More than any UK election before, this election was a contest of personalities, or rather avatars. Bombastic British Bulldog Boris Vs Calamitous Commie Corbyn or Obiwan Conorbyn Vs Jabba the Shite.
While I agree unequivocally that serial liar, shameless coward and moderate sociopath Boris Johnson is more unsuitable to the role of prime minister than any candidate from the two main parties in this or the last century, the Disneyfication of the contest did the progressive cause no favours.
It was the cult of Corbyn as much as a fantasy version of the Brexit Boris might deliver which lost this crucial election. An election which has rewarded the Tories for nine years of appalling stewardship, ideological austerity and ripping the social fabric apart over the once purely internal party dispute over EU membership. Labour and the country needed a progressive pro-EU leader from 2016 to counter the fantasy narrative Leave voters were sold and to represent Remainers who were by 2018 a majority. Instead we had Eurosceptic, 7/10, Article 50-triggering Corbyn and a fan-base who refused to acknowledge this was a significant problem.
Fantasy and tribalism fuelled the cult of Corbyn as well as creating a mythology around Brexit and the EU which bore little in common with reality. Facebook facilitated both of these and as one simple step to improve our politics I’ll link to a campaign I’ve begun to boycott the company one day a week until they stop taking dishonest political ads.
This election was Labour’s greatest defeat since 1935. But a different Labour leader could have won easily on the same manifesto, most of
which was popular and which I supported. Amongst Labour defectors leadership was overwhelmingly (43%) the main reason for voting for another party. That’s the tragedy and opportunity-cost of this misplaced loyalty to one figure, rather than to policy and the potential for change.
Arguably, to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, even a yellow dog which hadn’t managed to smear itself, unapologetically, with anti-semetism could have won. The country is on its arse and even Boris fans don’t believe he is trustworthy. If sufficient separation had been made between the wonderful progressive policies in place since Labour’s 2017 manifesto (where, as with the local elections and European elections they also lost under Corbyn, though far less badly than yesterday) and Corbyn the man, he could have been jettisoned after past failures and replaced with Keir Starmer, Tom Watson, Jess Phillips, Yvette Cooper, perhaps even the obviously competent and intelligent John McDonnell (who has impressed the CBI) and Labour would have won. Labour policies such as nationalisation of our rail system (currently privatised, significantly run by foreign states and the most expensive, least efficient in Europe) are popular and basically embedded. Corbyn though wildly popular with a large section of members and some metropolitans, has consistently polled as the least popular opposition leader in recorded history. He was never going to be PM.
Corbynistas are spinning that this election was all about Brexit and beyond Labour control. But that doesn’t explain why Boris Johnson, who refused to look at a photo of an 8 year old left on a hospital floor is, unbelievably, more trusted on the NHS than Corbyn.
Corbyn was and is unpopular for bad reasons as well as good reasons. Corbynistas were right to decry the dreadful misinformation about him in the Tory press and even in the BBC (like the NHS a last great British institution slowly being throttled by unaccountable Tory hegemony). But except Blair who made a deal with that wrinkled Satanic ball-bag Rupert Murdoch, all Labour leaders since at least Kinnock have had the same unfair treatment. Ed Miliband was lambasted for how he ate a sandwich and had his father traduced for his loyality by the historically Blackshirt-leaning Daily Mail. Frankly Corbyn gave more ammunition than most and happily shot himself in foot frequently.
