In my previous post I wrote about how Brexit has seemingly woken people up to the searing divisions that exist within British society. The unexpected victory in the EU referendum for the leave campaign is certainly making its mark in a number of different ways. Within a matter of days £100bn was wiped from the FTSE 100, the UK lost its AAA credit rating and the pound hit a 31 year low against the US dollar. While there does now seem to have been a significant degree of recovery within the financial markets, the long term impact on the UK economy will remain largely unknown until the terms of Brexit become clear. The impact of Brexit on the countries political landscape has been much more profound, and while the market may have stabilised to a certain degree, the political turmoil looks set to continue for quite some time. It is this aspect of Brexit that I want to explore, with a particular focus on the future of the labour party and its leader Jeremy Corbyn.
The resignation of prime minister David Cameron, following the failure of the remain campaign in which he was a leading figure, brings a welcome end to the premiership of one of the countries most damaging leaders. It was under Cameron that the conservative party pursued policies that are responsible for the immiseration of a significant proportion of the countries population and the death of some of the countries poorest and most vulnerable people. It should come as no surprise to anybody that the United Nation’s Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has confirmed that the UK government’s austerity measures and social security reform are in breach of their obligations to human rights and expressed serious concerns for “the disproportionate adverse impact that austerity measures” are having on disadvantaged and marginalised individuals and groups.
The early favourite for the subsequent conservative party leadership election was ex London mayor Boris Johnson, a man whose clown like public persona hides a ruthlessly opportunist bully and former Bullingdon club member, a man who clearly only played a central role in a leave campaign which whipped up a murderous storm of xenophobic and anti-intellectual feeling because he thought it would weaken David Cameron and further his ambitions of becoming PM. Going from his demeanor over the past week, it has increasingly becoming apparent that the leave campaign’s unexpected victory and Cameron’s subsequent decision to step down without activating article fifty has somewhat ruined things for Boris, who has just announced that he will not be entering the race after all.
It appears that he doesn’t actually want to be the one held responsible for the consequences of leading Britain out of Europe which include the possibility of pushing the country into recession, the collapse of the northern-irish peace process and the break up of the union, but which absolutely definitely does not include the prospect of an extra £350m a week for the NHS.This decision has no doubt been influenced by the fact that his presumed running mate and fellow Brexiteer Michael Gove treacherously announced his own bid for the premiership a few hours earlier. He has tried to suggest that he doesn’t really want to be Prime Minister, but that Boris isn’t up to the job and that somebody (who, reading between the lines has the complete approval of Rupert Murdoch) obviously needs to represent the 52% of the nation that voted to leave.
Michael Gove is even more ruthless than Boris Johnson. As then secretary of state for education, he received a series of votes of no confidence from teachers unions and professional bodies outraged by the “climate of bullying, fear and intimidation” that he had created. He is the man – lest we forget – most responsible for the current climate of anti-intellectualism, as a result of his suggesting during the leave campaign that ‘people in this country have had enough of experts.’
He is joined in the leadership race by Theresa May; a women who backed remain but gave a speech on immigration at the conservative party conference that even the daily mail – of all people – described as “awful, ugly, misleading, cynical and irresponsible.” Also on the list, we have Stephen Crabb; a man who voted against same-sex marriage and with links to “gay cure” advocates and Liam Fox; a man who made the largest over-claim on expenses of any parliamentarian, and was forced to resign from the cabinet when it emerged that he had given a close friend and lobbyist access to the Ministry of defence whilst allowing him to join official trips overseas.
Last but certainly not least, we have Andrea Leadsom; who not only abstained from the Marriage (same-sex couples) Bill but has used a variety of strategies to avoid paying tax. In what smells distinctly like a cash for political office arrangement, Leadsom’s election to office as an MP has consequently been followed by very significant donations that have been made both to the Conservative party and directly to her, by a firm based in London but owned by her brother via a holding company in the tax haven of the British Virgin Islands.
Even if no other conservative MP’s put themselves forwards, this is already a quite remarkable lineup. This cast of characters do a good job of running the current incumbent, another former Bullingdon man with a rather unfortunate fondness for pork, close. It is not impossible that, in terms of immorality, intolerance, greed, ruthlessness and general despicability, one or all of them may even yet outshine him.
In the run up to the EU referendum things hadn’t exactly been going well for the conservative party either. At a point when David Cameron claimed to be leading the international fight against tax avoidance, a number of the people; donors, MPs, financiers, (and lets not forget his dad) who who had supported his rise to power were exposed by the Panama papers as having links to the UK’s network of tax havens. The party also had to perform an embarrassing u-turn when its proposed cuts to disability benefits resulted in back-bench uproar and the resignation from the cabinet of then work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith, and was forced to perform a similar u-turn on its proposals to force all schools to become academies. Perhaps most embarrassingly of all, even David Cameron’s mother had made her feelings clear about the austerity policies of her son, signing a petition against the planned closure of children’s services in Oxfordshire, whilst his aunt publicly described the cuts to be a ‘great, great error.’
