Sounding the death knell for Corbynmania
THIS was a bad night for Jeremy Corbyn, Labour’s hard-left leader. It would be too much to say that the wheels have come off the Jeremy bus or that the Jeremy Express has hit the buffers. But the shine has definitely come off Mr Corbyn’s halo.
The Conservative Party has been in power either in its own right or as the dominant party in a coalition for eight years of low growth and public-spending restraint. Having foisted a referendum on the country to solve an internal party battle, the Conservatives are now making a hash of taking Britain out of the European Union.
The past few weeks have seen crisis piled upon crisis: most obviously the Windrush crisis (whereby British citizens from the Caribbean have been threatened with deportation because, through administrative oversight, they don’t possess the necessary documentation) but also the crisis over breast cancer screening (whereby thousands of women missed tests through administrative oversight) and the crisis of party management (whereby the prime minister failed to command a majority in Cabinet for her “customs partnership” with the European Union). And yet the Labour Party has failed to make the election breakthrough that it had hoped for—and that it had foolishly trailed in the past few weeks (see article).
The party consolidated its position in the big cities, making gains in London, denying the Tories control of Trafford, one of the richest places in Greater Manchester, and taking control of Plymouth. But it failed to make advances in smaller towns. It lost ground in traditional working-class areas such as Wigan, Bolton and Dudley. It failed to take the Conservative crown jewels in London, Westminster and Wandsworth. The Conservatives even took back Barnet, which has a significant Jewish population, from no overall control. In terms of pure numbers Labour won the night. In terms of expectations they lost.
This raises significant questions about Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. Mr Corbyn’s centrist critics argue that a more moderate Labour leader would have had a very different night: he (or she) would have barnstormed the big cities, particularly London, where moderate Tories are furious about Brexit, advanced in the small towns, where people are fed up with austerity, and consolidated his hold over traditional Labour areas, where people are desperate to punish the Tories after eight years in power. They worry about the “Corbyn ceiling”: that Mr Corbyn is simply too left-wing to reach significant parts of England. He can pile up votes in big cities where there are lots of ethnic minority voters and young people. But he can’t reach Middle England. They also worry about the “Corbyn effect”: that the hard-left’s penchant for bullying is giving liberal voters who turned to Mr Corbyn in the last general election pause for thought.
The local election results come on top of a month’s bad news for the Labour leadership. The anti-Semitism row was a severe blow to Mr Corbyn. Leading Labour MPs joined a crowd of about a thousand Jewish people to protest Mr Corbyn’s failure to deal with incidents of anti-Semitism from his far-left supporters. This not only damaged his reputation for sanctity. It exposed the dark side of his far-left supporters who are steeped in a culture of bullying, class-hatred and thuggery. Mr Corbyn’s handling of the Salisbury poisoning raised questions about his judgment: he repeatedly raised questions about Russia’s responsibility for the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal and refused to support joint American-French-British military action in Syria. A succession of opinion polls taken at a dismal time for the government showed the Labour and Conservative parties neck and neck—and sometimes the Conservative Party edging ahead.
Two of Mr Corbyn’s most valuable assets are clearly on the wane. One is his reputation as a secular saint: a reputation that had crowds at Glastonbury serenading him with “ooh Jeremy Corbyn” and thousands of young people (many with names like Tancred and Tarquin) joining Momentum. Here time was as important as the anti-Semitism row. Mr Corbyn has been party leader since 2015. Being party leader means that you do things that regular politicians do. You appear at prime minister’s question time, sack unruly shadow ministers, wear a suit and tie, and, even if you’re Jeremy Corbyn, compromise with reality. You become one of “them” rather than one of “us”. The other is the bump that he got from the last election. Mr Corbyn built up huge political capital because he massively out-performed expectations in 2017, winning 40% of the vote compared with Ed Miliband’s 31% and denying Theresa May an overall majority. But as his capital begins to age attention is shifting to a different question: why isn’t the Labour Party thrashing a hapless Tory government?
A weakened Mr Corbyn could spell a much more fractious atmosphere in Westminster. Mr Corbyn’s impressive performance in the general election put paid to attempts by Labour MPs to replace him with a more moderate figure. The party may see a resumption of such attempts—and with it a renewed struggle between the parliamentary party, on the one hand, and pro-Corbyn activists such as the Momentum group on the other. The Conservative Party has got into the habit of treating Mr Corbyn as their chief whip: all you need to do is threaten rebels with the possibility of prime minister Corbyn and they will vote for anything. Rebels may now feel emboldened to push their causes even harder than they have.
Mr Corbyn has a proud history of leaving commentators with egg all over their faces. He can summon up charisma when he needs it and has an extraordinary ability to keep battling on regardless of circumstances. He also has some huge advantages on his side. A Tory party that is deeply divided over the most important issue facing the country; an establishment that thinks that Brexit is a Tory-made disaster; a generational divide that has left people under 40 struggling to get their feet on the property ladder; and a widespread sense that the country’s infrastructure, from the NHS to the transport system, is on the verge of collapse. Even so, Corbynmania is now officially dead.