The Corbyn charade continues

By Hopi Sen
11 November 2015
United Kingdom United Kingdom
At surface level there may appear glimmers of hope for Labour’s new leadership. But be under no illusion: the British left is in crisis
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Let’s dispense with the niceties. The state of the British left is abject, even if the vast majority of the left refuses to acknowledge things are going really badly. The new leadership of the Labour party believe this is an exciting, invigorating moment of national debate, full of potential for transformative, radical change. They’re wrong. We’re totally screwed.

This may seem too categorical a view.

After all, it’s early days. We are two months into a major strategic shift by our party and despite a media onslaught from the elites, Labour is only four to ten points behind the governing Conservative party, hardly an insurmountable gap.

What’s more, the Labour party has an inspiring new leader, over a hundred thousand new members and a significant proportion of the public are clearly enthusiastic, motivated supporters.

Are Labour up against an inevitable political juggernaut? Hardly. The Conservative leadership has tactical smarts, but keeps making the same strategic mistake. Year after year, they forget that just as a tax cutting conservative must offer everyone a slice of the growing pie, a deficit-cutting Tory must show they’re giving the rich a thrashing so the rest of us feel better about being stung.

Instead, the government goes out of its way to worry England’s nervy, insecure middle. It is taking thousands of pounds out of the pockets of low to middle income working families. It is planning cuts of a third to services like transport, local government and the environment. The NHS is struggling financially. But corporation tax is being cut.

And of course, the British government is likely to tear itself apart over Europe.

So why do I tell you none of this matters, things are an absolute mess and the only way out is decapitation, purge or acceptance of defeat, and any current calm is merely an uneasy truce before that choice is made? Because it’s true.

After two months of Jeremy Corbyn, we can roughly estimate how popular the Labour party is. My party is polling somewhere between thirty and thirty-four per cent, around four to six points behind the Conservatives.

That is the worst start for a new Labour leader since the second world war, in both share of vote and lead. Polling techniques have changed over time, but even if you take Ipsos Mori’s unbroken, unadjusted sample, Labour after two months of Corbyn is in a worse polling position than it was after two months of Michael Foot in early 1981 and two months of Neil Kinnock in 1983 – both of those leaders lost by a landslide.

Historically, you would expect Corbyn’s best month to be December this year. If things stay as they are, Jeremy Corbyn will have the worst starting position of any new Labour leader in his lifetime. We have only won four working majorities in those seven decades, and three of those were Tony Blair’s.

Speaking of Blair, what about the leader’s popularity? New leaders usually generate a polling bounce. Corbyn’s has been so small as to be almost undetectable. In terms of his own personal popularity, as Anthony Wells of YouGov has pointed out, “Corbyn’s net rating is the worst Mori have recorded for a new leader of one of the big two parties”. According to that pollster, one in seven Labour voters feel the leader of the Labour party is “a man with extreme left-wing views and unworkable policies who would be a threat to the economy and national security”. These are people who voted Labour when it last lost, badly, six months ago.

There is the youth vote. The under-25s are the age group which says the leader of the Labour party is ‘more likely’ than ‘less likely’ to get them to vote Labour. Unfortunately, their turnout was 43 per cent at the last election. Among the over 60s, it was almost twice as high. There’s more of the old than the young, too. Nearly two thirds of older people say Corbyn makes them less likely to vote Labour.

Corbyn’s campaign for the leadership made its electoral case on the argument that only a real progressive anti-austerity voice could help win back Labour’s traditional heartland of Scotland. It hasn’t changed anything yet.

One positive for Corbyn is that he does have a motivated base of support. This is why his ‘doing well’ rating is about the same as Ed Miliband’s was five years ago – around 30 per cent. It’s just that his ‘doing badly’ rating is 20 points higher than Miliband’s, at 50 per cent.

The early hostility he has aroused is remarkable. A month ago, 18 per cent of voters said they’d be delighted if Jeremy Corbyn became prime minister. Twenty-one per cent said they wouldn’t mind. Forty-four per cent of all voters said they’d be dismayed, including a fifth of those who voted Labour at the last election. Again, that’s an election Labour lost, badly.

