Jeremy Corbyn: (mostly) the right message, but the worst possible messenger

First, a prediction. There is no chance – absolutely no chance on Earth – that Jeremy Corbyn will be Labour leader at the 2020 General Election. Why am I so certain? Read on and you’ll find out.

Corbyn’s rise from nowhere has left the political commentariat even more flummoxed than in May, when almost none of the pundits (emphasis on almost) saw Ed Miliband’s meltdown coming. Shambling around, searching for simple answers to explain something which, in fact, is extremely complex. “Labour have made a terrible mistake!” they cry; but Labour lost control of events a long time ago now. Much more powerful centrifugal forces are at work here.

These have already been seen in action across Europe, notably in Greece, Spain and Scotland; and even, through the guise of Bernie Sanders and, in a completely different way, Donald Trump, in the US. It’s true that Britain isn’t trapped in an economic maelstrom like that in Greece; it’s also true that in practice, the SNP are an awful lot less left wing than they like to claim. But take a look at the new intake of SNP MPs: so many of them seem like ordinary, authentic representatives of their people. Too many Labour MPs haven’t for far too long now.

But here’s the thing: that isn’t their fault. Other than the not unimportant point that they had 13 years to change it, but didn’t, it’s not Labour’s fault that Britain has an absurd, grotesque electoral system which distorts not only the result, but all aspects of political discourse and public policy at all times. Meaning instead of representing who they are supposed to represent, Labour find themselves continually trapped into chasing swing voters who aren’t in the median of the electorate. They’re on the centre-right or further right of it; but their votes count. Those of very many millions do not.

That’s why, during the General Election campaign, Miliband was trapped into repeating those same meaningless, hollow, insipid slogans. “Working people”. “A better plan for Britain”. Or as David Axelrod derisively put it, “vote Labour and win a microwave”. “Our politicians don’t stand for anything any more”, despair so many – and especially in the case of the left, they’re right. The voting system forces them not to.

But because they don’t, millions of Labour voters have been shed since 1997 – and this year, they either didn’t vote, or went SNP, UKIP, Green or Lib Dem. Yes, the Tories only won a majority of 12 – but Labour awoke the morning after the election hemmed in and paralysed as never before, not having the foggiest idea where to turn. Quite literally: hollowed out. And during the leadership contest, boy oh boy did it show.

Anyone who watched Miliband behaving like a rabbit in the headlights a few months back must have assumed a whole number of alternatives on the front bench would’ve done better. But no, they would not. Exactly the same empty platitudes were offered up throughout the contest by Liz Kendall, the tactic without a strategy; Andy Burnham, who flipflopped so often that, having accepted a place in Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet on Sunday, I half expect him to have resigned from the Shadow Cabinet by next Sunday; and Yvette Cooper. The woman whom, in normal circumstances, would surely have won; had far and away the best chance of challenging the Tories in 2020… but when push came to shove, didn’t wake up until it was far, far too late.

Cooper showed real leadership over the refugee crisis, and palpably shifted national debate – but the contest was long since over by then. It was decided by two things: (1) Miliband’s parting legacy of opening the whole thing up (backed at the time by of all people, Tony Blair); (2) the Welfare Reform Bill on 20 July. When to traditional, core supporters, Labour appeared to sell out as never before.

Yes, it’s true that the abstentions happened in order to back a reasoned amendment. But the intricacies of Westminster are nothing when set against appalling, shambolic, rank bad politics. The SNP long ago understood the need to be seen as on the side of the most vulnerable, even if this isn’t always the case in practice; gesture and identity politics are part of successful politics. So, much more to the point, is standing up for what you believe in and foursquare against those who threaten it.

Had Labour not long since lost sight of what it stood for, it is inconceivable that such an epic blunder could’ve been made. The Tories weren’t just mounting a huge attack on social security; they were even about to impoverish millions in work. Frank Field’s brilliant analysis the following morning set it out in stark terms; so did the Institute for Fiscal Studies. But forced by First Past The Post (FPTP) to focus on the 24% of the electorate who voted Conservative, not the 76% who did not, Harriet Harman wasn’t for turning – and critically, neither were three of the four contenders.

The only one who did stand up for what they believed? Corbyn. He’s not spent a political lifetime obsessing with swing voters or focus groups; from the backbenches, he’s been free to be himself, often incorrigibly so. And in this contest, being himself was the surest route to victory – because for the first time since 1994, someone was standing up and shouting traditional Labour values from the rooftops. Right when they most urgently needed to be expressed too.

