It’s rare that politics throws up results you simply cannot spin. There’s usually something positive you can say in defeat, or an excuse that can be offered in mitigation. This is not the case after the Stoke and Copeland by-elections. Governments do not win seats from oppositions, or didn’t until Thursday. Even the result in Stoke, where the party held off a shambolic challenge from UKIP was merely objectively dreadful rather than apocalyptic. The party received a smaller percentage of the vote than in Copeland, and was saved by UKIP and the Tories splitting the vote.
Still, Jeremy Corbyn and his lieutenants had a go. Stoke was a defeat for the politics of hate rather a spectacularly underwhelming performance for an opposition, while defeat in Copeland was about voters being angry at a “failed political establishment”, who showed their anger by voting to increase the ruling Tory Party’s majority. Ken Livingstone took a break from discussing a certain Austrian lance-corporal revert to another favourite pastime and blame everything on Tony Blair. Others were forced into the strange position of saying Corbyn should stay because he wasn’t Labour’s only problem — as if a bad driver should be allowed to carry on driving a schoolbus because it has a puncture he refuses to fix.
It’s important to state that while Labour’s problems amount to much more than Jeremy Corbyn, the issues with its leader are deeper and more fundamental than the party’s and are why he turns difficult, but not insurmountable problems into ones that threaten the existence of Labour.
Why can be summed up simply: It is due to who Jeremy Corbyn is, who the Labour Party membership are and who Labour voters are.
Corbyn is part of a radical socialist tradition, existing on the Labour side of the semipermeable membrane between the party and the alphabet soup of organisations that make up the revolutionary left. This is who he is, and what he has done for 40+ years. It has been his purpose in politics — joining various solidarity campaigns and marches, setting up talks and committees promoting causes favoured by those groups inside and outside Labour.
You sometimes see Corbyn supporters try and deny or obfuscate this point. It usually takes two forms. Firstly, an argument of the form popularised by Elvis Costello: What’s so radical about equality, helping the poor? To which of course the answer is “nothing”, but it is neither a policy platform nor captures the difference between say, Corbyn’s politics and other Labour politicians outside that tradition who have not done things like call for NATO to be abolished, or hail the ruinous Venezuelan government as a model for socialism.
Secondly, and correctly, it is pointed out that as Labour leader Corbyn has not attempted to wed Labour entirely to the policies he has espoused for 40 years. The problem with this is it doesn’t particularly matter, as his team partially acknowledged by attempting a relaunch which would, to use the Sorkinese term “let Jeremy be Jeremy”. Politicians of more than thirty years standing do not get to reinvent or erase their past, especially ones for whom it is their defining feature. Even if few had heard of you before, the past will be brought up. Supporters cannot edit out the inconvenient bits, it is a part of who you are, for good or ill.
Within Labour, men of Corbyn’s politics have always been treated with a degree of indulgence and perhaps warmth, even by those who disagree with them. They may be wrong, but are decent and principled, as the old canard states. They provided an attachment to a past of romantic myths rather the more prosaic truth that Labour’s 20th Century successes had always been down to building practical coalitions of voters with shared interests rather than the purity of revolutionary zeal.
Movements need more than just rational shared interests to bind them together. They need fire, stories that they tell about themselves that elevate activists beyond mere fishers of votes to passionate participants in something more visionary and transformative. To some zealots those myths become reality. You need the odd radical and eccentric to push ideas pragmatists may overlook. Occasionally, going against the grain is right, even if Jeremy Corbyn’s reasons for opposing the 2003 Iraq war were far less noble than Robin Cook’s*.
By 2015, this residual affection for old radicals had changed into something more potent. For those who grew up politically in the twilight years of New Labour, the failings of a tired third term government enmeshed in an unpopular war and hit by a financial crisis loomed larger than any supposed deficiencies the far left had. They’d largely been a curiosity since some of the party’s MPs were in primary school — memories why men like Corbyn had become museum pieces had faded.
Labour’s membership, with its tilt towards public sector workers, students, activists and those in caring industries were likely to be those viewing the effects of government cuts close up — those most likely to agree with Corbyn’s emphasis on righteous anger over pragmatism. That anger, disappointment at two lost elections and a leadership campaign in which the two frontrunners were members of a Labour government perceived to have badly lost its way, meant that change was appealing.
