What has been the point of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour party? I ask not to antagonise his army of supporters, nor to appease those that despise him. I ask because I genuinely have no idea what the answer is.
What policies does he believe in? What would his Britain look like? What we he do if he was prime minister?
On the most pressing issues of our age: climate change, global trade and the refugee crisis, I don’t know what he thinks, beyond some well-meaning rhetoric. At a more immediate level, on housing, the NHS, education, I don’t know what his administration would do to address the issues facing our country.
Beyond defining himself by what he and his supporters dislike, he has no vision. To say he’s anti-austerity, or against cuts is as meaningless as those on the right who decry big government without ever articulating what that means.
This is all the more heart-breaking because I voted for Jeremy Corbyn to be Labour leader. I came to that decision late, only a day or two before the vote, and was not overly enthusiastic about it. But I voted for him, with Stella Creasy and Sadiq Khan making up my choices for Deputy and Mayor; as part of what I envisioned could be a bold new progressive party.
I came to that decision armed with the belief that Labour had lost the last election not because it was too right-wing or too left-wing, but because it was too nothing. Voters had no clear idea about what the party stood for. It had let itself be defined by its opponents as fiscally reckless, beholden to an open door immigration policy.
While the Conservative’s trotted out their talking points relentlessly (“long-term economic plan”) Labour put forward bold policies in set-piece speeches by shadow cabinet ministers and then never spoke of them again.
Last summer, while his opponents for Labour leadership struggled to remember what they believed in, stumbling over talking points in media appearances as they flip-flopped from right-wing to left-wing stances on immigration and the economy, Corbyn stood out as a principled and authentic politician.
Calm and occasionally even funny in front of the cameras, he seemed at ease with himself, capable of rising above the tawdry debate of the moment and encouraging voters alienated from the slick, truth-ignoring politics that has defined the 21st century.
What a change today: with Corbyn unwilling to admit that he wants to be prime minister on Channel 4 News and calling for the immediate use of Article 50 to leave the EU when his supporters were still reeling from a referendum result announced just hours before.
His time as leader has been characterised from the start by an unwillingness to talk to the media which in turn amounts to an unwillingness to talk to the public. Of course, the press has been immensely hostile to him, but for all those on the left who demand the press give him a fair shake, imagine how you would react to a right-wing leader taking over the Conservative party. Would you really hear them out?
Like Miliband before him, Corbyn and his team have been defined totally by their opponents.
When Tony Blair became Labour leader in 1994, on a platform which in terms of its capacity to shake up the core principles of the party was not dissimilar to Corbyn’s, he and his team embarked on an aggressive charm offensive in the media and in intellectual society. As well as making their case to right-wing tabloids, they wrote articles in publications like Marxism Today, setting out exactly what their ‘third way’ politics would look like.
More recently on the other side of the Atlantic, Bernie Sanders has used his surprise election success to stake out a new liberal wing of the Democratic party, encouraging thousands of disaffected white working class Americans to vote for his crystal clear economic message and getting his supporters to run for election in their localities based on his platform.
Where is the effort from the Corbynites to win this battle of ideas? To engage with the public and win them over to their cause? Instead of talking to the outside world, Corbyn and his supporters have retreated. We’ve had months of pointless internal debate in the Labour party about Trident and intervention in Syria, two issues so remote from the lives of ordinary people that they barely register with the electorate.
At the same time the Conservative party has embarked on a series of reckless and unpopular policies that have struck at the heart of core Labour values, most notably in picking a fight with junior doctor’s.
Labour under Corbyn resembles the elected officials of a student union, voting to recognise the Armenian genocide while the entire campus goes on a rent strike. How telling it is that on the day of the European referendum, the most important vote in my lifetime, Corbyn was canvassing in his North London constituency, mingling with supporters in an area always likely to back Remain by a handsome margin. He seems wholly unwilling to engage with the broader population.
After Thursday’s vote, we face an uncertain future. This country seems filled with a combination of nihilism and anxiety. There is a keen divide between the young and old, city and countryside, and wealthy and poor. People are crying out for a hopeful message that tackles their real concerns; from immigration to the insecurity of housing and employment.
The Conservatives, having driven the country to the brink of recession to solve an internal dispute, have totally lost their claim to be the party of economic stability. With the Tories about to embark on an historic shift to the right, they should also lose their claim to represent the centre ground.
The government to come could not be more regressive on the key issues facing our country and our world. Self-styled intellectual, Boris Johnson has previously claimed that climate change can’t be happening because it’s snowing in London. While another leading leaver, Owen Paterson, has spoken out about the “benefits of global warming”. That is to say nothing of the views of the likes of Priti Patel, Michael Gove, Liam Fox and Iain Duncan Smith on international law and workers’ rights.
As it stands, Labour under Corbyn will lose the next election and lose it badly. The party needs to begin facing outward and addressing the needs of a deeply divided nation. More than that, it needs some basic competence, to articulate its message so that voters will know what they are getting if they put a cross next to a Labour candidate’s name on their ballot paper.
I still strongly believe in the ideals that led me to vote for Corbyn, but it has become clear that he is terrible arbiter for those beliefs. We need change urgently.
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