This being the case you would think the labour party would be feeling quite good about itself. Yes, the fact that 52% of the electorate voted to leave the EU on the back of a campaign that focussed unrelentingly on immigration was a shock for many people within the labour party, and a profoundly disappointing result. There is also understandable concern, especially since the referendum and the surge of anti-immigration feeling that it has aroused, that the high point of UKIP gains from the labour base, particularly in its traditional (post) industrial heartlands of the midlands and the north, is still yet to come. In other bad news, the odds of labour making a comeback against the SNP in Scotland currently remain pretty slim.
But lets just take a quick step back and have a look at the positives shall we? Jeremy Corbyn won the labour leadership contest in September 2015 running on a platform of reversing austerity cuts to public services and welfare funding made since 2010, and proposing renationalisation of public utilities and the railways. A longstanding anti-war and anti-nuclear activist who was also a well known anti-Apartheid activist, Corbyn also supports a foreign policy of military non-intervention and unilateral nuclear disarmament. As such his platform can be considered a return to a set of traditional labour policies, some of which (nationalisation and nuclear disarmament) had seemingly been consigned to the dustbin of history at the onset of Tony Blairs ‘new labour’ project which took the party significantly to the right. ‘Unelectable’ Corbyn was considered a rank outsider at the beginning of the contest and only scraped the sufficient number of Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) nominations to appear on the ballot with minutes to spare. However, having succeeded in making it onto the ballot he then attracted a massive 59.5% of the first round ballot, significantly more than all of the other candidates put together and the largest mandate ever won by a party leader in British politics.
Since Corbyn became leader of the labour party, many tens of thousands of people have flocked to become members, effectively doubling the total membership. These new members consist not only of those joining for the first time, but also a significant number of former members, many of whom left the party when Tony Blair took the hugely unpopular decision of pushing the labour party into supporting the invasion of Iraq with the use of a three line whip. As such this surge in membership, and the sheer scale of it (more new members have joined the labour party than there are members of the conservative party in total), reflects a clear rejuvenation of the base of the party that is reiterated by the historic move of the Fire Brigade Union (FBU) becoming the first union to decide to re-affiliate to the Labour Party, more than a decade after it withdrew its support.
Under Corbyn’s stewardship, the party has has won all four by-elections that have taken place (three with an increased majority) and all four mayoral elections too. Labour has also also succeeded in outperforming the conservative party in the local elections with an projected national vote share of at least 31%, a figure that is ahead of the conservatives. With regards to the EU referendum, the labour party was able to convince 63% of its 2015 voters to vote Remain, an almost identical proportion as that achieved by the SNP and far higher than the 42% minority of Tory voters that David Cameron was able to persuade.
Why then, you may ask, does the labour party currently appear to be tearing itself apart at a point when the conservative party is in complete disarray? Following the sacking of Hilary Benn in the early hours of Sunday morning after it emerged that he had was plotting a coup agains the leader of the party, the carefully staggered resignation of 20 of Corbyn’s 31 strong shadow cabinet – carefully designed to maximise the amount of news coverage received – has thrown the party into chaos. Following a subsequent non-binding vote of no confidence which was won 172-40 by the rebels, labour finds itself in the position whereby the majority of the parliamentary party holds views directly at odds not only with their leader but with the majority of their membership. It should come as no surprise that this was a secret ballot, suggesting that MPs do not want their constituents to know if they voted against their parties leader. Corbyn struggled to scrape together enough nominations from PLP members to run for leader in the first place so we know he is not particularly popular amongst labour MPs, but the question we need to ask is why a coup attempt and why now?
Many of those labour members of parliament who have resigned from the shadow cabinet have spoken of their disappointment at the EU referendum result, arguing that Corbyn failed to lead from the front with regards to making the case for Europe, and is therefore no longer fit to lead the party. However, it is worth bearing in mind that most of these critics did not support his leadership prior to the referendum either, infact they have never supported him. It is well known that Corbyn retains a healthy scepticism of the EU and he adopted a nuanced position in arguing for the need to remain inside the EU whilst working collectively for a reform agenda that would seek to address its myriad shortcomings.
