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Jeremy Corbyn's internal critics have a compelling diagnosis, but they don't have a cure

Labour's leader struggles to articulate his programme. His critics struggle to find one at all. 

The north London derby, Jeremy Corbyn once quipped, is the only time he doesn’t support the underdog. The Labour leader is an Arsenal supporter, and for much of its history the Islington club has held the whip hand over its neighbours and fierce rivals, Tottenham Hotspur.

Nonetheless, it is Arsenal who will be at the heart of Labour HQ’s attempt to rebrand its leader as a left-wing populist. Corbyn’s allies worry that, for all his reputation as a raving pinko around Westminster, he is seen as just another Labour politician outside it. His much-discussed “relaunch” will therefore feature both his extra-curricular interests and a restatement of the more eye-catching parts of his programme. This is intended to tap into the hunger for radical change his team believe drove the Brexit vote and the triumph of Donald Trump. They also hope it will turn around the alarming poll ratings of both Corbyn and his party. (The most recent YouGov survey puts Labour at 26 per cent, compared with the Conservatives at 39. Corbyn has a personal favourability rating of minus 30.)

The best of the new approach was shown by a tweet sent on the evening of 9 January, in which the Labour leader promised to “talk some sense” into Piers Morgan about the question of Arsenal’s manager, Arsène Wenger, whom Corbyn admires but Morgan abhors. However, its limitations were exposed by his Good Morning Britain interview on ITV the next day. There to prepare the ground for a speech that afternoon calling for “managed migration” to be part of Britain’s Brexit deal, the Labour leader said that, actually, he didn’t think immigration was too high and that free movement was a price worth paying to secure the best possible standard of access to the single market. His speech was stillborn before he delivered it.

Earlier in the day Corbyn also demonstrated another Trumpian tic: the casual newsmaking aside that quickly becomes the talking point of the day. Asked about high pay on the Today programme, he said: “I would like there to be some kind of high earnings cap, quite honestly.”

Was it deliberate? Probably not, but at least it dragged the economic debate in a new direction. If there is to be a left-wing mirror of Trumpism, this must be its form: tough talk on immigration and plenty of banker-bashing.

Later on, though, Corbyn tried to wrestle the discussion back to free movement. Here is the party’s new position, such as it is: Labour is neither committed to maintaining free movement within Europe, nor is it committed to scrapping it.

This fudge is the result of a tricky balancing act: Corbyn wants to retain the third of Labour voters who opted to leave the European Union and the two-thirds who believe that immigration to the United Kingdom has been “too high”. But he doesn’t want to lose Europhiles to the Greens and the Liberal Democrats or shred his own pro-migration principles.

Far from emulating Trump, it feels more as though Labour is returning to its Ed Miliband-era rut. Trying to avoid upsetting one group of voters, it ends up displeasing most  of them equally. Had King Solomon been a Labour Party strategist, the baby would have ended up bisected.

Since Corbyn’s victory, the scale of active insurrection among Labour MPs has often been exaggerated, both by a hostile press and, at times, by his allies. Although a hard core were plotting against him, the doomed attempt to remove him last summer came when an outbreak of despair and anger at the referendum result infected the mainstream of the party.

Now, after Corbyn’s second successive leadership election victory, insurrectionist grumbling has given way to sullen silence. Even his natural allies fear there is no second chance at a first impression, and that the Labour leader will never recover from the impression made during his early days in the job, when he had only a skeleton staff and their priority was seeing off internal threats. 

In Westminster, where most politicians are obsessed with America and pay little attention to the daily grind of politics across the Channel, it is easy to forget that Labour’s dire polling is not exceptional for a centre-left party. (That said, who knows how many more liberal voters the Greens and Liberal Democrats can pick off during a national election campaign.)

Across the continent, just two centre-left parties regularly outpoll Corbyn’s Labour: the Portuguese Socialists and the Italian Democrats, the latter of which averages 30 per cent on a good day. And of the two politicians held up as examples by Corbyn’s internal opponents – Matteo Renzi of Italy and Manuel Valls of France – one suffered a self-inflicted defeat in 2016 and the other looks likely to join him in 2017.

Labour’s Corbynsceptics have not yet accepted that the party’s problems do not start or end with the leader. They describe him as an insurmountable obstacle to victory in 2020, but the bigger problem for them is that he has also proved an insurmountable obstacle to their thinking about the party’s long-term future.

Corbyn may not be the solution to the question of how the party either wins over voters in Kensington or wins them back in Kirkcaldy, but he isn’t the only obstacle. His team is also given little credit for their undoubted skills in navigating the new media landscape – although his defeated internal opponents ought to do so, having been outmanoeuvred on Facebook and Twitter.

Corbyn’s populist rebrand at least engages with the challenge of competing with the nativist right. Critics of Ed Miliband used to say that he wanted to win by default. Jeremy Corbyn’s opponents should learn from the failure of that strategy. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge

Nigel Farage and Paul Nuttall. Photo: Getty
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Nigel Farage and Douglas Carswell don’t need to stand again as MPs – they’ve already won

I just loathe these people. I want to see them humiliated. 

We’re a week in to the campaign, and it’s clear that the 2017 election is going to be hell on toast. The polls show the Tories beating Labour in Scotland (for the first time in a generation) and Wales (for the first time in a century). The bookies put the chances of a Labour majority at around 20/1, odds that are striking mainly because they contain just one zero.

The only element of suspense in this election is whether Theresa May will win a big enough majority to keep Labour out of power for a decade, or one big enough to keep it out for an entire generation. In sum: if you’re on the left, this election will be awful.

But there was one bright spot, a deep well of Schadenfreude that I thought might get us through: the campaign would provide plentiful opportunities to watch the people who got us into this mess be humiliatingly rejected by the electorate yet again.

After all, Ukip’s polling numbers have halved since last summer and the party has fallen back into fourth place, behind the pro-European Lib Dems. Nigel Farage has failed to become an MP seven times. It thus seemed inevitable both that Farage would stand, and that he would lose. Again.

If the vexingly popular Farage has never made it to parliament, the odds that his replacement as Ukip leader, