Rt Hon Jeremy Corbyn, Leader of the Labour Party, UK. Chatham House / Flickr. Some rights reserved.
On the unique calculator that Jeremy Corbyn uses, there must be a sequence of numbers – somewhere between meltdown and minimal respectability - that most psephologists won’t recognise. This is where ‘victory’ in the general election resides. Not the win that would take Labour into Number 10, but the result that will keep Corbyn as Labour’s leader – and finally bury his party as an electable political entity.
Labour’s expectations going into the general election campaign were so low that simply avoiding a disaster, or a cataclysmic collapse, was seen as a reason to be cheerful. For those of us struggling with Corbyn’s election as leader, and in almost-permanent mourning over the attritional weekly loss of credibility, the election was a justifiable period to contemplate hiding behind the sofa.
The last six weeks merited a retreat into petitionary prayer, a begging-bowl plea even, for the electoral arithmetic to deliver a simultaneous Labour wipe-out and decorous recovery. But that kind of fantasy math doesn’t exist, even in the minds of quantum physicists.
Until Theresa May delivered the Conservatives’ stillborn manifesto and the noise level surrounding her claimed leadership talents began drowning out all talk of an in-the-bag landslide, the Corbyn campaign had looked predictably lame. Jeremy as Prime Minister was either an amusing what-if, or a passing nightmare.
However, the abject failure to sell May as “strong and stable”, alongside the misjudgement that her authority was unassailable, handed Corbyn an unexpected opportunity. When May began to look more like a fabricated fraud than Thatcher mark II, Corbyn’s so-called authenticity, which gives his followers reasons to believe, was now sold as the game-changing magic to make 2017 the year of revolution.
May’s wooden and out-of-place performances in a personality-led campaign, handed Corbyn the gift of media focus. His excruciatingly weak performances at PMQs, the inept, organisational chaos surrounding his leadership, his inability to engender any common-cause between the hard-left and the pragmatic centre of his party, suddenly gave way to a calmer, softer, Corbyn-in-the-spotlight.
The vacuum created by May’s monotony and the Liberal Democrats’ failure to be taken seriously, turned Corbyn into the 2017 election’s centre-stage politician. From a hidden leader, edited out of most Labour campaign leaflets, and dismissed in doorstep canvassing as a temporary phenomenon unlikely to get in the way much longer, Corbyn – and Labour’s proto-Marxist manifesto – began to be taken seriously. His back-to-the-future socialist agenda, as untailored and unchanged as Michael Foot’s donkey jacket, was now an outed celebration of an alternative UK.
Barely concealed pork barrel give-aways were presented as a planned festival of Keynesian revivalism and state-planned growth. Corbyn has contradictions over the IRA, there are issues over his claimed peace-making in terrorist circles and his abhorrence of the nuclear deterrent remains. The cost of large-scale re-nationalisation, his perceived weakness over anti-Semitism, and – most important of all – the widespread assumption that he is simply an accident, an incompetent socialist relic out of his depth, have all had to be revised as opinion polls narrowed.Initially branded a ticket to the Dignitas clinic, the manifesto morphed from an uncosted wish-list of resurgent state economic power, to something that sounded as politically obvious as ‘Make America Great Again.’
When the gap between Labour and the Conservatives is 20 points, and a landslide is forecast, it is valid to assume that Corbyn is the root cause of the mess. But when the numbers shrink to nine, to seven, to five, to three, and when another coalition becomes the subject of serious debates, Jeremy Corbyn is no longer a hapless, hopeless clown prince, but the left’s saviour-elect a heartbeat away from Number 10.
So even if Labour lose, and perhaps lose badly, does Corbyn’s decent electoral performance and the way he seemed to revive hopes of another Labour government, mean he should be given another chance? Did his revival of a hard-core distributist agenda, whether it translates into votes or not, mean Corbyn has a right to remain at the helm of Labour? No. Absolutely no.
Leave aside the project fear analysts who claim a Labour victory would mean a surge in public borrowing, a run on the pound, a plunge in the value of the UK’s global market share, the cost of the UK’s borrowing reaching record heights, an immediate hike in interest rates, and any UK Brexit deal left to the mercy of Brussels’ negotiators. That scaremongering – and we have heard it before when the Conservatives are in danger of losing (remember the poster of Tony Blair’s demon eyes) – is simply part of May’s campaign.
Instead, we should ask how Corbyn got to where he is. It took sympathetic votes from Labour MPs to get him on to the post-Miliband leadership ballot. He was there supposedly to widen the debate. It was a favour to the left.
In that contest, Corbyn was initially an in-house joke for the parliamentary party. Though when he won, it left them powerless in Westminster. The same trick is being played out again with the widespread appeal that Corbyn cannot win, so Labour voters should remain loyal and limit the damage.
Underpinning this covert appeal is the assumption that Labour still remains a party capable of government, capable of being elected at a future date, as long as Corbyn or John McDonnell or Diane Abbott and others, are no longer in control. For those Labour supporters who have tolerated Corbyn, but flirted with the prospect of taking their vote elsewhere, his adequate performance during the election may have made a difference. This however suggests the weight of Labour’s vote should not vindicate the continuance of the Corbyn regime.
Even if Labour are left with shrunken numbers on the Opposition benches, Corbyn and McDonnell will, regardless, still see the validity of running a class war, their signature policy, from Westminster. A reduction in Labour MPs matters little if this is the sole objective.
The prognosis for Labour’s survival could be bleak. Corbynism is a terminal affliction that Labour cannot recover from. A six-week campaign has not a redesigned or relaunched Corbyn’s claim to resurrect state socialism. When he returns to the Commons, Labour will still have the same problems any organisation has when it is run by an ideologically restricted incompetent.
Party activists may not care. They will cheer and will re-elect him should there be another leadership contest. The parliamentary party will have a different view. And there is no reconciliation there to suggest a constructive peace will break out. The result? For Labour – business as usual, well away from government. For the Tories? A bit of May – then a new leader to fight 2022.
Even if Corbyn marginally improves the percentage success of Ed Miliband in 2015, or just falls short, he should go. The left could claim the equivalence of sainthood and insist he changed the future. The centre would have to accept some good was done, even it meant improved morale.
Labour’s future cannot be left to depend on a relic, who, for a brief few weeks, performed beyond expectations. That isn’t enough. For the benefit of the next generation of Labour politicians who should want more than the wilderness of endless opposition, Corbyn and whatever ‘ism’ he stood for, should return to the backbenches – quickly.
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