Corbyn was simply not suitable to be leader of a progressive party in the 21st century during this period. His instincts and priorities were wrong. His communication tin-eared. And he surrounded himself (or was surrounded) by others equally obtuse and off-key: especially Seamus Milne and Len McClusky. Both men, plus Karie Murphy and Andrew Murray, making up the 'Four Ms' of Corbyn’s inner-circle in this crucial period were Lexiters. Labour members were overwhelmingly (almost 90%) Remain. That Corbyn was an old-school Bennite Eurosceptic who actively chose these Brexit-favouring advisors was a cognitive dissonance that most preferred to ignore. "Corbyn is good, Brexit is bad, so how could Corbyn possibly not be unequivocally against Brexit"? But he wasn’t. It’s surely no coincidence that a man who chose Brexit-favouring advisors triggered Article 50 and promised to “respect” the result of the referendum. An advisory referendum, won on the tightest of margins, with serial irregularities, dishonesties and even illegalities. He 'respected’, and validated a particular interpretation of the outcome more than he respected democratic process. So he wasn’t the right man to lead a progressive, internationalist party during the 2016 referendum and period since. A man of the 80s, he failed to see, or effectively argue if he did see, that the UK outside of the EU would be weaker, that an EU without the UK would be less able to collectively fight climate change and counter authoritarianism and a bullying US, China and Russia, that we need continental people-power to stand up to tax-avoiders and corporate encroachment on democracy, including social media misinformation-for-profit. He failed to see that these are the most important issues of our age and that we are interdependent as nations as well as within societies. This is so obvious to the young progressives who support Corbyn that they were unable to imagine or see that he didn’t support that view. For similar reasons they were unable to see his foolish positions on Putin’s gangster-state Russia and his troubling lack of critique of the homophobes and antisemites with whom he shared anti-war platforms. Criticism of Corbyn and his team’s at best inept handling of the antisemitism story — fighting for a year of bad press then eventually conceding, with mealy-mouthed apologies — was often met by true believers as a sign the critic had fallen for conspiracy theories. People staked so much on Corbyn’s 'goodness' they were blinded by the light they projected on to him.
The excellent Gary Younge argues persuasively that there were many factors which created a disengagement of Labour’s traditional vote in the North - behind the Red Wall. But it misses out a salient point: these voters, left-behind during the Blair years after being hammered by Thatcher, were seduced by Brexit nationalists. But that wasn’t an inevitability. They learned to blame immigrants and the phantom oppressor of the EU for their ills because no one argued against this. Before 2016, there were no Leavers.
During the 2016 referendum there was no leader making an unequivocal, positive case for the EU from the left. No warnings of what Brexit would bring, no serious critique of the lies of the Tories. The referendum might not have been lost with a different leader. David Cameron and others on the Remain side were unable to make the case that the EU would protect people and the environment from the worst excesses of their own policies, and were ideologically indisposed to argue for international collectivism. Cameron’s father made a fortune from the tax avoidance schemes that the EU was set to close down. These were arguments which could only have been made from the left. And they weren’t made in any convincing way by Corbyn (if anyone can find a speech of his passionately making this case I’d love to
see it). That Brexit was a free-market fundamentalist plot to dismantle the state was obvious even without the advocacy of the writers of Britannia Unchained, who now lead the cabinet. Brexit has raised the spectre of ugly nativism, without sufficient counter- narrative and it will not die quickly now, having feasted unopposed since 2016.
Did Corbyn warn Labour voters of this? Not really. And since 2016 there has been equivocation and muddle: while Sadiq Khan and David Lammy made a strong case that people were lied to, Corbyn acquiesced to their fantasies. There’s nothing principled about letting people drown in their own misunderstanding. The Brexit people voted for doesn’t exist. And leadership meant telling them that. Corbyn failed to do this probably because his core advisors are Lexiters. It’s all so sad and was so avoidable - after the failure of the Euro elections it was madness to keep Corbyn, who personally polled so badly . There was no need to change the excellent platform - just him.
The anti-semetism row was largely avoidable too - one full year refusing to accept the full IHRA definition (hinging on a failure to properly recognise the significant distinction between the right to existence of “a" state of Israel, offering a homeland for the Jewish people, and “the" state of Israel, with its current borders and even policies) and to accept that anti-semetism was an issue. Then conceding both. This was self-destructive pride and foolishness which cost the country dear. I hope it hasn’t damaged the social democratic cause too much. It would be a tragedy if we lost the chance to cement the remodelling of the Labour party along real social democratic lines, with extensive renationalisations, because of Corbyn’s ineptitude and naive ideological positions beyond economics, especially on international relations.
A Labour leader seen as an ideologue will never win an election - because we swim in a neoliberal and conservative ocean, and culturally the Tory press exaggerates issues around immigration, and benefit fraud for example, to the extent that voters place them far higher up the political totem pole than they warrant, vastly overestimating the number of immigrants and underestimating tax avoidance. So a Labour leader has to appear pragmatic to woo moderates. With the Tories going off the rails over Brexit, being the voice of common sense would’ve been easily achievable by any moderate leader (and maybe even John McDonnell). Business might have unequivocally supported someone like Starmer. Small 'c' conservatives and other swing voters could have got behind him. Watson and the other Labour politicians mentioned above, along with Sadiq Khan who perhaps could’ve been invited to leave his mayorship: all could’ve carried the same platform, convincingly argued against the Brexit delusions and won this election.