Those of us who warned his elevation to the leadership would be a disaster, who texted friends in despair, were met with incomprehension. Surely couldn’t be that bad, that much worse than the other options? They’d probably lose an election anyway. Anyway, he’d shake the party up, who knows, maybe there were millions waiting to be inspired by a new radical approach, after all, voters complained that ‘all politicians were the same’?Perhaps it was time for a new politics of evangelistic passion for ‘traditional’ left-wing values. Why are you so worried?
That was the case for Corbyn then. This is now. The worst is happening, and the reason is that Labour voters are very different people to Labour members.
Ordinary voters, of any party, do not follow the intricacies of political debates in the same way members do. They do not hang on the words of Lord Mandelson or Jeremy Corbyn. Not because they lack intelligence, quite the opposite, but because they know what their concerns are and how they relate to their lives — they will tune in to you when you tune into them.
Unaffected by activists’ romantic attachments to politics a party’s voters tend to be less generous. They will not overlook or explain away things that seem weird, strange or morally obtuse because you have a longstanding record of joining marches against inequality. They will not give you a pass on perceived incompetence because you’re not a ‘traditional’ politician.
Instead they ask whether you’d make a good, capable Prime Minister and what would you do for people like me? The way to their hearts is not the abstract promise of social justice and equality (those would be nice, but what about my job), but looking capable and having practical policy offers with discernible results. This includes Labour voters — who traditionally vote for the party not because it promises socialist utopia but because the council might get more money to fix the road, protect their job, and funding for local hospitals and schools.
The answer Labour voters in Copeland (and Stoke actually) delivered on Corbyn, a man whose defining trait is being a dogmatic idealist, were as bad as they were predictable.
The Guardian quoted one drinker in a Whitehaven (Copeland) Labour Club as saying, “A lot of people don’t like Corbyn. He’s a lunatic. If they want to keep the nuclear industry, he’ll shut it down. If they want to keep the hospital, he’ll shut it down. It’s either his way or no way.”
That quote should terrify Labour politicians, because it hints at the exact and dreadful problem. In Copeland, Gill Troughton’s campaign explicitly disavowed Corbyn’s past comments on nuclear power and focused on the potential downgrading of a local hospital. For that voter, none of it mattered, as due to his past the Labour leader couldn’t be trusted to do anything to help either cause — even the one that is his signature issue. It did not matter what the local Labour candidate said, they would not vote for a man like Jeremy Corbyn — precisely for the reasons activists installed him a leader — he was man of certain principles and zeal, or to put it blunt Cumbrian terms “a lunatic”.
“I’d give it a miss. I wouldn’t vote at all. Until Labour sort themselves out — and I’ve always been a devoted Labour person — they’ll never get in power again,” he said. “Not the way they are at the moment.”
This is of course secondhand anecdotal evidence, but poll after poll (including of course Copeland) corroborates it. Figures from a YouGov taken at the end of January had only 31 percent of 2015 Labour voters saying Jeremy Corbyn would make the best Prime Minister. That compares to 84 percent for Theresa May among Tory voters. These are 2015 Labour voters, so close to what was the party’s core vote, 70 percent of whom are unable to say if its leader would make the best Prime Minister. Other polls have shown Corbyn is less trusted on the NHS than a Tory PM presiding over a long-term crisis in health provision.
Corbyn attempted to row back on his previous opposition to nuclear power, but voters aren’t stupid. They know what he’s said in the past and that it’s a deeply held belief — that’s his shtick. It’s who he is. If they didn’t know, the Tories made sure they did by printing leaflets with his previous pronouncements on them.
In Copeland it was nuclear power, the next time it will be his relationship with the IRA, or Seumas Milne’s calls for Iraqis to “resist” (i.e. kill British troops), Venezuela, NATO and defence, or nuclear power again on a national scale.
The Tory campaign strategy is not, happily for Jeremy, complex nuclear physics. Unhappily, it will be to point out again and again, that during his past on the hard-left he said and did things which may delight the Momentum steering committee but which disgust or perplex ordinary Labour voters. It won’t be about each individual issue — most of which are way down voters’ list of concerns. It is to point out Jeremy Corbyn’s political background to people who look upon it with a combination of bemusement and disdain.
It is difficult to trust people whose views you find profoundly strange, and to many Labour voters, a hard-left throwback is just as frightening and alien thing to vote for as a Tory Party that’s contemplating the closure of a local hospital maternity ward.
