Labour's Leadership Election

June 27, 2016
July 4, 2016
UK Politics

As someone who is both an American citizen, albeit resident in the UK, and a Conservative, it is not necessarily my place to have an opinion on who is best placed to lead the UK Labour party. There are millions who have a much greater investment in that question, and perhaps a few hundred thousand of them may get to vote on it in the the upcoming months. That said, the current coup against Jeremy Corbyn strikes me as an act of madness given the wider political environment in which it is taking place, one that is most likely to end extending rather than resolving current conflicts.

At its most basic, the case against Jeremy Corbyn is obvious. He is an extremist who combines eccentric policy positions and associations with a career as a professional backbencher which has left him none of the management skills necessary for managing a major parliamentary party. The latter is especially true of the post-Blairite Labour party, whose cultural transformation was as great as any ideological change. For all the talk about “third way” politics, the biggest shift since the 1970s and 80s has been in the social background of those who work in Westminster for the party, which is now the increasingly the home of young educated professionals. Corbyn never would have been a good match for this crowd, who viewed him as the sort of eccentric fossil from a bygone era they were forced to indulge on the backbenches until he somehow stumbled into the leadership.

From the first, this made it hard for Corbyn to manage the party. These difficulties were not just with MPs, but also with the wider circle of researchers and advisers who surrounded them and provided much of the day to day management of the party, and on a wider level, their compatriots in PR firms and the media upon whom so much of Labour’s viability had come to depend. Corbyn’s problems with his MPs are in many ways an outgrowth of this sort of cultural clash, because Labour Mps, whether Blairite or Brownite, the distinction has been lost on most Corbyn supporters, also tend to be drawn from the same educational and social cast. Quite simply, Corbyn is a radical socialist presiding over a cosmopolitan party apparatus that either comes from middle class backgrounds or escaped from the poorer regions of the country to find comfort in London.

This culture clash made Corbyn’s leadership unpleasant for all involved. His political associations allowed for him to be mocked by David Cameron and the Conservatives. But it was events which provoked the current battle. That event was the recent referendum over whether Britain should leave the EU.

The ostensible charge against Jeremy Corbyn is that Labour cannot win a general election under his leadership. This may well be true, but both at the time of his election and today it is unclear if it could win an election under anyone else’s, especially that of his opponents. It is for this reason that the charge of electoral non-viability has increasingly been abandoned in favor of a much darker one, that of treachery. For the real accusation being levied against Corbyn is that he undermined Labour’s campaign to remain in the EU.

The basis for this is the seeming reluctance with which Corbyn campaigned on the issue, his history of euroskeptcism, and his refusal to state categorically that he voted for Britain to remain in the EU. The latter charge is couched in self-righteousness, usually with reference to how the party spent money and volunteer hours on the Remain campaign. What lies behind it, however, is a difference in viewpoint. For Corbyn, part of an older generation of Labour brought up on economic activism, the EU is ultimately another capitalist entity, on its whole exploitative, even if it benefits individuals. But for his London-based, generally middle class opponents, it is not only an unmitigated good, but an existential one. Less concerned with economic issues, the EU unabashedly stands for preventing the Tories from legislating on the things they find important — multiculturalism, immigration, values, and provides them and their friends with greater opportunities to work. The rhetoric of angry Remain supporters, especially millennials, that “their futures” have been ripped away from them illustrates this, and the idea that Corbyn could be unconcerned has provoked an existential fury.

It is an unfocused one, both tactically and strategically. As a tactical matter, the decision to force a battle meant that they would need to persuade Corbyn to step down. That meant assuming that Corbyn, for three decades a habitual rebel, would value the abstract institution of the Labour party over what it meant or stood for. On a wider strategic level, the coup had no good outcomes. Failure, of course, would result in purges, deselections, and the entrenchment of Corbynism so deeply that it would take more than one electoral cycle to remove. A successful coup, would have resulted in the deposition of an elected leader, not only splitting the party, but ensuring that the battle would be re-fought in subsequent leadership contests, and given Corbyn’s support, likely won by either Corbyn or an acolyte. His removal would allow his supporters to claim he would have won, or at least that he had deserved, and perhaps still deserved a shot. In fact, the only clear way for his opponents to retake the party would have been in the event of an electoral defeat in which case the membership might well have been willing to try something different.

It is argued that Brexit, and the possibility of a winter election, changes the equation. It is argued that is an election that Labour both can and must win. But again, strategic logic fails the plotters. Even assuming their coup succeeds, what precisely would they do with their victory? Amidst all of the clamor against Corbyn, Labour has failed to come up with a position on Brexit. Yes the party was officially for Remain. But now that the referendum has passed, does Labour favor carrying out its decision? Overturning it? Holding a second referendum? These are all critical questions a Labour campaign would have to answer because a Labour government would need to decide them, and Labour has spent so long on personalities that it has failed to consider policy. Corbyn has a position, one he has been attacked for, suggesting Article 50 should be invoked and Brexit carried out. It is an unwise position but a clear one. His foes have attacked him for it, but largely by claiming it as further evidence of his treachery during the referendum campaign, not by suggesting what they would do differently.

This brings up the final point. Does Labour even want to win such an election? Nothing would serve the Conservative party better than being able to hand the consequences of Brexit to Labour. If the referendum results are to be set aside, much better that Labour do so and lose the north than the Tories do so and return to the internal warfare of the 1990s. If Britain is to leave, much better Labour take the blame for compromising on freedom of movement, or for the economic costs of not doing so. In reverse, why on earth would Labour even want to be in the position of implementing these decisions? If Labour held a strong position on the issue, say that the referendum should be set aside, it would be understandable why people would be eager to remove Corbyn. But to remove Corbyn when his foes have no policy, and hence no policy with him, is senseless.

If I were in Labour I would be biting my tongue content in the knowledge that in all likelihood, Brexit means that Corbyn will lose his election in 2016 rather than 2020, his replacement will arrive on schedule in 2017, and that Labour will sweep to power in 2021 on the back of an anti-Brexit backlash against the Tories. It is not an ideal situation, but a far better one than the current approach which seems much more likely to keep Corbyn around longer, and to ensure a longer period of Tory rule. Corbyn may be mad, but his opponents are showing an appalling lack of strategic foresight. One that explains why the party struggled so much in the years before he arrived.


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