openDemocracyUK: Opinion

Corbyn was intensely moral, but never a working class hero

Labour’s defeat and the triumph of Johnsonism, part two: Corbyn’s leadership.

Jeremy Gilbert
14 January 2020
Jeremy Corbyn in 2017
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Image: Chatham House

The reason given by most 2017 Labour voters for deserting the party was not its Brexit policy, or its overall platform, but the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. In the first article of this series, I looked at how Labour’s voter coalition fell apart between 2017 and 2019. Over the course of the next few contributions, I will consider why this happened and what lessons we can draw from it. In the third and fourth, I will look at the question of Labour’s campaign messaging and the tremendous difficulties created by the Brexit issue for Labour. But here I will consider the basic question of Labour’s leadership.

It has already become a cliché, reported by thousands who canvassed for Labour during the election, that the reasons given for disliking Corbyn included both specific issues obsessively promoted by the right-wing press, and a general sense that Corbyn appeared weak, indecisive and unaggressive: normally, it seems, voters would give one of these two sets of reasons rather than the other. The first was usually justified with reference to Corbyn’s supposed historic sympathy for the IRA or his ‘excessive’ sympathy with Muslims. The latter was more generally framed in terms of Corbyn lacking charisma, energy and fighting spirit.

Working Class Heroes

In fact, the difference between these two sets of reasons for liking or disliking Corbyn might reflect an ideological fault line that has always run through Labour’s ‘traditional working class’ electorate. On the one hand, there has always been a constituency whose identification with Labour derived from a historic tribal identity as well as a general sense of collectivism and loyalty to social institutions (from trade unions to the monarchy). That constituency has often been allergic to militancy (opposing the 1984 Miners Strike, for example) while attracted to nationalism, militarism and imperialism. Politically, Corbyn was always going to alienate this constituency. But as the 2017 result showed, he could largely do without them.

On the other hand, the tradition of instinctive labour militancy lives on amongst sections of the working class more deeply influenced by the socialist tradition. This tendency found expression in Labour’s astonishing 2017 result. But that tradition demands a certain standard of its leaders. From Ellen Wilkinson to Arthur Scargill, from Tony Benn to Ken Livingstone, they have all been blessed with some mixture of oratorical skill and ‘the common touch’. With some combination of fiery rhetoric, wise-cracking humour and common-sense class politics, they have been able to express the anger that working class people feel at the injustices for which they suffer; and an appropriately steely contempt for their oppressors. If you want a contemporary example, just think of Bernie Sanders.

Unfortunately, Corbyn had none of these qualities. His intensely moral condemnations of the social consequences of austerity just never occupied any of this range of rhetorical registers, and so working class people largely heard them as ineffectual hand-wringing. And so, eventually, he lost this second set of working class voters as well. And so he was done for.

It’s not like nobody saw this coming. I was one of many voices sympathetic to the Corbyn project, publicly and privately worrying that Corbyn just could not channel working-class anger effectively, from the beginning of his leadership. At one point in 2016 I was invited by someone around the leader's office to submit ideas for future strategy, and I made this point then, suggesting that other voices (preferably with Northern accents) needed to be brought to the fore, just as John Prescott had been given a prominent role in campaigning for Tony Blair’s premiership. That memo was, as far as I know, ignored.

Three and a half years later, two weeks before the election, when polls showed the party facing annihilation in the North, we finally saw former miner, Ian Lavery MP, being brought out to address the Northern constituencies, featuring in a very moving video about the legacy of Thatcherism. He was a fine choice for the job (others could have included Jon Trickett and Angela Rayner). But he should have been given it three years earlier. To be fair to those involved, I’m told by members of Labour’s 20018-19 communications team that figures like Lavery were reluctant to take on this role once Labour had moved away from an unequivocal commitment to implementing Brexit. Why John McDonnell – the most talented radical politician of his generation, and a Northerner to boot – was never systematically deployed in this way, remains a mystery. Perhaps he was, and it was simply invisible to London-based people like me.

There is a crucial lesson here for any future Labour leadership. The sort of common-touch-charisma that I am describing, that Corbyn lacked, is difficult to quantify. Livingstone had it, despite his nasal whine and unprepossessing appearance; and that was what allowed him to remain beloved of Londoners for a generation, while always adhering to a radical socialist politics. Corbyn lacked it utterly, through absolutely no fault of his own.

Any future Labour leader must possess this quality: and simply speaking with flat vowels will not be what guarantees it. What it requires, more than anything, is a kind of intuitive Marxism: an automatic ability to frame important political issues in terms of the class interests that animate them, and that unite diverse constituencies of working people up and down the country.

What this would have looked like, in practice, during the 2019 election, would have been a Labour leader – at least sometimes – castigating Johnson as the scion of a parasitic aristocracy, pointing out that, for example, the reason for the national housing shortage was the fact that his class had spent decades greedily cornering the property market. It sounds incredibly obvious. How could we never once get to hear this, in any of the public debates? But we didn’t get anything like it from Corbyn, even once; and as the campaign went on, it became impossible to imagine him doing it. Asked to comment on the housing crisis, Corbyn would appeal to our sense of moral outrage at the social fact of widespread homelessness. It’s a fine sentiment to express. But it completely misses the point.

In case you want me to put this in much cruder terms, I will. To win over grumpy old Northerners, you don’t necessarily have to be a grumpy old Northerner. But you do need to be able to tell them which bastards are screwing them and what you’re going to do about it; or they will listen to someone else who does (such as Boris Johnson, telling them that the bastards who are screwing them are foreigners). Corbyn couldn’t do this. All he could tell his audiences was that some other poor folk were getting screwed even worse than they were. Which really wasn’t what they wanted to hear at all.

This wasn’t his fault. This kind of antagonistic politics just isn’t Corbyn’s style. Which is why he was never really the right person for the job, and should at least have had a stronger team around him much more often. And it is this that the next Labour leader must be able to do.

But before leaving the topic of Corbyn’s leadership, it is important to say this. The very qualities that made him a poor public antagonist of the capitalist class are those that enabled him to play the historic role that he did. I said this at the moment of his first accession to the leadership, and it was true: Corbyn had rallied the left. He rallied the left in Britain for the first time since the 1980s, providing a focal point for our re-emergence as a significant political force. It was always too much to expect that he could lead us to victory as well. After decades of defeat, despondency and disaggregation, it was Corbyn’s unique decency, his sheer humanity, that enabled him to usher a movement into existence. Yes, that movement would have emerged anyway. But it might well have happened outside the Labour party, or more likely in its ultimate ruins, had it not been for Jeremy Corbyn. And it might well have emerged less unified, less positive, less full of intelligent hope, had he not been there to lead it.

Above all, I think: Corbyn’s kindness, gentility, and unflinching anti-imperialism gave many poor women and people of colour – used to suffering abuse, neglect and micro-aggression as a permanent and institutionalised fact of social existence – a sense of a possible home in mainstream British politics. The fact that his right-wing detractors in the party have been unable even to concede that achievement, or to treat his decency as anything other than contemptible, is a symptom of their own appalling cynicism.

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