As the fallout from the UK’s vote to leave the EU continues, two Labour MPs – Margaret Hodge and Ann Coffey – have tabled a motion of no confidence in Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership at the Parliamentary Labour Party. It follows a referendum campaign in which Corbyn has made little impact, at least until the last few days of the campaign. It is widely being argued that had the Labour leadership played a more prominent part sooner, the catastrophe of huge leave votes in the Labour heartlands might have been avoided.
Not fair, say Corbyn’s supporters – he’s been working hard and it’s not his fault he hasn’t been given media coverage in a campaign dominated by the splits and divisions on the Right. It’s unreasonable to say he showed a lack of commitment. And the debate on social media has turned nasty; it’s portrayed as the revenge of the Blairites, while some self-proclaimed supporters of Corbyn calling for the deselection of Hodge and Coffey, and accusations that Hodge is motivated by Zionism. The battle lines are being drawn on wearily familiar lines.
It’s not as simple as that. First, it’s true that Labour’s national leadership did run a dreadful campaign. I want to despair when I read Corbyn supporters on Twitter saying that of course it was a good campaign; he was holding rallies every night which the media declined to report; as if repeating the same speech night after night to the faithful at rallies in the hope that the media might report it was the way to manage media in the twenty-first century. (I suppose these are the people who regard selling newspapers outside meetings as a pretty neat communications strategy) Yes, the media are hostile to Corbyn; they were hostile to Sadiq Khan when he ran for Mayor of London, but at least a professional approach and a determination to enage meant he could get the message out. Labour people are entitled to ask – where was the professional strategy, professionally executed? Where is the evidence that they even understand that electoral victory means reaching out to the disenchanted and cynical on their sofas, giving them a reason to engage with Labour again?
The issue of professionalism was thrown into stark relief by Jeremy Corbyn’s Cardiff rally, which was supposed to kick-start the campaign. I was there, and the event reeked of amateurism. The event started massively late, and dragged on woefully before Corbyn spoke. The sound system didn’t work – the last thing you want to hear at a political leader’s rally is a despairing “Can you hear me at the back?” followed by a howl of feedback. Juvenile Corbyn staffers, checking the speech against delivery, stood lounging against the wall, flicking pages, chatting, sniggering and answering their noisily-ringing mobile phones. There was no attempt at a coherent theme; those on the stage apparently selected for who they represented rather than for what they had to say. As one audience member put it, it was all very Lambeth Town Hall circa 1985; and you can say what you like about New Labour (I often do), but it is just inconceivable that Blair and Mandelson would have presided over such a half-baked shambles. And, underlying the whole amateur-hour performance, was the fact that this was a session for the faithful, not for the unconvinced. Corbyn rattled through a dull speech, only coming to life when he went substantially off-message (to the consternation of the teenage staffers) and became passionate about wildlife protection and human rights. Which are good and important things, but in the context of Wales – where working-class communities in some of the poorest parts of Europe were preparing to vote leave out of sheer frustration – not the priority message.
And such events beg huge questions about the competence of the Corbyn team. Where is the clear policy message? Where is the professional media management? All too often, we see Corbyn responding negatively to questions from the media, refusing to engage with them. But actually that’s part – a huge part – of his and his team’s job; and one gets no sense that his team realises that if you’re going to win the game you have to be in it. Corbyn has made no secret of the fact that he dislikes the media; but frankly, as leader of the Labour movement and of the Opposition it’s his job to articulate the movement’s position and walking away is not a luxury he – or we in the Labour Party – can afford.
The overwhelming impression one gets is that, following an unexpected win, Corbyn’s team was recruited not on the basis of expertise and ability but on the basis of political allegiance in the internal battles of the Labour movement; people whose whole political background has been within the Labour bubble, not looking outwards at all. Compare that with Welsh Labour, where advisers and staffers are recruited on the basis of experience and track-record, and are very often people who have served with real distinction in their own fields. Or compare it with John McDonnell’s recruitment of some of the world’s leading economists to advise on economic policy. Corbyn needs, above all, critical friends; but it looks very much as if he has surrounded himself with old party cronies whose role is to police the bunker. And Corbyn cannot escape responsibility for that.
And, yet, it’s not that simple. Corbyn was elected with a huge mandate, by a Party that explicitly rejected the centrist agenda of his three opponents. The incompetence of those who surround him does not diminish the authenticity of a mandate to challenge, rather than accept, the austerity narrative – something that I, and many others, believed was the only electorally credible way forward. What might be called the Progress wing of the Party has never accepted his victory or his mandate and that has had a wholly toxic effect; it’s all too easy for criticism of Labour’s performance in the referendum campaign to turn into an ideological settling of scores. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the Labour Right has a fair degree of responsibility for the poisonous tone of the immigration debate, and it was dispiriting, even as the referendum results were being announced, to hear people like John Mann and Chuka Umunna arguing on the BBC results programme that we had to accept the austerian and anti-immigrant agenda to win the case. It’s a fantasy that will only lead to electoral annihilation, especially when John McDonnell has done such sterling work in restoring Labour’s economic credibility.
Ultimately the issue boils down to a couple of questions. Labour’s national leadership have been appalling in this campaign – and the social media warriors mathering about Progress plots need to get real about this. Does this mean that Corbyn’s credibility has been damaged irretrievably? It’s difficult to see how Corbyn’s leadership can survive without some pretty fundamental changes to the approach and the team – sharper policy-making, and developing a serious media strategy – which in turn means dismantling the bunker and putting in place a decent team that can reunite the party. Can we go back to the pre-Corbyn position? No, because that leads to more confused economic messaging and, ultimately, to the PASOK-ification of Labour. Does the Labour leadership need to up its game? Absolutely. Whether or not Corbyn should go is encapsulated in those questions.