Corbyn’s unwillingness to abandon his principles, and subsequent decision to campaign to remain in the EU in the interest of protecting workers rights, whilst acknowledging the flawed nature of the european project, is admirable. Particularly when we consider that politicians from the right where lying through their teeth and adopting untenable positions as a means of pursuing their own career development, whilst politicians supposedly from the left were giving their wholehearted support to an organisation which is anything but free from corporate interests – according to the Corporate Europe Observatory, there are at least 30,000 lobbyists in Brussels, nearly matching the 31,000 staff employed by the European commission, which knowingly maintains a number of tax evasion posts, and whose policy – alongside the IMF – of threats towards Greece exacerbated the suffering of millions.
Corbyn also took a lot of flak for failing to share a platform with David Cameron and for not being visible enough in the public eye. When it came to the remain campaign, Corbyn made far more media appearances on this subject than any other Labour MP whilst also touring meetings up and down the country. If Corbyn did not occupy the public attention more this was largely the result of the fact that the British media largely portrayed the entire debate as an argument between two halves of the conservative party. With regards to not sharing a platform with Cameron, the referendum on Scottish independence provides a recent lesson on what happens when you try to run a campaign with the Conservative Party and without any major points of differentiation; it was an unmitigated disaster.
Suggestions that Corbyn did not pull his weight therefore appear to be grossly unfair. The idea that Corbyn deliberately sabotaged the remain campaign, as suggested by the notoriously neutral Laura Kuenssberg, chief political commentator at the notoriously neutral BBC are even more far fetched. In the article in which she makes these claims Kuenssberg does little more than posit a series of suggestions relating to un-released documents and unnamed sources; “documents passed to the BBC suggest Jeremy Corbyn’s office sought to delay and water down the Labour Remain campaign” with “sources suggest[ing] that there is evidence of ‘deliberate sabotage.'” There is no evidence whatsoever to prove that this was the case. It is worth remembering the the Labour remain campaign was run by Alan Johnson, a former cabinet minister under Blair. Johnson has been one of the most ardent critics of Corbyn’s remain efforts, but might it be possible, especially given that a number of broadcasters claim to be exasperated over the difficulties they encountered in getting Johnson himself on air to discuss the Remain campaign, that lashing out at Corbyn represents an attempt by Johnson to divert criticism away from himself?
The whole narrative that Corbyn failed to deliver the labour remain vote is less convincing if we consider the simple fact that virtually as many labour voters voted to remain as SNP voters. How, when it is widely accepted that Scotland voted unequivocally to remain, can a similar percentage of labour voters choosing to vote to remain be seen as an abject failure or as the consequence of deliberate sabotage by the parties leader? If you still think the labour coup has anything to do with the results of the referendum then think again; weeks before the result, it was being reported that labour rebels were openly discussing the fact that they believed they could topple Jeremy Corbyn after the EU referendum in a 24-hour blitz, by jumping on a media storm of his own making and by fanning the flames with front bench resignations. Its pretty much worked out exactly this way, only it was the MPs and not Jeremy Corbyn who have created the media storm and Corbyn remains resolutely untoppled.
Brexit was simply the excuse being used by the PLP to justify its coup attempt whilst seeking to divert attention from the genuine reasons. And what could those reasons possibly be? Here is a statistic to consider… every single one of the labour MPs who resigned from the shadow cabinet abstained from voting against the 2015 Welfare Reform and Work Bill, which proposed a further £12 billion in welfare cuts. If you don’t believe me you can check for yourself. Here is a list of MPs that abstained, and here is a list of the MPs who have resigned from Corbyn’s shadow cabinet. The fact that none of the rebels voted against additional swingeing cuts that go on to harm some of the poorest and most vulnerable in society, the very same cuts that the UN has described as being in breach of the government’s obligations to human rights, tells us a little something about which wing of the labour party they come from.
Many of those criticising Corbyn has talked about the need to build a broad church within the labour party, one in which Blairite and Corbynista can co-exist. The fact that Corbyn was willing to include people such as Gloria De Piero – a member of the Blairite pressure group Progress, Lord Falconer – a close associate of Blair, and centrists such as Vernon Coaker and Ian Murray suggests that he was willing to try and build a consensus. The PLP coup on the other hand, and the particularly unhelpful timing of it, suggests that while Corbyn may have been willing to work with those with ideological differences a significant proportion of the PLP to the right of Corbyn are not.
