Many on the left, myself included, were excited by the Labour Party’s election of a socialist candidate as their leader in 2015. After years of dominance by ‘New Labour’ and the crushing weight of Conservative austerity hitting the country, Jeremy Corbyn seemed like a breath of fresh air. However, that air has sadly turned stale and toxic following two truly shambolic years of confusion, division and decline. Corbyn is not an effective leader of the opposition and his supporters delude themselves if they think he can ever be Prime Minister.
Polls show Corbyn’s personal ratings to be at a record low with only 24% approving of his performance compared to 53% for Theresa May; all the more shocking given her own incompetence. Polls over the past few months have consistently shown Corbyn’s Labour party behind the Tories, one of the latest showing them a whopping 19 points behind which, if an election year, would give Labour its biggest defeat in its modern history. Finally, on 23rd February, although holding onto Stoke by a thin margin, they lost their seat in Copeland (a seat held by Labour since its creation) to the Tories, something not seen since the Thatcher years. Despite all this, Corbyn and his fanatic supporters continue to insist he is the man for the job –a Prime Minister in waiting no less.
I call this the ‘Corbyn Delusion’ because much like extreme religious believers many of those who continue to support Corbyn are trapped inside an illusionary bubble inside which they cannot see beyond. Furthermore, they exhibit all the intolerance of dissent found in fundamentalist religion. Any criticism of Corbyn is dismissed as part of a right-wing conspiracy or the result of an ulterior motive and personal attacks on critics are common. You only have to look at the shocking treatment of Guardian journalist Owen Jones by Corbyn supporters to see this intolerance. Owen identifies as a socialist and had been a supporter of Corbyn earlier on but for daring to provide, very valid, criticism of Corbyn he has been subject to endless abuse on social media by Corbynite trolls to the point that he has now removed himself from social media.
New vs Old Labour?
A common reaction against left wing criticism of Corbyn is that his left leaning critics are all Blairites. For the Corbyn fanatic, there can be only two options on the left: Corbyn/Old Labour and Blair/New Labour. This is a false dichotomy and Corbynites are disingenuous to imply that these are the only options. Jeremy Corbyn’s policies do not represent the only manifestation of socialism or social democracy and there are many paths covered by the Labour movement. What Labour really needs now is not to return to either of its past incarnations, but to look for a new dynamic identity with new bleeding edge policies with which to attract new voters.
Labour spent the entirety of the 1980s sticking to its traditional socialist principles and consistently failed to defeat Margaret Thatcher at every stage. A superstitious man might suggest Thatcher was undefeatable However, in truth it was Labour’s failure to provide a credible alternative that allowed Thatcher to rule unchallenged for so long. It is my fear that with Corbyn we are heading to a similar period in which the Tories are left free to dismantle the social fabric of our country while Labour effectively sits back and watches. It is rare that I agree with the Liberal Democrats, but they are right when they claim to be the only real opposition to the Tories in parliament, and this leaves me deeply worried for the future.
Ideology before Country?
I dislike Tony Blair as much as Corbyn’s supporters do. However, there is at least one thing that he and I would agree on. Although I am a socialist I am also a realist and, like Blair, I realise that sticking to socialist principles is all well and good on the backbench but it is worthless if you cannot get into power because it is only in power that you can affect change. Perhaps my biggest problem with Corbyn is that he doesn’t seem to understand this.
Take for example his response to the death of Fidel Castro. Whatever you think of Castro’s overall impact on Cuban life, it cannot be denied that he was a dictator who killed and tortured those who opposed him and suppressed freedom of expression and democracy in his country. Enter Corbyn who, due to his old Labour socialist roots, praised Castro as a champion of the working class. To the average middle class voter, this sounds crazy: the leader of the opposition in a democratic country praising a tyrannical dictator?! It doesn’t matter about Castro, what matters is that the general British public perception of him is as a dictator. Yet here we have Corbyn mindlessly sticking to his ideology rather than doing what is necessary to appeal to the British electorate.
Another example of his tendency to put ideology first and the nation or party second would be the EU Referendum. Despite campaigning to remain in the EU, he refused to share a platform with David Cameron and was largely absent from the main campaign trail on the grounds he didn’t want to violate his ideals by working with a Tory. The result was that many remained confused over the position of Labour on the EU, and even when he categorically came out in support of Remain many didn’t believe him due to his absence from the mainstream campaign and previous Euroscepticism. Now, whether we believe he really supported Remain or not, this still shows him putting his ideology ahead of the national and party interest and this, in my view, makes him unfit for frontline politics.
To make matters worse on Brexit has been his shambolic attempt to force the parliamentary party to vote in favour of Theresa May’s plans on Brexit. Not only has this further alienated him from the parliamentary party, the very people he needs the support of to run an effective Labour Party, but he has also overlooked that whilst the majority of referendum voters voted in favour of leave, in general the majority of Labour voters voted to remain, as did the majority of left leaning swing voters who he needs to attract. Thus, perhaps it is not UKIP he needs to worry about. Rather, maybe it is the Liberal Democrats, Scottish National Party and Greens, all of whom have continued to voice opposition to Brexit and now potentially can steal voters away from Labour on these grounds.
