Corbyn, competence and the future of Labour

29 Jul 2016 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 2 Aug 2016

Illustration by Patrick Sanders
Illustration by Patrick Sanders

The closer you look at Jeremy Corbyn, the more the depth of his failings become apparent. His ability to gather new supporters by tapping into a particular vein of frustration should not be ignored - but leadership requires more.

Whither, Jeremy Corbyn?

To call the Labour leader beleaguered would be an understatement. His parliamentary colleagues have lost faith, en masse.

But he is also the main reason his party has seen a surge in young members. Engaging new voters is important to all parties so it is natural to ask not just why Corbyn is so unpopular with his parliamentary colleagues, but also why this internal unpopularity is so unfettered.

Electoral capitulation could be one reason and current opinion polls are not good.

The Islington North MP can correctly point to shocking treatment by the press, which has been both the subject of a study by the LSE and victim of a skewering by Private Eye (itself a member of the press, it should be noted).

Not all the criticisms should be dismissed as quickly.

The relationship of Corbyn and his allies with the majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party is what it is, and there are reasons for this.

Opposition within opposition

Labour MP Conor McGinn, who is from Northern Ireland but represents St Helen’s North, published a statement about how an interview that was, in his view, innocuous led to a total breakdown in his relationship with the man who had put him on the party frontbench.

Lilian Greenwood was previously Shadow Secretary of State for Transport under Corbyn and explained at great length why she felt repeatedly undermined by her party leader, and ultimately had to resign because she felt he is incompetent.

The power of facts is greatly diminished in today’s society and, for some, these testimonials will be dismissed as the work of shills of some agenda – which is a way to brand something dishonest with the wave of a hand.

The willingness and ability to dismiss everything that clashes with your pre-held views as one conspiracy or another is extremely dangerous.

The internet, and social media, has a big role in all this. There are millions of people in the UK, and billions around the world; almost any conceivable opinion will have so many adherents that anyone holding that view can find an echo chamber to amplify and embolden what they already think and feel.

If everyone is told everything all the time, will the prevailing reaction be to challenge pre-existing prejudices or find comfort in them? Maybe we are getting our answer, and it is not a good one, that our tendency is to pluck what we like from the chaos and dismiss the rest as crazy noise.

What about policy?

More damning still is this account from economist Richard Murphy.

Many ideas Mr Murphy put forward were co-opted into what became known as “Corbynomics” but, in his view, the Labour leader and his team have not the willingness or capability to crystallise well-meaning soundbites into the fine-detail reality of policy.

Amongst many caustic assertions he notes Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell’s rapid agreement and then U-turn with then-Chancellor George Osborne’s bizarre fiscal charter, itself an economic and political honk proposed simply to play well in the media in support of austerity.

In fact, for a man who has been leader of a major political party for nearly a year, Jeremy Corbyn has remarkably few concrete policies.

Corbyn’s own website lists “priorities” rather than policies, while a BBC comparison of his and Owen Smith’s “policies” is desperately short of concrete proposals. The Labour Party website will allow you to download their 2015 manifesto, with a foreword from Ed Miliband, when current policies should be front and centre.

Of course Corbyn has policies. Certainly if you asked him he would list some. The problem is, however – bearing in mind Richard Murphy, Lilian Greenwood, and others – that if you asked him again tomorrow the answers might be different.

Corbyn’s leadership

The picture painted by the growing body of people who are both colleagues and opponents of Corbyn are that of a blithe, dismissive, short-term individual. He says and does things on a whim. He has high ideals but not the conviction to follow anything through.

Supporters might say this is just a reflection of their man’s idealism, rather than some grubby pragmatism, but this is nonsense. Idealism and pragmatism are not irreconcilable, not strictly antithetical, and suggesting this is a false dichotomy; true leadership and vision marries both.