It is important to note that this is not the first time that members of the Labour Right have sought to sabotage their own party. Right from the point, almost a year ago, when it became clear that Corbyn might win the leadership contest, MP John Mann was trying to get the leadership election cancelled. When he actually did win, others such as Blair’s former speechwriter Peter Hyman, were openly talking about splitting to form a new party to the right of Corbyn. John Prescott, former deputy leader, laid into these ‘bitterites,’ for their refusal to accept Corbyn’s victory and efforts to undermine Labour’s chances of victory, but it seems that the hostility to the Corbyn project has continued all the way up until most recent events; Richard Seymour, Author of ‘Corbyn: the strange rebirth of radical politics’, has suggested that certain MPs were privately briefing that they didn’t want Sadiq Khan (a man who could hardly be described as being from the left-wing of the party) to win the London Mayoral elections, incase it strengthened Corbyn’s position as leader of the Labour party. Although those in open revolt against their leader claim to be concerned about Corbyn’s ability to win an election, their behaviour actually suggests that they are more worried about the fact that he might win. If this sounds far fetched, consider the fact that Tony Blair has stated very explicitly that he wouldn’t want a left-wing Labour party to win an election.
The following article reveals the extent to which the current Labour ‘coup’ being instigated against Jeremy Corbyn appears to have been orchestrated by the Blairite right of the labour party. The articles links a PR company, Portland Communications, whose parent company was contracted to do PR work for Tony Blair with the Fabian society and the Parliamentary labour party. The ranks of Portland Communications contain Alistair Campbell, Tony Blair’s arch spin-doctor, Tim Allen, former adviser to Tony Blair and director of communications at BSkyB, and Steve Morris former head of communications for both Blair and Brown. Infact, the majority of staff at the organization appear to have direct links to the centre and right of the labour party as well as to media organisations such as Sky, the BBC, ITN, The Sun and The Guardian. Most significantly of all in the context of recent events, Portland Communications also employs labour activist Tom Mauchline as a Senior Account manager. Tom Mauchline is the man whose heckling of Jeremy Corbyn was almost immediately picked up on the BBC website along with an interview with the heckler. How many members of the public do you think have heckled Boris Johnson? And how many of them have had their own footage of said heckling rapidly uploaded onto the BBC website along with an in-depth interview? It is not a coincidence that while the Tory party has also been exploding in an equally dramatic fashion, the media have given their full attention to the state of the Labour party.
Many members of Portland Communications also have links with the fabian society, a ‘left-wing’ organisation that is constitutionally affiliated to the labour party as a Socialist Society. The Fabian society advocates gradualist, reformist and democratic means in a journey towards radical ends. Despite describing itself as Socialist, over the last few years it has received funding from the likes of Barclays, Cuadrilla, Lloyds Banking Group and HSBC. Fifteen of the shadow secretary of states and nine of the shadow ministers who resigned are affiliated to the Fabian Society. According to Sky news reporter Soppy Ridge, the man orchestrating and choreographing the shadow cabinet resignations was Conor Mcgin, opposition whip (and therefore rather ironically tasked with ensuring party discipline) and Chair of the Young Fabians. Margaret Hodge, vice president of the Fabian society co-penned the motion of no confidence.
A browse of the Fabian society website quickly reveals interesting information. Articles such as “how should a centre-left government tackle inequality“and “pursuing centre-left politics in one country” clearly show that the society considers labour to be a party of the centre-left and not the left. In 1993, prior to becoming leader of the labour party, it was for the Fabian society that Tony Blair wrote a pamphlet in which he criticised clause IV and put forward a case for defining socialism in terms of a set of constant values and not policies. The eventual acceptance of this argument and the changing of clause IV represents, in many ways, the defining moment at which labour became new labour. With regards to Corbyn, two extracts from a recent comment piece on the Fabian society website speak for themselves:
The Fabian Society would therefore certainly appear to remain largely tied to the Blairite vision of a centre-left ‘new’ labour party that defines itself by ‘socialist’ values rather than policies. As such it does not support Jeremy Corbyn and his efforts to move the labour party back to the left (through the support of policies that clearly articulate these values), despite his popular support from within the party membership. By seeing Corbyn’s popularity amongst the grassroots as a “problem” that might prevent the success of the unconstitutional and undemocratic coup, it becomes clear that at least some members of the society are more interested in the removal of Corbyn than the wishes of the labour party membership.
I do not think there is enough evidence to go as far as Steve Topple has in his article in which he suggests that it is the the Fabians who are behind efforts to dethrone Corbyn. However, what does seem apparent to me is that those to the right of the party, those who wish to see a centre-left labour party and have therefore been opposed to Corbyn from the moment he sought election as leader of the party, are systematically working to undermine him for ideological reasons. This effort does not only involve individuals within the current parliamentary party, but also those to the right of the broader labour movement with involvement in the spheres of media and public relations, many of whom have clear links to the previous new-labour administrations of Blair and Brown.