Elected But Unelectable
The irony is that the very things that got him elected, that make his supporters so fanatical in their devotion, are the very things that make him unelectable as a prime minister. The main reason that Corbyn’s supporters love him so much is that he neither looks nor acts like a normal politician.
Unfortunately, shallow a thought it may seem, the public have a very set idea of what power and authority in politics should look like. That image must convey that a leader is professional, competent and authoritative. This is why politicians all tend to look very similar. However Corbyn’s image though popular with grassroots conveys only that he is a relaxed, amateurish and uncle-like figure.
Sadly this expectation is something lost on Corbyn and his supporters who can only look at it from their own point of view. His image may not matter to them, but it matters a great deal to the average British voter. It also makes it easy for the Tories to dismiss his ideas as those of a ‘typical loony leftie’ rather than a professional politician.
A further factor that makes him popular with the Labour grassroots and in particular the trade unions is that he has always been a backbencher and thus never part of the ‘New Labour’ project; he was one of its harshest critics. Unfortunately, although this helps rule a line under ‘New Labour’, it also means that he has virtually no prior experience of frontline politics. A backbencher’s experience of politics is very different from that of someone on the front bench. His or her work in parliament largely revolves around making the odd speech on ideology or local constituency issues, attending relevant debates and occasionally voting on things. Thus, Corbyn came to the frontbench with no experience of running or being part of a national campaign, no experience of being part of a leadership team, or leading a party, and no experience of handling the scrutiny of the national press.
In short, Corbyn was the kind of candidate in a job interview who hopes to get through it by saying what a ‘quick learner’ they are with ‘much potential’ but ultimately has no relevant experience. Sadly, his inexperience shows in many areas, not least his leadership style. Whilst Corbynites would like us to pretend that all the Labour MPs who have fallen out with him did so because they’re Blairites, the truth is that many tried their best to work with him but found it impossible. It does not say anything good about someone’s leadership ability when they manage to burn through 28 Shadow Cabinet members in less than 2 years in the job. 28 Labour MPs found they could not continue to work under Corbyn’s leadership. Whilst this does include some Blairites, it is far too simple to write them all off as that, especially the ones who’ve resigned since his re-election in October 2016 which saw the majority of core Blairites leave the cabinet.
Corbyn has a severe image problem and one of the biggest problems of his leadership has been its relationship with the mainstream media. I will not deny that much of the British media has been unfairly hostile and biased against Corbyn from the start. The right wing press were always going to play dirty with an unashamedly left wing Labour leader. I certainly don’t expect him to win friends from the Daily Mail or the Sun. However, when even the left wing media are not Corbyn-allies something is clearly amiss.
Corbyn’s team have largely focused their strategy on new media sources, like social media. It is claimed that this media allows him to talk directly to the people without editorial bias warping what he says. Unfortunately, what it actually affords him is the opportunity to speak directly to those who already support him and not the far larger electorate he actually has to convince. Although other populist leaders have used social media, they have also had a broad campaign in the traditional media as well.
Despite the phenomenal growth in new media over the past decade, the majority of voters still largely get their news and ideas from traditional sources such as TV or newspapers. Since Corbyn hasn’t focused on presenting himself to these media sources because of their perceived hostility to him, his policies thus don’t appear on the radar of the majority of people. Accordingly, people don’t really know what Corbyn stands for and are left to make up their minds based on the bias in the right wing media. Sure, the media may be hostile to him, but he should confront them nevertheless. This hiding away from hostile interviewers is not helping him reach people but isolating him.
We must ask ourselves why, in light of all this failure and bad polling, Corbyn continues to refuse to resign when any sane politician would have quit long ago. If we assume he genuinely wants to help the people of this country, and we have no reason to suspect otherwise, then the only reason I can conceive as to why he won’t resign is that he has genuinely bought into his own rhetoric. Perhaps thanks to his inexperience and his surrounding himself with supporters like John McDonnell, he has himself become a victim of the ‘Corbyn Delusion’ and has come to equate his popularity with the grassroots to popularity with the general public. Like the religious fundamentalist, and like his most fanatic supporters, he ignores evidence that conflicts with what he already believes. He has become trapped in a left wing bunker of his own making.
Prognosticating the Labour Party’s future makes grim fortune telling. Regrettably, unless Corbyn drastically improves his campaign and leadership, something that shows no sign of happening as of writing, or resigns, then we shall be left with the possibility of going into a 2020 general election with the certainty of a Tory Armageddon and a new decade of unchallenged Tory rule. Perhaps then Corbyn will finally resign, but it will be too late to reverse the damage. Much worse than handing the country to the Tories, Corbyn will have ruined the chances of real progressive left wing politics and politicians being taken seriously for another generation thus doing Thatcher’s job for her beyond the grave. We can only hope for a better fortune and continue the fight for progress regardless.