I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to conclude that most of those pundits or politicians who’ve sneered at Corbyn’s supporters or his victory haven’t been affected by austerity. Do they know what it’s like to be forced out of their home because of the bedroom tax? Do they know anyone sanctioned and left without any means of support for weeks, months or longer, because of either bureaucratic incompetence or (many of us suspect) wanton cruelty? Can they imagine what it’s like to have to choose between heating their home and feeding their children? Are they aware of the horrific impact of cuts on social care up and down the land? Heck: have they even been researching the shocking numbers of deaths within weeks of those found ‘fit for work’ by the DWP?

Austerity isn’t some medicine to be swallowed with a few mild side-effects. Austerity kills. Specifically: it kills the poorest. Those least able to protect themselves. If the Labour Party isn’t there to help, support and protect them, what is it there for? But again: trapped by that wretched voting system, affluent, suburban homeowners are far more electorally significant than single mothers from broken homes; the mentally ill, losing their benefits in their hundreds of thousands every year; or even the disabled. No more than 100,000 swing voters count in an electorate of 46.4m.

Hence Labour’s bizarre acceptance of the urgent need for deficit reduction despite this being opposed by Nobel Prize-winning economists, most macro-economists, and even (to an extent), the IMF. During the leadership contest, Burnham stated that Labour had “spent too much” while in office; but no, it had not. The public being so flat out wrong about something so important is no reason to accept the falsehood. With George Osborne, the Chancellor who doubled the national debt, now doubling down hard on the very thing which caused the debt to skyrocket in the first place, austerity increasingly resembles a corpse which, upon awakening, immediately begins re-administering the poison. Yet all Burnham and Kendall, in particular, appeared to offer was mostly more of the same. More of the same to those already most severely affected.

After the General Election, John Curtice, doyen of British psephologists, highlighted that not only would Scotland be a hopeless cause for Labour if it did not move leftwards; but interestingly, a clear public desire for a compelling alternative economic narrative. While Kendall took this to mean “we must reassure the public over our economic competence”, Corbyn, rightly, was emboldened. At a time of 40% cuts to Whitehall budgets; ‘welfare’ being deliberately turned into a dirty word, with vulnerable recipients scared off even trying to claim it; and the worst, slowest recovery in 300 years (the third worst in 650 years, topped only by the South Sea Bubble and the Black Death), if this doesn’t call for a compelling alternative, what on Earth would?

But there’s something else at work here too. That is: to increasing numbers (especially amongst the poor and squeezed middle), the failure of neoliberalism itself. Some reading will hoot at this; but that failure hasn’t touched the wealthiest or, in most cases, the upper middle. Until 2008, there was always a sense that democracy and capitalism went hand in hand in delivering, if not a land of milk and honey, at least progress: each generation doing that bit better than the last.

Not any more. Now, for the first time since the war, twenty- and thirty-somethings will do worse than their parents; and the prognosis for those younger is even worse than that. Overwhelmed with student debt which 75% won’t pay off at any point (wrecking the argument that most will benefit from university education at all), today’s young find themselves treated as second-class employees until 25; forced to pay absurd rents, with little or no hope of ever saving up for a deposit in Britain’s ludicrously overheated housing market: meaning no future financial security either.

The government, meanwhile, openly pits the young against the old: the latter receive early access to pension pots, have those pensions tied to wage rises (meaning Osborne’s National Living Wage-that-isn’t is, in fact, yet another bribe of his core, elderly vote); as well as benefiting from free bus passes, winter fuel allowances, free TV licenses now subsidised by the BBC… not to mention a one-off property boom which will never be repeated. Osborne’s inheritance tax giveaway means if you’re born into property wealth in the UK, you’ll probably do fine; if you’re not, you probably won’t. Social mobility has been static for decades; very soon, it will go into reverse.

The demographic timebomb being stored up – in 30 years’ time, how will a whole generation who don’t own their homes even survive? How will the country pay for them? – is terrifying. But again, the only individual who put forward a real plan to deal with this? Corbyn. He tapped into huge amounts of support from young people who simply don’t count enough under FPTP for successive governments of both hues to have cared about; he inspired them, in a way no political figure south of Hadrian’s Wall has in a generation. Purely by telling a story they can relate to; but which hardly surprisingly, ageing members of the Westminster Twitterati, unaffected by the burdens I’ve highlighted, plainly cannot.

More broadly, the sense that, since 2008, Western capitalism has mutated into a rich-get-richer-sod-everyone-else scam has wreaked havoc upon social democratic parties across Europe. Most of which were in power at the time of the crash; many of which had embraced free market economics and moved away from their core support in the decade or so beforehand; none of which have come up with any serious response since. In the absence of any viable alternative to capitalism, the best they can do is say “the system’s terrible. Vote for us, and… er… we’ll make it slightly less terrible” – but that’s no platform at all. Hence the pressure they now face from radical, populist parties such as Syriza, Podemos or (in their own way, but certainly how they’ve tapped into the hopes and dreams of young people), the SNP.