Corbyn is seen as an ideologue, correctly in my view (listen to him on the Falklands which he seems to feel Argentina has a legitimate claim on, suggesting power sharing, despite a referendum where only 0.4% wanted that and a historical claim no better than any other rapacious coloniser: ridiculously he draws a false equivalence with Northern Ireland, despite the fact that the colonized were penguins not Argentinians). And witness the tremendous naivity when it came to accepting Putin’s version that the Russians weren’t behind the Skripol poisoning, which became an even more ludicrous position once the Monty Pythonesque interview of the suspected killers (or for Putin-fans, simple ‘cathedral enthusiasts’) came out. Such sympathy towards Russia is an ideological position which doesn’t even make sense anymore — if you ignored the Hungarian and Czech and Afghanistan invasions, human rights abuses and gulags it is just possible to view the USSR as the victim of an aggressive west during the Cold War. But it’s over. It’s been over nearly 30 years. Putin is an authoritarian kleptocrat who murders journalists, allows the persecution of LGBTQ people, imprisons Greenpeace protestors, probably started a war in Czechnya to win an election and allow Assad to gas his
people. No progressive should view him as sympathetically as Corbyn or his Communications Director and Rasputin-figure Seamus Milne (who described the Crimea invasion as “defensive”, blaming the west) do. Likewise any Labour leader who hadn’t frequently shared platforms with those who espouse murderous ideology towards gay people and Jews could have won this election. None of the above alternative leaders would’ve handled the anti-semetism issue as cackhandedly (refusing to apologise on the Andrew Neil show! Why? He’d already done so elsewhere. He’s appears at times as stubborn and self-righteous as the High Sparrow in Game of Thrones).
This election we needed an internationalist who saw the value of the EU and an instinctive cooperator who would work with other parties — tactical voting could have won this even with Corbyn. We needed a moderniser who would embrace proportional representation and rainbow coalitions as Clive Lewis has argued: a proportional system would all but guarantee progressive governments in perpetuity. Instead we had a brittle tribalist who put party before country.
I agree with Gary Younge that Corbyn was more a symptom than an agent of change. Once that change had been entrenched it was wiser to get rid of him - or the change would carry his own taint. He should’ve left in 2017 after the election defeat that somehow became seen by true-believers as a success for Labour. And ultimately, honestly, did he ever strike as being an intelligent visionary who understood the 21st century? Even to 10% of the extent that for example AOC does? Or even 20% as much as Bernie? He always seemed more like a Head of Year 9 giving a school health and safety assembly than a statesman to me. A decent guy (though he could be arrogant and rigid) but just not smart enough for the job and probably because of that in thrall to the toxic likes of the intellectual Milne who is every bit as much of an ex-public schoolboy playing games whose consequences he’s free from as Boris Johnson or Rees-Mogg, and a pretty deluded ideologue at that (reactively anti-Western in counter-poise to his equal and opposite right-wing
reactionaries, and equally incapable of
The toxic inner-circle and their misguided priorities has meant the loss some of Labour’s brightest and best. Key aide Andrew Fisher, architect of the successful 2017 manifesto, resigned just prior to the 2019 election decrying a “lack of decency” and “professionalism” in the team, despairing presciently that Labour would lose due to these.
The failure of some Labour members and the minority of Labour MPs to see that Corbyn was a liability to the progressive project as well as winning power from the Tories has dealt this generation a dreadful blow. It was never about Corbyn. He couldn’t carry the weight of expectation and shouldn’t have had to. He and others should have seen this and acted accordingly. If he cared as much about this country as he claimed, he should have resigned after the failure of the European elections. Instead we have at least another five years of the most right-wing government in living memory and with expected attacks on judicial review and Channel 4, introduction of voter ID which will disenfranchise the poor and planned gerrymandering, a harder battle next time.
Let’s hope we will have a leader who’s worthy of the task and members who are now able to look beyond a personality cult and focus on the real changes we need, which only power will bring.