While it may be that some of the MPs who participated in the vote of no confidence against Corbyn simply do not feel that his leadership is working, the attempted coup cannot simply be viewed as a pragmatic response to the alleged failings of Corbyn’s leadership, but rather, I would suggest, represents also the manifestation of fundamental ideological disagreement over the soul of the labour party, and an attempt by senior figures on the right of the party to prevent it from being moved back to the left, despite the support for Corbyn, not only amongst the party membership but also from the unions.
While the labour rebels and most commentators are linking the timing of the coup to events of the recent past (the EU referendum), and labours potential performance in the event of a (possible snap) election at some point in the future, what if we also consider the coup in relation to another future event, one whose timing we already know for sure? On July the 6th, the Chilcot enquiry, which examines the nation’s role in the Iraq war and which will cover the run-up to the conflict, the subsequent military action and its aftermath, is due to published. This report is expected to deliver an ‘absolute brutal‘ verdict on the former Labour prime minister Tony Blair, Jack Straw and others. It may be pure coincidence but given how damning and damaging the enquiry is likely to be, and the fact that Corbyn appears to be prepared to call for Blair to be investigated for war crimes, the timing of this attempted coup, led from the right-wing of the party and containing many Blairites who voted in favour of the Iraq War, perhaps starts to make a little more sense.
Beyond the careful choreography of the initial resignations, designed to maximise media attention, the coup attempt certainly seems poorly prepared. Those behind it have still not stated who they think can take Corbyn’s place (possibly because they are looking for a candidate who did not vote for the war), or even detailed any specific policies that they disagree with Corbyn on. Now that it has become fairly apparent that Corbyn will not simply step down, there does not seem to be much of a plan. Rebel MP Stephen Kinnock has tried to suggest that as a result of the EU referendum, the massive mandate to lead granted by party members to Corbyn now belongs to a different era and no longer holds water. Others have suggested that Corbyn is not capable of leading and have urged him, with an edge of desperation, to ‘do the right thing‘ and step down, hypocritically placing the responsibility for ending a crisis that they created on his shoulders.
Despite these efforts to persuade Corbyn to step down, nothing currently suggests that he is going to. The fact remains that unless Corbyn is bullied into standing down, the only way he can be removed is via a leadership contest. This has led shadow chancellor John Mcdonnell to describe the rebels as “like a lynch-mob without the rope.” While the outcome of an upcoming leadership contest cannot be taken for granted, it currently appears that the most likely result would be Jeremy Corbyn’s reelection as leader of the labour party. This is reflected by the level of support for him amongst the party membership, who gave him a huge mandate less than a year ago.
While 64% of the membership would have voted for Corbyn in early May, a poll conducted between June 27 and June 30 suggests that 50% who would now vote for Corbyn against 47% who would not. Despite the turmoil caused by the MP revolt, Corbyn therefore retains the slim support of existing party members. A further 60,000 new members have also joined in the last week as a result of the attempted coup. Of the 20,000 new members to have been checked so far, more than 50% support Corbyn. The financial support he will receive from the unions (who played a crucial role in the last leadership election), and the number of activists (from both the unions and momentum) that will support his campaign also gives him a significant edge over any potential leadership rival. The hint of desperation evident in the attacks on Corbyn, and the pleas for him to step down surely therefore reflect the fact that the PLP rebels do not really have any more cards up their sleeves, with the publication of the Chilcot enquiry report looming large at the end of next week and the majority of new members also now suggesting that they would support the deselection of MPs who fail to support Corbyn.
Over the last week I’ve had conversations with a lot of labour supporters about the Corbyn coup. Generally the opinions I have encountered can be divided into two camps. The larger camp, who support Corbyn and his anti-austerity platform feel shocked, saddened and angered by the actions of some members of the PLP. They cannot understand why the parties own MPs would inflict so much damage on the party at such a crucial point in time, with the country divided and hatred bubbling over on the streets, and the conservative party in a state of almost total disarray. This group, to which I belong, feel that in Corbyn labour finally have a decent, honest and principled leader who genuinely reflects the values of the party that set up the welfare state, founded the NHS and introduced the minimum wage. For this group of people, Corbyn is the future of the labour party and for many, his standing down would trigger a level of disillusionment that might even exceed the revulsion generated by Tony Blair’s decision to invade Iraq.
The second group of people to whom I have been talking would probably consider themselves to be pragmatists, and therefore dismiss the first group as being overly idealistic. While they may not fully condone the behaviour of the rebels, may agree that Corbyn is a principled and decent man, and may even agree with some or most of his policy positions, in their mind the labour party simply cannot win the next election with him as their leader. They argue that while Corbyn’s ideological purity may be popular amongst the membership and a new well to do, liberal brand of labour voter, it will not succeed in winning back those voters from UKIP and the conservative party that are required to win a general election. Members of this group feel that Corbyn should step down immediately, making way for a charismatic, media savvy candidate who can heal the rifts within the party and attract the kind of voters that are put off by the ‘socialism’ of Corbyn.
I share the concerns of those who emphasise the necessity of winning the next election, who underline the importance of appealing to the traditional labour heartlands, and of returning lapsed labour voters back from the clutches of UKIP and the conservatives. It is precisely because I share these priorities that I believe Corbyn to be by far and a way the best candidate to lead the party. In order to explore this a little further, I want to take a brief detour into the history of the modern labour party.
Many people seem to get quite angry when Tony Blair is mentioned in relation to any discussion of the current situation and are keen to point out that just because you are not a Corbynista does not mean you are necessarily a Blairite. This might be true, but with regards to answering the question of how party can win the next election and re-engage its base, it is absolutely essential to understand what happened under Blairs leadership.
The Recent History of Labour
Tony Blair’s rise to power in 1994 fellowing 18 long years of opposition, was the dawn of a new era for the labour party. Blair had made the case that in order to get elected labour had to modernise, and stamping his authority on the party abandoned policies such as nationalisation, nuclear disarmament and high taxes. Perhaps most significantly of all, Blair abolished the totemic clause four, whilst adopting a more business friendly and focus group driven agenda that sought to speak to ‘aspirational’ middle class voters. By the end of the 20th century, the party of collectivism and the poor had abandoned much of its radicalism in favour of an increasingly pro-market neoliberal position. Embracing the use of PR and spin, and heavily courting the media, new labour swept into power in 1997 with 13.5 million votes.
While the policies of the ‘Third Way’ succeeded in returning the labour party to power, and keep Blair in number ten for the next decade, this ‘new’ labour government moved a long, long way from the parties founding principles. It is highly significant that Thatcher once referred to New Labour as her greatest achievement, so fully did Tony Blair and Gordon Brown embrace her policies of free-market reform. Understandably, a significant part of the parties traditional support-base struggled with the concepts of free markets in health, education and transport. By 2007 labour seemed tired, worn out by the personal infighting between the two men at the top. Labour die-hards were also increasingly disillusioned by the compromises that they had to make under Tony Blair, and by the political-media crisis over who had really thought Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and whether journalists and the country had been misled. The eventual transfer of power from Blair to Brown failed to reinvigorate the party, as it was not accompanied by any real shift in policy direction. Brown’s defeat in the 2010 general election after just three years in office saw the party return to opposition, where it has remained ever since.
The trade unions were credited with ensuring that it was the marginally more left leaning Ed Miliband who snatched the labour leadership from his Blairite brother David in 2010. Despite five years of unpopular government under a Lib-Con coalition, Miliband lost the 2015 national election after a confused electoral campaign in which he had sought to combine a rightward shift with regards to immigration, and support for a marginally ‘softer’ version of Tory Austerity, with more progressive policy goals such as a levy on tobacco companies, the raising of the minimum wage, a mansion tax, and the renationalisation of the railways.
From this brief overview of the last twenty years of the labour party a couple of key points become clear. The first is that the labour party did return to government on the back of a shift to the centre, one that enabled it to pick up votes amongst middle class voters but without completely alienating its traditional working class base. What is equally apparent, however, is that over the course of its time in power, and partly as a result of this shift in focus towards wooing the votes of the aspirational middle, the compromises the party made with regards to its more traditional positions, resulted in it losing four million voters between 1997 and 2005, many of them from its working class base.
Despite continuing with a Blairitepolicy agenda under Brown, at the 2010 election it lost nearly another million votes. Under Ed Milliband this decline was reversed, with the party gaining 700,000 votes in comparison to 2005, but despite the deep unpopularity of the conservative led government, the labour party has been unable to recover the 4 million votes it lost during Blair’s premiership and has lost every election since. Why has the party been unable to win these voters back? The dominant narrative, put forward by Tony Blair amongst others, was that the reason Miliband lost the last election was because he abandoned New Labour and moved labour too far to the left of the centre ground. If Miliband’s unfortunate hash of polices were considered a move to the left then it is not surprising that Corbyn is so unpopular amongst Blairites, with his policy platform representing a clear shift from the neoliberal free-market position of New Labour and back towards a genuinely left vision that sees an increased role for public ownership of natural monopolies such as the royal mail and the railways. However, as well as debunking Blairs claim, labour’s own report into what went wrong in the 2015 election reveals that one of the most significant reasons for the party’s defeat was down to its failure to address the Tory myth that it was Labour that were responsible for the financial crisis as a result of overspending during their time in government.
