Like hundreds of thousands of Labour members and supporters, I voted for Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader a year ago. I voted for Corbyn because I believed that he was the only candidate who would be willing to break out of the reactive, negative politics of his opponents and set out a real economic and social alternative, based on social justice and equality. It was the opportunity to set the agenda, especially on economics; none of Corbyn’s opponents appeared to understand this. They appeared united in a sort of moral and intellectual timidity, unwilling to challenge the fundamentals of austerity economics, and apparently unaware that austerity is a political, not an economic, project. And it was about electability; it seemed clear to me that the only way to build an electable party was to set the economic agenda, not to respond to the others.
I also regarded a vote for Corbyn as a high-risk option; it might not come off, but we had to try. But, in their failure to ask the big economic questions (let alone answer them), it seemed that all that Cooper, Burnham and Kendall offered was a choice of minor diversions on the road-map to electoral decline. Also, coming to live in Wales, I was able to witness at first hand the benefits of a Labour Government, led firmly from the centre-left by Carwyn Jones, a leader of vision and real stature, which had delivered its promises for social justice in office while prioritising the need to bring investment and jobs to Wales.
So, a year on, what has changed?
There have of course been good things. Chief among these is John McDonnell’s tireless work to develop an economic alternative, by building bridges with academic economists to demonstrate that there is a real economic alternative – grounded, optimistic and based on investment and growth. For the first time, and in the face of continued failure of Tory economics, Labour is setting the agenda – and we must not turn back from that.
But the most important political event of the past year has been the EU referendum, and on that issue Corbyn’s performance was woeful – and, moreover, laid bare the fundamental problems at the heart of Corbyn’s leadership. Since the vote, it has become clear that Corbyn’s invisibility was a matter of deliberate policy – part of his advisors’ political strategy. (And it is all of a piece with a deep-seated hostility to the media in team Corbyn, something that a modern party leadership simply cannot afford. The line from the team that Corbyn had been busy attending meetings and rallies but the media did not report them is fundamentally an admission of incompetence; in the modern political world you create media opportunities, rather than issuing press releases and keeping your fingers crossed).
And Corbyn’s failure was a clear symptom that he and his team simply weren’t engaged with the issues. They never sought to take hold of the debate; never challenged the economic assumptions or the lies about the NHS; never got to grips with the issue of immigration, never understood Europe sufficiently to know that the only way the UK would get access to the single market (on which the success of John McDonnell’s strategy to build an economy based on manufacturing investment crucially depends) was by accepting free movement; the failures were elementary and were about policy as much as media presentation. Once again, the comparison with Carwyn Jones – who led the Remain campaign in Wales from the front, and who draws his policy advisers from people with a serious track-record in their respective fields – is instructive. Ironically, given Team Corbyn’s obsession with what it regards as the views of ordinary members, it does not seem remotely to understand how the leadership shafted those Labour people who knocked on doors and staffed stalls throughout the campaign in pursuit, let it be remembered, of implementing a conference decision. Apparently some Labour members – and some conference decisions – count for more than others.
And, most of all, Corbyn’s promise of a new kind of politics, based on kindness and co-operation, is looking deeply hollow. What should have been an attempt to build a new unity, a new consensus around a leadership that represents a grounded change of direction, has turned into a power-grab. Sadly, Corbyn’s team appears to have been assembled, not on the grounds of merit and experience (and certainly not on the grounds of policy or media competence) but on the basis of their history in the faction-fighting within the Labour Party. And Corbyn’s supporters seem to be determined to fight the old battles: leading figures in Momentum are now making it clear that control of the selection process, and the deselection of MPs (and AMs) who do not share their agenda is their central objective. SWP members and those from other grouplets are apparently welcome at Momentum meetings, despite the claims that Momentum is a group that works within Labour rules. It goes further; I’ve spoken to a number of veterans of 1980s Militant who have commented on how the methods, the language, the attitudes to democracy, the intolerance of dissent, even the circulation of handy scripts on the issues of the day, are wholly derived from Militant’s methods.
Of course, one crucial difference between the 1980s and today is the existence of social media; and it perhaps on Twitter that the the Corbynista keyboard warriors have been at their worst. The bile has been astonishing; although it has been interesting to see how much of it has come from the non-Labour left, including the Green Party, who seem to see Corbyn as “theirs”. This is not the politics that Jeremy Corbyn stands for, but there are those in his team with a history and his team seems not to have raised a word in protest. In particular the misogyny of some of the comments should be a cause for serious reflection.
