The Blog

Only the Left Loses If Corbyn Retains Control of Labour

Labour may have lost touch with its roots under Blair, but under Corbyn it is losing touch with reality. Polling performance under Corbyn has been abysmal, especially given the divisions in the Conservative Party and Cameron's poor performance.
Neil Hall / Reuters

Jonathan Rimmer, in his recent blog, argues not only that the left needs to get behind Jeremy Corbyn in his bid to be re-elected Labour leader but also that "the country needs the left now more than ever". I couldn't agree more with the latter point, but completely refute the former. Rimmer makes two basic points I believe it is important to rebut. Firstly, he implies that if Corbyn's leadership has been unsuccessful to date it is due to unfair criticism from the media and the PLP. Secondly, he suggests that the alternatives to Corbyn would be disastrous for the left.

The first of these points is more easily dealt with. Nobody can deny the media has treated Corbyn harshly. However, it is crucial to note that his woeful communications strategy has made this relationship worse. From the beginning of his leadership Corbyn and his team have provided a constant stream of open goals for his critics. Notable recent examples include his atrociously worded speech at the launch of Labour's inquiry into anti-Semitism, and his inexplicable slowness in responding to news of Theresa May's elevation to 10 Downing Street last week.

Corbyn's poor communication skills have also undermined any authority over the PLP. It is difficult to support your leader if you don't agree with them on policy. It is impossible to support your leader if they fail to perform their simplest duties. Thangham Debbonaire's account of her sudden appointment - and equally sudden dismissal - as Shadow Arts Minister whilst undergoing treatment for cancer is a case in point. Anyone at the head of any organisation, in any walk of life, is obliged by common decency to do better than this.

In spite of incidents like this, he could have won respect in the PLP with his performances at the dispatch box. His inexcusable failure to exploit the resignation of Iain Duncan Smith in March is probably all that is needed to demonstrate his ineptness on this front. Combine this with his inability to engage in the mainstream of public political debate during the EU Referendum and a picture emerges of a politician without the skills needed to rise above criticism and make their voice heard when it is needed.

The argument that alternatives to Corbyn would be worse starts to fall down here. It totally collapses when one realises that - under Corbyn - Labour has been a policy vacuum. As formerly sympathetic economic minds Danny Blanchflower and Richard Murphy have pointed out in recent days, after ten months (a long time in politics) Labour has still not offered a clear and credible economic plan on which to base its empty 'anti-austerity' rhetoric. It has seemingly taken the current leadership contest to spark John McDonnell into life on that front. Even when Labour has had policies, however, it has shot itself in the foot. For example, Lilian Greenwood's response to January rail fare increases was overshadowed by the most ill timed Shadow Cabinet reshuffle in memory.

Rimmer ignores this, instead highlighting the vagueness of the challengers' principles. This, I think, is largely irrelevant. Principles don't win elections. People didn't vote for David Cameron because they thought he was principled. He also warns against a return to New Labour, a politics he sees as based on ignoring the working class. However, at present it is Corbyn and his supporters (who are, going by ESRC data, predominantly middle class graduates) who are ignoring, or worse patronising, Labour's traditional working class base.

Corbyn's referendum tactics demonstrated this. His argument, when confronted by Andrew Marr on the issue of immigration, was that "Surely the issue is an anti-austerity, a growth package across all of Europe rather than this." In doing this he essentially told fed up working class voters that he cared little for their perspective. It almost doesn't matter whether these voters are, or ever have been, Labour supporters. It was the leader of the Labour Party essentially telling much of the electorate that any anti-immigration views they may hold were the result of their own failure to understand wider issues within the EU. Anti-immigration rhetoric needs to be challenged, but in order to do this Labour has to do far more to directly respond to the concerns of voters.

Labour may have lost touch with its roots under Blair, but under Corbyn it is losing touch with reality. Polling performance under Corbyn has been abysmal, especially given the divisions in the Conservative Party and Cameron's poor performance. Be under no illusions, a change in leader will not magically solve the wider crisis engulfing the British left. However this crisis can only be solved through fundamental changes in British politics, not least a change in the electoral system. Such changes will only arise if Labour can force the Tories out of power. With the reactionary right poised to pounce in the aftermath of Brexit, the progressive left cannot afford to take refuge in the often self-congratulatory world of puritan activism. The only reward for doing so, by stubbornly prolonging the Corbyn experiment, will be increased irrelevance.