This problem is especially acute among working class voters — those with the most pressing practical concerns. While Labour’s share of the working class vote declined throughout the second and third terms of the Blair-Brown government, after an uptick under Ed Miliband it has gone through the floor under Jeremy Corbyn — at its fastest rate during his first weeks as leader.**
The hard truth is that the reason many Labour members love him is the reason many Labour voters, even the working class ones he claims to champion, are repelled by him. His unpopularity is not due to Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson, ‘coups’, the media, Storm Doris, an anti-establishment mood that somehow only effects Britain’s explicitly anti-establishment politicians or even the boogie. It is because of who he is and what he believes.
Lifelong Labour voters may want many of the same things as him — better schools, hospitals, more equality and opportunity, but they do not trust a man like him to deliver them. A guy who in 32 years as an MP never held a post with any kind of real responsibility and refused to because he might be faced with a decision that conflicted with his principles. That’s someone I want taking the tough decisions — him, the one who wanted to get rid of our nuclear weapons but keep spending money on the submarines that house them.
Fear of a government that lacks practical competence will always outweigh dislike of one lacking compassion — and principle over practicality may as well be stamped on Jeremy Corbyn’s forehead.
It’s the category difference between a man like Corbyn and an ordinary Labour politician of any other ideological stripe. You can promise to end austerity and shift the party to the left and Labour voters will likely go with you even if swing voters prove more sceptical. You might not win due to circumstance or your other inadequacies but you stand a chance.
Where many more will not go, is anywhere with a man like Jeremy Corbyn. This difference, willingly overlooked or even actively embraced, is what makes him not just a poor leader but an existential threat to Labour’s future.
You do not win elections by enthusing 300,000 people but by convincing more than 10 million. If what enthuses that 300,000 repels even a significant minority of that 10 million you are doomed. MPs and moderate members lack of faith in Corbyn is not a cause of this it is the warning. A leader whose views regularly makes a significant minority of members sick with rage is likely to have a similar effect on voters — except they won’t get angry, they’ll walk away and vote for someone else.
This appears to be dawning on some of Corbyn’s prominent cheerleaders who are beginning, slowly, to slink away from Labour’s bearded albatross. Silently, they realise this is not a problem that can be rectified by a relaunch, greater unity or media savvy. Labour has many other problems, but its leader is a gaping open wound who will continue to haemorrhage votes until he is removed. He may have provided “hope” for some of a world transformed — but to many more Corbyn has extinguished any hope they had the party could practically change things for the better.
Enough of his popularity among members remains to make removing him a bloody business that could be as deadly as him staying.
It is difficult to admit you were wrong, especially when the argument was characterised as being a battle for moral righteousness. To admit that the thing you so badly wanted, that filled you with hope makes ordinary people, not just horrid Blairites recoil, is even harder— especially when you’ve built a movement dedicated to it. That it may be the death of Labour, not its salvation, may be the hardest truth of all.
This means Labour is caught in a Mexican stand-off between the leadership, its MPs and the membership. But one group will always be able to get off a deadly shot without reply — voters.
Labour members who supported Corbyn, and more importantly the muted media supporters who provided his campaign with its mainstream credibility face a choice. The leader or Labour. Because a political party cannot function when a significant portion of its voter base thinks its leader is a dangerous fool. The choice is to go further down the rabbit hole and continue to blame everyone else until there’s no one left, or end this before it’s too late.
This is not to say Labour’s problems end the moment Corbyn is dispatched to his allotment. As has been pointed out, rightly, New Labour lost the trust of many of its voters — especially working class ones. Many of those problems are why Corbyn was elected. But the only way to start tackling that is by having a leader and top team who do not accelerate that trend by their presence alone and who can start building from the bottom up with input from all wings of the party.
Copeland shows that before all the complex questions of how to cope with Brexit, working class alienation, a stretched NHS and inadequate housing can even begin to be answered another one must be put: Do you choose Labour or Corbyn?
*Unlike Cook, whose resignation speech opposing the war specifically cited the lack of a UN resolution and his scepticism over whether weapons of mass destruction were present, Corbyn explicitly said he’d have opposed even a UN backed intervention — so pretty much under any circumstances. Notably he also opposed the 1999 intervention in Kosovo, for which Clare Short, the left-winger who herself resigned over Iraq, angrily compared him to an appeaser of Hitler.
**An excellent and balanced analysis of Labour’s difficulties by Theo Bertram this.