The argument put forward by Blairites originally was that holding the centre ground would allow the party to win support from the aspirational middle and yet Corbyn has received criticism exactly on those terms, the argument being that he only really appeals to the sort of liberal middle class supporters that have flocked to join the membership and doesn’t connect with the labour heartlands outside of the more affluent Southeast. If we look at the actual data, it becomes readily apparent that a lack of appeal to the aspirational middle is definitely not the issue that needs to be addressed, with support for the AB and C1 social groups staying fairly stable. The existential threat facing labour comes from the precipitous drop in support for the party from the skilled and unskilled/semi-skilled working class social groups that have always formed the traditional core of support for the party.
Following the 2015 election, leadership contender Chuka Umunna wrote in an article in the Observer that Labour must “start with the aspirations of voters”, while Lord Mandelson said the party had made a “terrible mistake” in ditching New Labour. Yet most of Jeremy Corbyn’s left-wing policies are popular with the public. According to YouGov, 60% agree with the renationalisation of railways. Even among Tory voters, half believe this to be a positive policy. There is public support for a 75% top rate of tax on incomes over £1m. In addition, rent controls on landlords is a policy supported by 59% of the public, the introduction of a mandatory living wage (a real living wage, as opposed to George Osborne’s minimum wage increase) has support from 60% of the public. Furthermore, the majority of the public support a cut in tuition fees, with 49% in support of the policy, while 31% oppose the idea. Although the public still rejects the idea of unilateral disarmament of the UK’s nuclear weapons, support for an international convention on banning nuclear weapons currently sits at 64%, raising the possibility that even the public’s attitude towards Trident renewal might change in the near future, especially given that no major party has ever come out and argued the case against. Arguing that labour cannot win an election by pursuing the kind of policies that have traditionally appealed to its base and which polling suggest has significant appeal across the political spectrum is nothing more than a lie.
The elephant in the room, perhaps, is immigration. The leave campaign has managed to stir anti-immigration sentiment to fever pitch, and a perception has been created the for many people, immigration remains the number one issue, and one that will have a key role to play in the next general election. However, look a little bit closer and a rather different picture appears. A YouGov poll undertaken at the beginning of June provides a statistic that fits well with the narrative of ‘immigration, immigration, immigration.’ This statistic is that 50% of people think immigration is the most important national issue. However, when you ask individuals what they, themselves, worry about Immigration plummeted from 50% of people to 20%, significantly behind other issues such as the economy, the NHS, pensions, and tax. This distinction even applies to UKIP voters, although the levels are different. 90% of UKIP voters thought immigration was the top issue for the country, but this figure came down came down to 49% when they were discussing their own personal issues. YouGov ran a poll where respondents had to pick the one issue most likely to determine how they would vote. Only 20% of the public picked immigration, with 31% saying the economy and another 31% saying it’s which is likely to strike a better balance between Britain’s right to act independently, and the appropriate level of co-operation with other countries. It also appears that more people think they benefit from (EU) immigration than don’t.
This polling suggests that Jeremy Corbyn’s position on immigration, which is that it is not necessarily a problem, but rather a very great opportunity, might not look quite so untenable after all. While it is entirely possible, if not probable, that there is greater hostility to immigration from outside of the EU than there is to the free movement of people within it, it is also clear that immigration is an issue of much more higher import for those UKIP voters that labour must try to win back, than for the broader public at large.
However, the appeal of UKIP is not that they simply sell an anti-immigration message. They are also selling an “anti-metropolitan message about political elites uninterested in those ‘left behind.'” Labour cannot and should not seek to compete with UKIP and the conservatives with regards to being ‘tough’ on immigration. Not only is it morally wrong, but it won’t work either. After all, Ed Miliband’s attempt at taking the party to the right on this issue did not result in electoral success and only served to reinforce the existing narrative of immigration as a threat and a problem. If it is to pick up votes from UKIP, labour not only needs to fight to protect the pay and conditions of the working class, push for increased investment in public services and challenge the narrative that it is immigration and not austerity that means ‘there is not enough to go around’, it also needs to address the cultural appeal of UKIP.
This requires a Labour party that is genuinely active in local areas, with Labour representatives that are seen as having an authentic voice for every parts of the country. This is not a change that can be done to working-class communities, but has to be achieved with them. What is interesting about the Corbyn effect is that when you talk to local labour officials about the new members flocking to the party, it becomes clear that they do not just consist of a new generation of young, middle class corbynistas, but also include ex-members (or traditional labour voters) who left during the Blair years and as a result of the Iraq War. In the long run, this kind of rejuvenation of the membership of the party is essential if it is going to win back support from UKIP and rebuild support within its traditional working class heartlands.