In Britain, the clash between a Labour Party light years removed from core principles it was once renowned for (brought into focus more than anything else by the Iraq War) and an economic system which is failing more and more, especially the young, was bound to lead to tumult before long. FPTP strangles even the possibility of new parties, and leads to palpable absurdities like Corbyn and Kendall – or for that matter, Ken Clarke and Bill Cash – standing on the same manifesto; but if the mountain won’t come to Muhammad, Muhammad must go to the mountain. Meaning the long overdue fusion of the UK’s traditional party of the left with precisely those populist forces which are driving politics further afield.

In light of this, it is bizarre that Corbyn has not proposed the kind of anti-Tory electoral pact focused on bringing in proportional representation which Caroline Lucas, Graham Allen or, come to think of it, yours truly called for back in May. Corbyn’s policies are so left wing, they demand such an approach; yet perhaps the bearded old boob is just too tribal, too set in his ways to see that.

Regardless, what we once knew as the Labour Party died on Saturday. During her impressive Deputy Leadership campaign, Stella Creasy, a genuine rising star, continually reiterated that Labour “had to become a movement again” – but a grassroots movement cannot be a grassroots movement if it stands for nothing worth standing for. Above all at a time when David Cameron is taking an electric chainsaw to Labour’s critical trade union funding. For it to survive, let alone prosper, Labour needs these new members, and many more besides – but to keep them, a return to the top-down triangulation of the past just isn’t an option. It has to build towards the long term and a genuinely new, bottom-up politics of the left instead.

Corbyn, then, has been an answer to something; but here’s where it immediately gets awfully messy. All those qualities of just being himself served him beautifully during the campaign, but less than a week into his leadership, are already fast turning into a total liability. This is a man who has never run anything in his life; would never have dreamt of even making it to the frontbench, let alone becoming Leader of the Opposition; whose entire approach to politics is that of protest; has kept some extraordinarily dubious company in his time; and who not only wasn’t supposed to have won, but at many stages during his campaign, bore all the hallmarks of not even wanting the job. His role was supposed to involve merely opening up the debate; at the time he scraped onto the ballot thanks to the charity of a few MPs, nobody anywhere foresaw he could actually carry the day. Including – and this is critical – himself.

Thus his first few days in the position have involved one fiasco after another. A shouty, passive aggressive, garbled victory speech in which he attacked the press: the very entity which any viable political party desperately needs, if not to support it, at least to faithfully report its message. A Shadow Cabinet reshuffle in which a man whose triumph was hailed by the motley trio of Hamas, Sinn Fein and Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner promoted John McDonnell, the only man in the entire Parliamentary Labour Party almost as rebellious as Corbyn himself, who once declared “the peace we have now is due to the action of the IRA”, and that he wanted to go back in time and assassinate Margaret Thatcher, all the way to Shadow Chancellor; and in which Angela Eagle’s late night promotion to Shadow First Secretary of State occurred not through any prior planning, but as a panicked response to outrage on Twitter at the lack of women in senior positions.

Corbyn’s failure to sing the national anthem at a service marking the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain was scarcely a crime – but unheard of from someone who supposedly wants to become Prime Minister. And when asked late on Sunday night to comment on his reshuffle by a few journalists, he all but ran away like a startled hare.

No doubt, his supporters will bemoan my focus on apparent trivialities. Goodness knows, the British media obsess with such things at the expense of real issues – but any political leader worth the name has to work with it. Not give it every excuse in the book to focus on his many, to put it politely, idiosyncrasies. Sanders will have no chance of making it to the White House without huge amounts of good publicity; the SNP would be in nowhere near such a powerful position now without the support of the Murdoch press. The Fourth Estate are a vital part of the democratic process; frequently, a decisive one. Without it, the message cannot be communicated.

Not only that – but if he puts his principles ahead of anything else, Corbyn utterly betrays those the Labour Party are supposed to stand for. Tax credits were slashed on Tuesday; but you wouldn’t know it from Wednesday’s front pages. That’s not the media’s fault. It’s Corbyn’s: for behaving with the least savvy I’ve ever seen in any modern day democratically elected leader. Not for nothing have I had ‘Springtime for Hitler’ from The Producers ringing in my ears in recent days.

The reason why Corbyn’s election was potentially so important was it offered the chance, at last, to redraw the boundaries of the political narrative. To focus on the pernicious impact of this government on those with least; to provide a real, credible alternative on austerity and social security. To provide genuine hope to those long since abandoned by a political process which simply does not reflect the views and needs of very, very many.

