by Matthew Lane
So, here we are again, another Labour leadership election less than a year since Jeremy Corbyn won the last one in such spectacular fashion (with the biggest mandate of any Labour leader ever).
The PLP insist that there has been no coup against him, that the very organised and orchestrated nature of the recent resignations was purely spontaneous and that they are moving against Corbyn now for the good of the party.
Because, as we’re so repeatedly told, Corbyn is unelectable. Unelectable. Unelectable. Unelectable. There is, of course, no actual hard evidence to back this up, but the Labour leader and shouts of unelectable have become almost synonymous in the last year. Despite Corbyn being voted back in as an MP for more than 30 years, with increased majorities each time. Despite him winning the Labour leadership election by a landslide last September. Despite Labour holding their own in the local elections amid fervent speculation that the party was about to experience the darkest night in its history, with experts predicting at least 200 council seats lost.
The PLP say they have given Corbyn every chance to prove himself. They say that Corbyn is a poor and inefficient leader who fails to reach out across the party or communicate his message effectively. They say that a more moderate, centrist candidate – who can unite the party – is what will lead Labour to certain electoral success. You know, the sort of moderate, centrist Labour that performed so well in 2010, 2015 and in last year’s leadership election.
They said Brexit was pretty much all Jeremy’s fault, despite 2/3 of Labour voters voting to Remain and Corbyn attending more rallies than Angela Eagle, Yvette Cooper, Alan Johnson (official head of the Labour In campaign), Tristram Hunt and most Labour MPs combined.
The electorate rejected Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband, but they will apparently be chomping at the bit to vote for Owen Smith, who can’t seem to make his mind up where he stands on PFI, austerity, the Iraq War and privatisation in the NHS from one day to the next. A man who is so desperate to prove his Labour credentials and paint himself as on the left of the party, that you start to question whether he believes it himself. A man who, according to John Mann, was going around seeking support for a Labour leadership bid some six months ago. Oddly enough, not much has been made of that in the mainstream press.
The PLP have also been very keen to suggest that Corbyn has had plenty of time to prove he has what it takes to win a general election. However, given that Ed Miliband was handed 5 years to fail that test and Corbyn has only been afforded 10 months, such a claim doesn’t really add up. Any insinuations that the attempted coup was an opportunist move, seeking to take advantage of the chaos and uncertainty caused by the Brexit vote, have been dismissed.
At the very least, the timing of the move against Corbyn was brainless. In the immediate aftermath of the referendum result, a time when unity and stability was needed more than ever, the PLP decided that tearing the party apart and indulging in some more navel-gazing was what was needed. This, at a time when the Tories were in disarray, Labour were level pegging in the polls and Corbyn’s approval ratings were improving. Inspired timing. Absolutely inspired.
There are, of course, plenty who believe that many in the PLP have been against Corbyn from day 1, and that plans to oust him have been in the making ever since that historic win last September.
There is certainly very clear evidence that many weren’t behind him from the very start.
Jamie Reed resigned in classy fashion just a few minutes into Corbyn’s acceptance speech. Liz Kendall and Yvette Cooper, two of Corbyn’s rivals in the Labour leadership race, said shortly after the result was announced that they wouldn’t serve in his Shadow Cabinet. Tristram Hunt said something similar: “It is important to be honest about it. I have substantial political differences with Jeremy.” A flurry of resignations from the Shadow Cabinet followed a few days after Corbyn’s landslide victory. Hunt went, while Emma Reynolds and Chris Leslie also returned to the backbenches.
Chuka Umunna quit the frontbench, too. Shabana Mahmood, the shadow Treasury chief secretary, refused to work with Corbyn. And Rachel Reeves said she would be returning to the backbenches as well.
So, even before he’d started, he had a number of senior Labour MPs refusing to serve in his Shadow Cabinet. He was soon being criticised for the top five jobs in his Shadow Cabinet all going to men, despite many senior female MPs – including Cooper, Kendall, Reeves, Caroline Flint and Harriet Harman – all ruling themselves out. Then came National Anthem-gate, Corbyn being hounded by reporters on his way home from Parliament, question marks over his dress sense and his links to terrorists, leaks during Shadow Cabinet meetings, leaked lists that no-one could confirm the veracity of, numerous anonymous sources queuing up to brief the media and regular rumours about plots and coups.
Labour MPs such as Wes Streeting, John Mann, John Woodcock, Chris Leslie, Jamie Reed and Ben Bradshaw have become familiar names simply because of their anti-Corbyn sniping. Simon Danczuk has been one of Corbyn’s biggest critics, talking of throwing his hat into the ring if May’s election results went badly and regularly working against the Labour leader despite the controversies he himself has been involved in. Those from New Labour have had plenty to say, too, with Tony Blair, Alistair Darling, David Miliband, Peter Mandelson and Alistair Campbell very vocal critics of his leadership.
If paragons of virtue like Danczuk, Blair, Campbell, Mandelson and John McTernan are so virulently against you, you’re probably doing something right. The more the relics of the New Labour era pipe up, the more support for Corbyn hardens.
To begin with, there was talk of a move against Corbyn if Labour performed badly in the Oldham by-election, widely seen as Corbyn’s first major electoral test. Experts and the media seemed certain that it would be an incredibly close run thing, that UKIP may even pip Labour to the post. Labour’s Jim McMahon won comfortably, talk of a coup died down.
There was similar talk before the local elections, where most of the media and experts were predicting absolute disaster for Labour, catastrophic, embarrassing losses. Didn’t happen. You could make a number of cases for Labour’s performance in elections under Corbyn, but total failure, utter disaster or completely unelectable would not be one of them. Slightly below expectations is about the worst you could say, while there is also an argument that Corbyn has exceeded expectations so far.
And, of course, those expectations of him have been completely unrealistic. He’s been expected to win back Scotland – a Scotland lost under New Labour – in just 10 months. He was expected to win hundreds of seats in the local elections despite 2012 being a high watermark. Even then, Labour increased their share of the vote, lost fewer council seats than the Tories, won two by-elections and won all four mayoralties on offer.
He’s been expected to unite the party while many have gone against him. He’s been expected to compromise on the principles that got him elected. He’s been expected to indulge in Punch & Judy, Flashman politics, when he’s said from the start that’s not the way he does things. He’s been expected to have Labour well ahead of the Tories by now, despite constantly having to bat off questions about everything from his leadership to his clothes, electability and internal spats within the PLP.
Despite all that, there are many who think he is doing just fine and has offered some actual opposition, an alternative to the Tories, for the first time in years. An alternative to the neoliberal ideology that has dominated politics since 1979.
Would a Labour Party not led by Corbyn, the kind of Labour Party that abstains on the Welfare Bill, have forced the Tories into so many u-turns, on everything from tax credits to forced academisation? Highly unlikely. Would the anti-austerity drum have been banged quite so loudly if Corbyn weren’t in charge? Given the austerity-lite approach relentlessly peddled by Miliband and fully backed up by Cooper, Kendall and Burnham, this again seems very unlikely.
Would the Labour Party have apologised for the Iraq War if Corbyn wasn’t leader? No way, Jose. Would membership of the Labour Party have swelled to around 600,000 if it weren’t for Corbyn? No. Would those driven away by Blair/New Labour have returned if Corbyn wasn’t leading the party? No. Would young people have got involved in politics for the first time without the influence and appeal of Corbyn? No. Would Greens and Lib Dems now be questioning their allegiance? No. Would Cooper, Burnham or Kendall have faced such a relentless and hostile character assassination on a near daily basis? No.
None of which is to say that Corbyn is the perfect leader or that his time in charge has been entirely without fault. Like any leader, he has made mistakes – but these mistakes have been exaggerated and blown out of all proportion. They have been pounced upon with glee, even by MPs from his own party.
It’s also clear that he hasn’t received a fair hearing from the press. That is without dispute. A thorough LSE report has confirmed as much. The mainstream media have been deliberately, often mendaciously, biased towards Corbyn. You might expect it from the likes of the Sun, the Daily Mail, the Express, the Telegraph, the Times and the Evening Standard, but members of the left-leaning, liberal media such as the Independent and the Guardian have been just as bad. The Guardian’s anti-Corbyn stance has been as relentless as it has been bizarre. If a day goes by without an anti-Corbyn article, it’s a shock.
The PLP insist that Corbyn is completely unelectable. He won’t, and can’t, win power. He’s a protest politician; a serial rebel preaching to his cult of far-left followers. If they’d got behind him from the start, really backed him to take the fight to the Tories and showed a united front (whatever the internal wrangling), then their words about it not working out wouldn’t sound so insincere and hollow now. But that never happened.
And, despite an openly hostile media, his own party working against him and the regular slurs and attacks by the Tories, Corbyn has held his own or performed better than expected in every electoral test he’s faced. He’s certainly proved to be neither unelectable nor toxic. There have been highlights, too, not least the by-election results in Oldham and Tooting and the four mayoral wins in London, Salford, Liverpool and, most impressively, Bristol. Despite the constant calls of unelectable, and the attempts to turn this into a self-fulfilling prophecy, it hasn’t proved to be the case.
With the PLP fully behind him, how well would the Labour Party be doing? He had them level pegging in the polls and holding up electorally with everyone out to get him, so how well might he do with his own team on side? Maybe that’s what the PLP fear most, that their constant calls of unelectable and their leaking, briefing, backbiting and sniping against their democratically leader will be another thing they’re proved emphatically wrong about.
Much of the PLP have thrown a massive long hissy-fit since September. The members didn’t pay attention to them; didn’t heed their warnings about Corbyn. The PLP, for their part, didn’t understand why the New Labour/moderate/centrist/Blairite/Progress/Fabian Society way had been so roundly rejected. They still don’t understand why. Their complacency, arrogance and sense of entitlement – believing that they always know best – are why so many people will vote for Corbyn once again in September. Maybe then the PLP can actually get behind him, but don’t bet on it – they didn’t listen to the members the first time, don’t expect them to listen this.