Not that the Right are blameless in any of this. Far from it. Given the chance to support the new leadership, and in the case of prominent MPs to serve in the Shadow Cabinet, they walked away. They could have had influence; they chose sulking. And I have little doubt that there have been plots, and systematic undermining. The evidence appears to show that the anti-Semitism row within Labour was largely manufactured. But talk of coups is just ideologically-fuelled nonsense. In that vote of no-confidence, three quarters of the Parliamentary Labour Party voted against Corbyn. That’s not just Blairites, or the usual suspects; that includes many MPs on the centre-left, some of whom have served with some distinction in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet (I’m thinking here of MPs like Owen Smith, clearly on the centre-left and who as Shadow Work and Pensions Spokesman has taken the fight to the Tories in a way that stands in stark contrast to predecessors like Liam Byrne and Rachel Reeves).
But for as long as Corbyn hangs on, the greater the likelihood of a bloody internal Labour civil war in which the people that Labour was founded to represent – the people living outside middle-class London, those faced with benefit sanctions, falling real wages, catastrophic losses of services and support, the worst housing crisis in modern history – and, particularly at the moment, those who are being targetted with abuse in the post-referendum racist fury – get forgotten. The trouble is not that Corbyn, his team and his Momentum supporters, are facing a coup; it’s that their combination of naivety, incompetence and ideological venom is simply confirming every prejudice of the media and the Labour right – and that Team Corbyn simply appear to lack the self awareness to understand this.
The latest manifestation – an extraordinary story in today’s Observer to the effect that Corbyn’s staff are refusing to grant a one-to-one meeting with Deputy Leader Tom Watson on the grounds of a “duty of care” – just emphasises the image of chaos. Most people might reasonably assume that leader and deputy’s office doors are open to one another; this looks like a bunker mentality, that scene from Downfall being played out in the oak-pannelled offices of the Palace of Westminster. It betrays such a basic lack of professionalism, of people who talk a lot about democracy but haven’t got a clue about management. It gives the impression that Jeremy Corbyn – who everybody knows is a decent man characterised by generosity of spirit and a passionate belief in social progress – is being held prisoner by the people around him. And it’s a wholly toxic situation.
We cannot go on like this. We cannot continue while a self-appointed elite trashes Labour’s prospects of being able to deliver in office for the people who need us. We cannot continue to allow the Labour values of equality, decency and openness to be traduced by shouty men hiding behind Twitter pseudonyms, or by people who rarely raise their heads outside the ideological bunker, adopting the politics and methods of those who led this party – our Party – to the brink in the 1980s. There’s nothing left-wing, or heroic, or even clever, about sending taxis scuttling around a city to hand out redundancy notices to a council’s own staff.
But, equally, we cannot go back to what passed for leadership before Corbyn was elected. We cannot walk away from opposing punitive welfare legislation while claiming that doing so is a sign of economic maturity. There must be no place in Labour’s shadow cabinet for those who argue that Labour should be tougher than the Tories on welfare – not just because it’s cruel and socially unjust, but because it’s basically a statement of gross economic illiteracy. With the economy likely to be severely damaged by Brexit, and with an economy operating at the zero bound on interest rates, we cannot allow ourselves to become deficit obsessives once again. And on immigration and Brexit we need to be honest – freedom of movement within the EU is a condition of access to the single market, and immigration is not to blame for falling pay and job insecurity.
All of this needs Labour to be a centre-left party, with a far clearer commitment to social justice and equality that has sometimes been the case in recent history. It also needs to be a responsive, outward-looking party, showing that it shares and articulates the concerns of voters across the UK – which is not the same time as accepting media and elite narratives that we know to be palpably untrue. It needs to be a tolerant and open party, in which lively, mutually-respectful debate can be carried on without fear. And it needs to be an inclusive party, that looks like the people it claims to represent, not the plaything of well-heeled metroplitan ideologues who will be just fine if Labour implodes.
As someone who voted for Jeremy Corbyn, it saddens me greatly to have to say that as long as Corbyn remains as leader, and as long as the leader’s office remains the heart of an ideological project, none of those things will happen; and the risk that we will lose all the gains of the past year – and the next election – increases. For the sake of the empirical, reality-based left, Corbyn must go now.