Thinking nice thoughts is easy but turning them into policies and turning those policies into concrete change is difficult. Corbyn loves strategy but has no time for tactics. To quote Lilian Greenwood, from the article linked to above:

“Jeremy has always treated me politely, and with kindness. I know that he has strong principles. I remain proud of our policies on transport, especially rail. And Jeremy is right to set out an alternative to the economics of austerity, to focus on affordable housing, to defending a public NHS and to tackling poverty and inequality. But through my own personal direct experience I know that Jeremy operates in a way that means progress towards these goals is impossible. He is not a team player let alone a team leader.”

The latest opinion polls, albeit taken during Theresa May’s honeymoon period as PM, point to electoral destruction for Labour and a resounding victory for the Tories.

If Corbyn really believes in progressive politics and really wants to achieve what is best for the people of the UK, within the context of those beliefs, then surely he cannot accept this situation.

He can point to the growing support of the Momentum movement, and the related surge in Labour membership, but the polls indicate this comes at a cost from support elsewhere.

Internal chaos within the Labour will, of course, be behind some of these low numbers but simple blaming the majority of his MPs for opposing him is living in denial – and would be very unbecoming from someone with such a long history of going against party leadership.


Corbyn is an emblem of our times, his most passionate supporters and opponents all caught up in the swirl of exaggeration that is eating public debate.

Large media providers are weakening and worsening and he is a victim of this, in terms of shoddy reporting, playing to the prejudices of readers or moguls or both. At the same time, facts have become passé, expertise is a dirty word, and his supporters are as guilty of embracing this as some of their natural political opponents.

Behind it all is a swell of anger, emotion over reason, with negative effects of globalisation and free markets the basis for this voluble dissatisfaction with the status quo.

These negative effects are real and, for many people, substantial. Corbyn’s supporters are just one of many groups railing against this; note, for example, the swell of anti-EU nationalistic populism across Europe – the Labour leader himself might baulk at the comparison but the root causes are, broadly, the same.

Few of the solutions proposed, however, are willing to walk the line that allows globalisation to continue, in order to accrue its many benefits, while at the same time having significant mitigations against its failures.

This surely represents a practical ideal but we are very far away from that point right now. The best case for Labour is to unite the party under a leader who can keep square the circle that is the aims of Corbyn and his populism alongside long-standing supporters, and do this with some specific policies that are feasible and grounded in some reality.

Achieving this is difficult, or impossible.

Historic divisions

Until recently - perhaps the mid 1990s, although trying to fix a precise date might miss the point - Labour was a democratic socialist party, and part of a wider socialist movement including the trades unions, co-operatives, and more. However, beginning the in the early 1960s the party began moving towards the political centre ground.

This movement was slow and the result of a constant battle between traditionalists, and modernisers who wanted to turn Labour into the natural party of government. The latter won, with key victories including the abolition of clause 4, and the culmination was Tony Blair's New Labour government, which won three consecutive general elections.

As part of this, prospective parliamentary candidates were centrally vetted before they went to constituencies for selection, and this is relfected in the Parliamentary Labour Party of today - with the handful of surviving, Old Labour exceptions including people like Dennis Skinner and, of course, Jeremy Corbyn.

Corbyn only ever made it on to the ballot for Labour leadership due to the intervention of some MPs who would have had no intention of voting for him. Now he seems unbeatable.

It is not quite true to say that the battle for the heart of the Labour party today is the same as between New and Old Labour - while there will be old-school socialists involved with Momentum it is extremely doubtful that many of its young supporters hold precisely the same views as the unionised workers that previously were the party's backbone - it is nonetheless similar.

The future

Uniting the Labour Party requires the reconcilitation of factions that could, given time, prove to be irreconcilable. A split in the party is a real possibility.

Unity requires Corbyn to no longer be leader but to be willingly led, and to give his blessing to the concrete policies of whoever is his replacement – even when these policies compromise, or appear to compromise, his convictions.

It also requires the new leader, whoever that would be, to walk a line that addresses the fears of the Momentum movement that claims to represent the party’s surge in support, addresses the fears of traditional working class Labour supporters, and also addresses the fears of those who came on board because of New Labour (a caucus well represented by sitting MPs).

This will require idealism and pragmatism and strategy and tactics and soundbites and policies – and leadership of the highest order.

Good luck with that.

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