Much Rests on Corbyn’s Shoulders

Vince Simonet’s thoughts yesterday on where Labour now finds itself following what was, to put things mildly, a very surprising election campaign and result, were interesting, but quite contentious in many ways. I’m going to try to offer a few reactions to Vince’s thoughts, in particular where I’ve found that my view diverges from Vince’s.

First, I think that continuing to talk about “Blairites” is, while perhaps for many a useful shorthand, rather unhelpful in terms of Labour advancing as a united party. As someone who has lately been very sceptical of the merits and benefits to the party of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, I have never described myself, and have in fact never been (as far as I understand the term) a “Blairite”. I’m old enough to have voted in the leadership election that saw Tony Blair installed as Labour’s leader in 1994, and I did not vote for Blair. I rather mistrusted him, agreeing with one commentator’s assessment of him as a “pot-bound politician” – someone who had no roots in the Labour Party. My vote went to Margaret Beckett, on the basis that she had done a fine job as acting leader after John Smith had suddenly died. More particularly, “Blairite” (almost always contemptuously spat out rather than spoken) has become a totem of certain supporters of the faction of the party that cleaves enthusiastically to Corbyn in such a way as to perpetuate Blair as the personification of where Labour went wrong. In fact, the Iraq debacle aside, the opposite is true, and a return to the winning ways that Blair’s 3 terms embodied would in my view be very welcome.

Vince wrote : ” JC and his allies can justifiably claim that if the parliamentary party had shown unity towards the leader for the last two years then we might now be in government. ”

Really? I don’t think that they can justifiably claim any such thing. Corbyn’s performance in 2016, particularly in respect of his appalling showing in the EU referendum campaign and his immediate call for article 50 to be triggered, was failing on every level, from strategy, to performance at PMQs, communications, message discipline, accessibility, and to day to day management of the parliamentary party. There was an egregious failure to provide any effective opposition to the government, and the challenge to Corbyn’s leadership was both fully justified and in fact rendered inevitable by Corbyn’s own recalcitrance. Had everybody simply collectively bitten their tongues and pretended everything was going swimmingly it would never have worked.

I note that Len McCluskey made a similar observation the other day, but I’m afraid that it is simply not credible. The challenge to Corbyn in 2016 was not made lightly or frivolously, and the concerns and forces within the PLP and the wider party that drove it could not simply be suppressed.

I also find myself in disagreement with Vince’s view that the proposition that only a centrist political project can succeed has been “skewered” as Vince puts it.

It has not. Tony Blair’s achievements in government were certainly not exclusively centrist in character (record NHS funding, tax credits, Sure Start, real progress on LGBT rights through civil partnerships, peace in Northern Ireland), but the trick that he was able to pull off was to get the huge, flexible chunk of the electorate that can be characterised as “the centre” – and whose support to winning an election is key – substantially to back Labour’s programme and to vote for it in the required numbers. Arguably, although our 2017 manifesto was rightly anti-austerity and recognised the desperate need to re-invest in public services, it was as “centrist” as anything put forward by the Blair-led governments elected in 1997, 2001, and 2005. Labour members right across the party could find plenty in it with which to agree, and it caught the mood of much of an electorate that seven years of austerity has failed and a change in direction is required. It was the late Phillip Gould who most tellingly put forward the proposition that elections are won from the centre. In my view, Gould’s assessment still holds good.

But it needs to be re-stated that we did NOT win this election. We made progress, and deprived May of her majority, but we still lost by 60 odd seats. Although Labour’s vote share increased by 10%, it achieved a swing from Tory to Labour of just 2%, when what was required to win was a swing of the order of 9.5% (as estimated by the Fabian Society) – twice the swing we needed, and did not get, in 2015. There may well be another general election within months in which Labour can finish the job and elect the first Labour government since 2010 with Jeremy Corbyn as PM, but I’d argue that that is not nailed on. With a minority Tory government supported by a distastefully nasty sectarian Northern Ireland based minor party, the role of Labour as the official opposition in parliament becomes more critically important than it has ever been.

Jeremy Corbyn’s performance in this aspect of his job, one (crucial) element of the concerns that prompted the vote of no confidence by the PLP and subsequent leadership challenge in 2016, has hitherto been lamentably sub-standard.

It’s not unreasonable to observe that Mr Corbyn’s parliamentary leadership game will need to be raised at the very least to the same extent to which he managed to raise his campaigning game during the election if Labour is successfully to work towards the defeat of Theresa May’s government. However, the rapid development of the parliamentary skill set needed to maximise the advantage of opposing an enfeebled and vulnerable Tory minority government is not the sole challenge facing Mr Corbyn.

Following the better than expected (which is to say annihilation avoiding) general election performance , there have been expressions of contrition from erstwhile trenchant Corbyn critics such as Chuka Umunna, Owen Smith, Harriet Harman, and even John Mann. But in spite of speculation that Corbyn would strengthen his hitherto somewhat talent-depleted front bench team by bringing in, say, Yvette Cooper and Ed Miliband, only Owen Smith, Corbyn’s leadership challenger, has so far been given a front bench brief. Corbyn may have missed a chance here, by dint of faint action in bringing in only Smith, genuinely to unify the party for the battles to come.

I’d certainly agree with both Len McCluskey, and with Vince, that that unity in the party, previously absent, is very much what is now required, but it is dependent to a great extent on how the party is led forward from now on. As ever, there is a great deal riding on the leader’s shoulders.

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