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The Immutability of the Corbyn Leadership


In every sense of the word.

Skimming the comments to my post on Monday, I came across this (apologies to the OP; I didn’t copy the name), which touches on a conversation I’ve been having on and off with several people in the local party.

Dr B, could you comment on the likelihood or Corbyn resigning, or what it would take to have a leadership challenge? I’m trying to imagine scenarios where there is a transfer of leadership, and can’t see any of the current crowd in and around Corbyn giving up under any circs whatsoever.

A preface to any discussion of this is a consideration of the reality of the various ideological cleavages in the Labour Party. Many firmly in the Corbyn camp will flat out reject this (as they reject anything that doesn’t perfectly correspond to their world view), but in addition to the classic hard left / soft left / moderate distinctions, there is also division in the first two: it is possible to be anti-Corbyn yet fully embrace his domestic agenda. In short: right (domestic) ideology, precisely wrong politician for the job. There are many of us in the party who believe that the 2017 manifesto, treated by the Corbynistas as a radical redefinition of politics. Of course, it was none of those things, and in discussions with local members of Momentum, most of whom believe I’m “red Tory” or a Blairite of some ilk, they’re surprised to learn that I, and many others, don’t think the 2017 manifesto went nearly far enough.

In short, the main cleavage in the 2019 Labour Party is between those who have an unshakable fealty in Jeremy Corbyn the leader, and those that don’t. In short, to some — indeed, many — it’s a cult:

To expect rationality from the current Labour incarnation on matters of internationalism is to misunderstand the strand of the left it comes from, one that treats Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership as a religious experience, dismisses criticisms of him as smears and treason, and believes in its innate moral superiority without ever needing to actually show it through actions. One that doesn’t really have fixed moral positions but subscribes to whatever their leader says on the day. The most militant of the far-left share underlying behavioural traits with those one would describe as religious fanatics.

I’ve personally witnessed this attitude and behaviour in branch meetings, CLP meetings, campaigning (when they actually can be bothered to knock on doors and speak to real live voters), and we’ve all seen it on-line. Indeed, just the other night at a meeting of my CLP General Committee, a member argued against affiliating with the Jewish Labour Movement (which, it should be pointed out, has been affiliated with the Labour Party since 1920) because it dared to pass a vote of no confidence in Jeremy Corbyn. The nascent cult was evident back in the Summer of 2015, during the leadership election:

Likewise, many insurgents respond by branding any who disagrees a Tory and nurture a deep, distrust of any extant party structures, including the local party. They proudly display their ballots as ranking only one candidate, because not one of the other three can possibly conform to their precise ideological purity. 

Thus, any strategy to change the leader of the Labour Party needs to consider the political reality of the electorate that would choose the next leader (even stating that sentence would be evidence in the eyes of many of my disloyalty and coup-plotting). Setting aside what it would take for the Parliamentary Labour Party to trigger such a contest, as that’s a different set of issues entirely, once those with enough support from MPs and MEPs reach the ballot, it’s the membership who decide. Membership has grown significantly since Corbyn was elected leader in 2015 (from around 150,000 to over 550,000), but most of the newer members have been described as “idealists, not ideologues”.

An estimated 88% of the membership back remain. As I pointed out on Monday, the leader does not. A strategy for winning a leadership election against Corbyn could work (but I’d guess that the odds would be against it) on this issue. It would require a highly visible member of the PLP (it absolutely could not be a repeat of the Owen Smith fiasco from 2016), and it would have to be someone who has the credibility to clearly, unambiguously embrace the domestic policy agenda and the 2017 manifesto. My hunch is that the majority of the membership are more tied to the policy prescriptions than the politician. Yes, to a core set of members, it is a cult, Jeremy Corbyn is the only person who can see this through as he has been the only person who has ever been on the right side of history. However, to most of the members, it’s the policy, not the man, and a campaign strategy against him would need to surgically separate the policy from the man.

Also, most of the members are as blissfully ignorant of internal party politics, as are most of humanity. Thus, the default position would be to vote for Corbyn, as he is what is known. This is why any candidate standing against Corbyn needs to be relatively high profile, have little to nothing in her or his background to suggest support for the neo-liberal economic model, but also be a resolute remainer. If it’s a head to head with both Corbyn and his mythical challenger holding the same domestic economic policies (indeed, it might behoove the challenger to go further somehow, even if only symbolically), yet the challenger is able to frame the debate as one of remain versus Brexit, then it might just be possible.

It is still a long shot, however, and I strongly doubt that the Parliamentary Labour Party will be challenging the leader any time soon. Most people I speak to seem to believe that Momentum speak for a large majority of the membership. I believe otherwise; I think a well crafted, highly disciplined campaign can crack the majority of the membership from the grips of Momentum’s slating and endorsements. But, it would have to work perfectly, and it would have to happen in a narrow window of opportunity, and I suspect that window passed, as it was between the European Parliament elections, and the Peterborough by-election (which has been hilariously mis-interpreted — losing 17% of your vote should not be considered a ringing endorsement of your approach).

My own MP, elected in the 2017 snap, has courageously come out in favour of a second referendum on EU membership (he represents part of a city that voted 60% to leave), but is approaching changing the policy of the party through the structure of party conference. If conference did unambiguously come out in favour of campaigning for remain in a second referendum (which it so did not this past year) then Corbyn would have no choice but to follow party policy. However, conference is in late September, around one month before we are supposed to crash out of the EU — it likely would not be enough time if we keep to that timetable.

My read is that Corbyn will remain as leader for the indefinite future. Losing a vote of confidence from his own MPs 172-40 didn’t convince him to step aside, nor did losing an election as he did in 2017, or losing virtually every local election, or getting smashed in the 2019 European election. He will soldier on through the current crisis in his leadership over Brexit. I suspect only a significant electoral crushing would convince him to stand down. However, this is not something anybody actively campaigning for the Labour Party should ever want.

On a final note, reading the comments revealed the suggestion that my recent absence from the pages of LGM was in part due to concern over how the cult might interpret my more forthright opinions. I did manage a council campaign last year, which unseated a three-term Conservative incumbent, as I wrote about here just over a year ago (and ironically, I guess, that candidate was a Momentum member). That took a hell of a lot of time. As Bijan points out, I am still due a couple instalments on that, which I will write about soon. The primary reason for my absence is due to the crushing increase in my teaching load (my contact hours have doubled over the past five years) as well as increased commitments with the Labour Party. In what could be a post of its own, how managing that single council campaign last year resulted in a promotion of sorts to (joint — I share the position) campaign coordinator for the CLP. This is an elected post, which means treading carefully when it comes to the various elements in the local party. And right now, we are smack in the middle of the election season for the local party positions. Given the Corbyn cult vote and elect based on loyalty to the leader, and not merit, it is a risk to publicly criticise the leader in any way.

So, I guess I should be careful in what I say and how I say it, eh?

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