Oh, and things don’t get easier. If the last election was simply repeated in 2020, redistricting (which we call boundary changes) will cost Labour around a tenth of our current MPs. If we don’t go forward, we’ll take a huge step back.

This numerological misery only matters if you define the state of the left by metrics as tedious as being in a position to win elections and governing for the common good. By other measures – party membership, say, or capacity to fill halls for speaker meetings – things are going swimmingly.

Less sarcastically, there is a vibrant political debate happening. When I say vibrant, I don’t mean that the leader’s head of policy has been suspended from the Labour party for calling the previous party leadership ‘abject shite’. (He has, by the way). Nor do I mean that various tiny Trotskyite fractions are trying to hijack Corbyn and his supporters. (Of course they are). Nor do I mean people are fighting at the top of the party. There’s rifts, but for most, it’s very well mannered.

This restrained politeness is because there is a real popular belief in Corbyn out there right now. It is this belief that swept Corbyn to a huge leadership win. It is that commitment which is creating new pro-Corbyn movements around the country, and which might allow the left to change the strategy of the Labour party for a decade or more. Or, like most tides, it might simply ebb away.

That uncertainty is why everyone is carefully ignoring what a disaster Corbyn’s leadership already is.

Forget Blairites, Brownites, New Labour or Old. Those divisions are dead. Like Asterix’s Gaul, the Labour party is now divided into three parts.

There are those who are convinced that Corbyn is a disastrous leader, want him gone, but suspect saying so openly would be seen as flagrant disloyalty to a leader with a democratic mandate. Until that changes, they’ll use their political capital to hold off leftwing structural reforms and the policy commitments they think are most disastrous. They are restricting themselves to a stout defence, because they know they need the support of the second group.

This second group is made up of people who suspect Corbyn won’t work, but whether from idealism, hope, stupidity or brilliant tactical self-interest want to give him a fair go at avoiding disaster. As long as he doesn’t try to attack their priorities, they can live with a little radicalism. They might even offer constructive advice about reaching out and being practical, knowing it can’t be taken.

Why not? Because of the third and largest group, the believers: the people who chose Corbyn. The people who both want him to succeed and think he actually might. There are hundreds of thousands of them. Millions, even. They are the Goldwater girls; the four million Mélenchon voters; the popular front; the Dutch socialist party; perhaps they are Syriza, even.

These people will choose Labour’s next leader. They are Corbyn’s shield and best weapon. While the believers are strong, the leadership can change the Labour party works to their advantage. Even if Corbyn were to go down himself, his believers would want a champion, not an alternative. As Brutus discovered, kill a populares like a Caesar and you need to beware of his heirs.

There is, naturally, a fourth group. That’s people like me, the small band of avowed centrists who know they have lost badly to Corbyn and the left, and have little to lose by standing up and saying what they really think. In our own way, we’re as militantly, stupidly principled as the left.

For those who back Corbyn or wish to seem to do so, it is convenient to blame the media and right deviationists for holding back Corbyn’s triumph. This is done by forcing him to hedge on policy, while leaking and briefing and undermining him. However, Corbyn himself doesn’t want to fight on policy, because there’s too big a chance he might lose if party structures aren’t changed first.

So ahead lies a fight no one’s ready for. For the patient, pragmatic moderate it’s the wrong moment. Corbyn hasn’t lost enough friends. For the supportive and the cynical it’s unfair not to wait and see if he can pull off a miracle. For the victors, there’s the puzzle of how a real socialist leads a social democratic hierarchy, and how to offer radical change without breaking the party in the process.

So, for now It is in the interests of everyone to publically shut up, hunker down, keep the internal fights to a few probing tests of relative irrelevancies, and wait until Corbyn’s failure or success becomes obvious to all. Until then the centrists and soft left should pretend to support Corbyn and the real left should pretend to believe them, at least until an opportunity arises for either side to choke the other.

That’s the smart move, the right play. If I were an MP, I’d take that advice. If I was an adviser, I’d give it. But I’m neither.

This charade will continue for a while, but it changes little. Corbyn is a loser. Labour is losing. This is a crisis already. We’re just choosing to let it play out a bit first. It’s for the best. Really.