Under Jeremy Corbyn the labour party has an identity again, the kind of identity that allows it to differentiate itself clearly from the Conservative party, to challenge the dominant narratives on austerity and immigration, and to demonstrate that it has once again become the party of the working people in the UK. We have already seen how failing to differentiate clearly from the conservatives and compromising core labour values has resulted in a collapse of the labour vote in Scotland and growing support for UKIP at the expense of the labour party in England. It is absolutely imperative that, if the labour party is to remain a relevant political movement within the UK, it does not repeat these mistakes again with a return to the centre ground.
Jeremy Corbyn is not the perfect leader of the labour party. Although he has tidied himself up following Cameron’s childish playground style attacks on his appearance, he will always be vulnerable to those who want to pick on his fondness for manhole covers and train timetables, as an indication that he is totally out of touch with the rest of Britain. He is not the worlds greatest orator, nor will he ever be the most charismatic politician in history. His unwillingness to form a coalition of the left with other progressive parties, parties who could provide the kind of new thinking required to counter those who claim that Corbyn simply represents a re-heating of the politics of the 1960s is misguided. A series of errors have been made by Corbyn and those around him. Even before the coup, Labour appeared to much of the country as shambolic and incompetent. Corbyn’s team is stuffed full of intelligent people, but there has been a lack of direction and inability to communicate in a way that resonates with most people. This is not simply the product of a hostile media and PLP, but is also one of the non-ideological factors that has contributed to this growing hostility. These are things which must and can be improved if the labour party is to have any chance of winning another general election.
What is so special about Corbyn however is that he is not a ‘personality politician‘, but a man with a set of deeply held principles. This is not something that can simply be polished up over time, but rather that is acquired from a lifetime of service to the cause. Corbyn has been involved in the Anti-War, Nuclear Disarmament, Anti-Apartheid, Palestinian Solidarity, Gay Rights and Animals Rights movements, and has campaigned against miscarriages of Justice. He has consistently voted with his conscience in parliament, often defying party whips. He has a clear anti-austerity platform that has attracted tens if not hundreds of thousands of disillusioned people back into politics and the party. It is no surprise that polls show that during the EU campaign Corbyn was by far and away the most trusted voice within the labour party. The bottom line is that while there is plenty wrong with Corbyn and his leadership of the labour party, sadly there is no other candidate within the labour party capable or willing to do a better job of leading the party into the future than Corbyn, or that could mobilise the base in the way that he continues to do.
Under Jeremy Corbyn the labour party does still have an opportunity to rediscover its soul, to once again become a tolerant civilised and progressive organisation that fights for the most vulnerable and marginalised in society, whilst promoting fairness and equality. While there are plenty of ways in which ‘Team Jeremy’ can and must improve, it is not so much Jeremy Corbyn who is failing the labour party as the Parliamentary labour party that is failing the leader of the party, its members and supporters, and the interests of the country at large. Since he was elected last September, Corbyn has not only been fighting a Conservative party backed by the interests of big business and the right-wing press, but also against a significant proportion of his own party, who, despite Corbyn’s clear mandate to lead, have sought to undermine him and his efforts to create a genuine alternative to Blairite neoliberalism and Conservative Austerity. Imagine what Corbyn might be able to achieve if he actually had the parliamentary party’s backing, along with that of the party membership and the unions? He might even win the next election….
What can I do?
So often when we engage with politics and current affairs it feels like there is very little that we, as individuals, can do. In this case, that could not be further from the case.
If you are a supporter of Jeremy Corbyn, believing him to be the kind of progressive, principled politician that this country and the labour party is crying out for, there are a number of things you can do.
If you are not already a member of the labour party join it now. This will allow you to vote for Jeremy in what will almost certainly be a new leadership election. The bigger the mandate Corbyn wins, the easier it will be for him to quell dissent within the party and to get back to fighting the conservatives, and ensuring a progressive Brexit that protects the environment and peoples rights.
The vote of no confidence was held by secret ballot. This means that we do not know which MPs voted for or against. We do however, have a list of all of those members of parliament who resigned from the shadow cabinet in protest at Corbyn’s leadership.
If your local representative is on this list, write to them and tell them how you feel about their decision. Even if they aren’t on this list, you can write to them, telling them why you support Jeremy Corbyn and asking them whether, as your elected representative, they share both your views and the views of the labour membership that elected him to lead the party in the first place. You can also make it clear that if they want to rely upon your support in the future, it is imperative that they support him.
If you want to volunteer to support Jeremy in the leadership campaign, join Momentum. Momentum is the “successor movement” to Corbyn’s leadership campaign last year and will play a key role in helping him to get elected again.
Express your support for Jeremy and sign the petition offering a public vote of confidence in his leadership.