Disclaimer: The views expressed within this article are entirely the author’s own and are not attributable to Wessex Scene as a whole.
With Keir Starmer’s election to the leadership of the Labour Party, now would seem as good a time as ever to take a look at his predecessor’s time in office.
Jeremy Corbyn was never meant to be the leader of the Labour Party. I say that not in judgement of his quality (that will follow soon), but in recognition of the fact that he had spent his career up to 2015 eschewing the traditional behaviour of an MP who seeks high office. Under the 1997-2010 Labour government, he rebelled against the party whips more often than any other Labour MP, defying the party line 428 times. He invited a group of miners into the House of Commons gallery during the 1984-85 strike, resulting in their ejection from the gallery for chanting slogans. Corbyn was a longtime supporter of Irish Unity and met with members of the IRA while he was an MP. He had appeared on Iranian state TV. So it is hardly surprising that, when Corbyn was on the cusp of victory in 2015, Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell and Gordon Brown all issued warnings against electing him.
With all that in mind, at first glance, it is stunning that he became Labour leader at all. But a few things are worth considering before any conclusions are leapt to. First, having the longest-serving Labour Prime Minister, and his former colleagues, against him, wasn’t as great a handicap as might be supposed. In fact, it most likely counted in his favour. This might seem odd, but Blair’s political brand had been poisoned (quite deservedly) over the Iraq war, and nowhere more so was this apparent than among his fellow party members. Plus, Blair, Campbell and Brown represented the politics of pragmatism and strategising, of spin and soundbites. Corbyn represented the opposite. His scruffy demeanour, and a solid record of support for progressive campaigns and groups (including, but not limited to, the anti-apartheid campaign, various anti-fascist campaigns and groups, trade unions, as well as speaking in 1983 on a platform of ‘No Socialism without Gay Liberation’), gave him an air of authenticity. And there is no doubt he brought greater enthusiasm into the left-wing of British politics. Capable of drawing crowds of both party members and the public, and the results of 2017, seemed to demonstrate his vision of ‘Democratic Socialism‘ appealed, forcing Tory strategy to tack leftwards.
But this did not prevent his ultimate failure. Corbyn is undoubtedly a good MP. He was popular among the membership. But he lacked national appeal. The 2017 general election, frequently hailed as the high tide of Corbynism, in which Theresa May lost her majority, instead of the anticipated wipe-out for Labour, was still a defeat. May’s Conservatives remained the largest party in the Commons after 7 years in government, having run one of the worst election campaigns that anyone could recall. The fact that Corbyn’s Labour was a) considered the underdogs at the outset of that contest, and b) failed to clinch the victory, is hardly complimentary of his leadership.
Then there’s 2019, the election that set the seal on his legacy. 59 seats lost. Labour’s vote share down by 7% since 2017. The red wall breached by a blue wave that rolled over England and Wales, while the SNP took all but one of the Labour seats in Scotland. Those who want to defend Corbyn’s record say that the election was won and lost over Brexit, blaming factionalism in the party. But ultimately the party looks to the leader to resolve divisions and the leader was missing in action for most of the Brexit drama. Labour did not set out a clear position one way or the other, instead opting for a halfway house at the last minute. This succeeded in alienating Brexit voters while failing to attract votes away from the hardline pro-EU stance of the Lib Dems, who succeeded in increasing their vote share, if not their number of seats. Furthermore, the lateness of the decision added credence to the Conservative claim that Labour was a party of ‘dither and delay‘. These all combined to take votes away from Labour, contributing to the beating they took in the election.
All that before we even get to the effect of Corbyn as a figurehead. In hindsight, putting up a candidate for Prime Minister with a catalogue’s worth of skeletons in his closet was not the soundest strategic move that Labour could have made. Having sustained contacts with the IRA was a controversial move for an MP, a fatal misstep for a would-be Prime Minister. Likewise appearing on an Iranian state TV call-in show (for a fee) and not challenging descriptions of Israel as ‘a disease‘, and the BBC as ‘Zionist liars‘. Or being filmed describing Hamas and Hezbollah as friends. Nor did his actions as Labour Leader do much to inspire confidence. Elevating Shami Chakrabati to the House of Lords after she published her 2016 report on antisemitism in the Labour Party brought the integrity of the report into question, while his initial inaction on antisemitism and belated apology combined to inflict further damage. In 2019, a YouGov survey of former Labour voters gave the leadership of the party as the primary reason for abandoning it, with Brexit second.
It has been claimed by his supporters that his character was assassinated by the UK media, and I won’t argue that their treatment of him was always fair. But this argument seems somewhat pointless. All media is biased. All humans, by their very nature, are biased. And unfair media is nothing new. Before Murdoch expanded his media empire into Britain in the 1980s, Viscount Northcliffe and Lord Beaverbrook dominated Fleet Street, controlling in their respective times the majority of the right-wing press and overall print output. Most of their papers were also right-wing. But this did not stop Clement Attlee in 1947, Harold Wilson in 1964 and 1974, James Callaghan in 1976, or Blair in 1997, from winning elections. And blaming the media offers no solutions, or at least none compatible with a free society.
Keir Starmer, in assuming leadership of the party, has much to contend with. Examining the response to COVID-19, putting together a team that can hold the government to account, formulating policy. But in the case of the latter two, half of the job he currently faces, a proportion that will increase as the shadow cabinet is named and this crisis passes, he faces the uphill struggle left to him by Jeremy Corbyn.