To do this, he had to moderate his behaviour. Frankly, to shut up about his many ridiculous foreign policy views and focus entirely on domestic issues. Austerity, austerity, austerity. Message discipline was and is the order of the day; in their focus on the apparent ‘threat’ he poses to British security, it certainly is for the Tories.

If Corbyn continues to fall far, far below the challenge, rather than rise to it, the awful danger is he poisons the entire message: that he’s seen not as a breath of fresh air, but the very embodiment of the loony left; that this makes it impossible for any successor to adopt an anti-austerity stance, because it will be ruinously associated with him; and that he’d either close off any potential meeting of minds with moderate voters by remaining, or his quick removal precipitates out-and-out civil war in the newly expanded Labour movement. With consequences which could be life-threatening in nature.

Why, then, is this happening? Why have his first few days been such a shambles? The answer is simple: he’s petrified. In metaphorical terms, soiling himself. Corbyn knows he’s been promoted far beyond his station; he knows that controlled, disciplined leadership is not and has never been his thing; heĀ knows most of his colleagues have no faith in him. Hence his abortive suggestion of giving some of them a chance at Prime Minister’s Questions (because he knows he won’t be much good at it: as Wednesday’s no score bore draw, Corbyn putting eleven men behind the ball for the whole contest, confirmed); hence his promotion of his closest long time ally, McDonnell, too.

Why did he run away from the press on Sunday night, shun the Today programme the following morning, and Andrew Marr on Sunday morning? He’s terrified of what the mainstream media will do to him. Ditto his speech on Saturday: fear makes people (especially shy, diffident, sensitive people) lash out. Corbyn has spent his entire political life in an echo chamber; he’s never had to reach out to the unpersuaded or definitively hostile, and as this would require him compromising on many cherished principles, he knows he won’t be up to it.

That’s why he won’t be around in 2020. He’ll either have been put out of his misery by the PLP or fallen on his sword long before that. Let’s consider three scenarios:

  1. So chastened is he by such a calamitous start to a job he never really wanted that he resigns quickly (ie. by Christmas), modestly and with good grace. Chances: moderate, but stronger than many might assume.
  2. Against all expectations, all logic, he somehow recovers, even does well, but having changed the party, hands over to a younger successor (Corbyn is already 66 now) by the end of 2018. Chances: between slim and none.
  3. He clings on, is allowed to fight next year’s elections and possibly those in 2017 too, but either jumps or is pushed by the time of that year’s party conference at the latest. Chances: strong.

For Labour, however – and here’s where many commentators still don’t get it – it isn’t solely about Corbyn at all. For the party to survive and ultimately revive as part of a broader movement, the key is to ever-so-quietly, entirely from behind the scenes, carefully ensure the succession. Specifically: that whenever Corbyn departs, the views of a massively enlarged membership are heeded, the most important elements of his message sustained, and the party is not done massive, existential harm by a selectorate enraged at the departure of their hero.

The only possible means of achieving this is by coalescing around someone whom the members approve of; who isn’t seen as a Blairite ‘sell-out’, but one of them. That man is the new Deputy Leader, Tom Watson.

Watson, of course, famously played his part in getting rid of Labour’s most successful leader ever. Quietly knifing Corbyn will be a doddle in comparison. On her blog, Watson’s friend, Louise Mensch, has set out both how he can do this, and even that the wheels could already be in motion. Mensch is a hate figure for much of the left, and freely admits her role as a Tory attack dog; but she’s a mightily shrewd political analyst with connections in all the right places.

Quite correctly, she’s noted how the unions – who aren’t in Corbyn’s pocket, but are certainly in Watson’s – are either subtly or not so subtly already distancing themselves from him; she also highlights how he would be seen as authentic in a way alternative successors would not. Watson’s task is to keep the PLP in check, appear as loyal and clubbable as possible, but ensure his forces are ready to strike when the moment comes. And when it does, he’ll be doing both the party he loves and causes it believes in an enormous favour.

I don’t, needless to add, write this with any malice intended towards Jeremy Corbyn at all. I actually feel rather sorry for him. But inspiring pity in others is no quality worthy of any leader; and if he’s left to lurch from disaster to apocalypse, those who’ll suffer most will be those whose Labour’s duty it is to protect. There’s no room for sentiment in politics; not when thousands live or die depending on who the government of the day is.

There has never been a more important time for a real, distinctive alternative to be offered to the British people. Labour’s future – financial and philosophical – depends upon it. There has never been someone less suited to communicating that alternative. Labour’s future – electoral and philosophical – depends on remedying the second point as soon as is feasible.

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