the drift to Conservatism in his home constituency and his belief that the alternative, in Corbyn, guaranteed it. “These people are patriots,” he said, “not in the sense of being racist but they believe their country is a good thing and they want to see it do well. Corbyn didn’t seem to care about it at all.”
The UK equivalent of ‘flyover states’ would be ‘the regions’, and Labour has an uncomfortable history here of assuming endless loyalty even in the face of total disinterest from the main party. Generations of poverty and dwindling prospects are simply not known to a generation of Labour politicians and advisors.
“These people,” were cast, before and after the Brexit referendum, as brainless malcontents, racist and thoughtlessly obstinate in the face of progress, but in reality progress was not theirs to share — decades of neoliberalism ensured that. The hand-wringing of some Labour commentators since December has reduced the concerns of historically working class areas to immigration, an inaccurate concession vaguely acceptable to neoliberal politicians who hope to hoover up votes from the Conservatives.
Corbyn’s intellectual and operational legacy may have been constrained by his predecessors, or the PLP, but in the final reckoning his tenure is lacking, perhaps entirely, in intellectual qualities. He inherited a party with deep intellectual fractures, but leaves it having only seen them deepen.
Maybe this was in Corbyn’s mind when he blamed the media for his humiliation, or when he nominated close staff for peerages in apparent contravention of the politics he, and they, had spent their careers espousing. Or maybe the 2015 class of hopefuls simply got their wish: a narrative which reflected their own image as outsiders, overrun by events they didn’t control to begin with.
Simon Jones is reporter based in Glasgow for Politico, Al Jazeera, Le Monde Diplomatique and others.