29 May 2019

Corbyn is toast. Why am I not happier about it?

By

Jeremy Corbyn is toast. No, really its true. In fact, just about the only people who can save him now are the Conservative Party, who could yet conspire to elect a leader so divisive that the fallout catapults Jezza into Number 10 via an autumn general election.

But in the Labour Party he’s spent, finished, a political paper tiger. Which is not to say that his reign as leader is drawing to a close – he could go on for a while yet. But that he has finally and decisively moved beyond the halcyon days of invulnerability cannot be disputed. The spell has lifted and the question has changed. It is now a case of when, not if, he will be ejected by the party’s grassroots membership.

As with his meteoric rise, things have changed quickly. And sadly, in the week when Labour followed the BNP in becoming only the second party to be investigated by the Equality and Human Rights Commission for institutional racism, this sea change has nothing to do with the party’s ongoing anti-Semitism crisis.

Indeed, shamefully it appears that Labour members either do not believe the accusations of enabling anti-Semitism that surround Corbyn, or simply do not care (on balance, hopefully the former). No, what has caused this rupture, as if it needed saying, is Brexit. It is not simply that Corbyn has – thus far at least – frustrated the liberal-left’s desperation for a Brexit-vanquishing second referendum. It is also the nakedly calculated manner of his obfuscation; the sheer bad faith cynicism of his ‘constructive ambiguity’ on Brexit.

At a policy level Jeremy Corbyn was elected as Labour leader to defeat austerity. But at a deeper psychological level he was elected to liberate the party’s grassroots from paying lip service to such calibration. Moreover, the Labour Party is pathologically afraid of betrayal – from MacDonald to Blair, the folk memory of leaders who betray the party is passed down almost as oral tradition. Corbyn was elected not so much to give the members everything they wanted, that is an overly simplistic diagnosis. But he was elected to tell them plainly why, if and when he could not. Transparently, he has failed this test on Brexit. And thus, a sacred and fairly unique bond of trust has been shattered.

Yet CapX readers should think carefully before uncorking the champagne. For though, Lord knows, I have longed for this moment, at its arrival I am struck by a certain melancholy, if not outright fear, as to what comes next.

Because the blunt truth is that if and when the Brexit flames consume Corbyn, this is not the victory over Corbynism I sought. In fact, for my politics – the politics of moderation and liberal compromise – this may just be another defeat at the hands of an unflinching, intransigent, purity politics. For it will not be that moderation will have converted or overcome Corbynism. Rather, it will be that Corbyn has been deemed too impure for the new puritanism.

Now, some may argue that Brexit is simply too big an issue for a party leader to be out of step with or untrusted by their members. My counter to that is simple: poppycock. Indeed, it was not too long ago that the liberal left rightly scorned Eurosceptics as monomaniacal obsessives. Well, we are all Bill Cash now – stopping Brexit has totally colonised the political aspirations of my tribe.

To me, this is madness – I cannot for the life of me understand why a trading arrangement justifies the prosecution of a culture war. Every other issue Brexit raises other than our access to European markets – which must necessarily get worse – can be deferred to or unpicked at future Westminster elections. To be sure, this is an important issue. But this big? Really?

Not for me and not, it would appear, for Jeremy Corbyn either. But my weird melancholy towards Corbyn’s diminishment does not end there. For as the Brexit mania ramps up it is now forgotten how easily and skilfully Corbyn changed the conversation during the 2017 general election away from issues of identity towards more prosaic policy concerns – to the economy especially. Not only is this laudable on its own terms, it is also quite clearly a journey we must all take in order to turn down the volume and restore a more cohesive and civil political culture.

In 2017, Corbyn’s bond with the Labour faithful meant he was perhaps the only politician capable of achieving that. Even now, I suspect that had he been straight with his grassroots he could have deployed this capital to broker a Brexit compromise. Instead, he tamely buried his head and his leadership is now on borrowed time. Just don’t assume this is all good news for Britain.

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Alan Lockey is Head of Research at Demos.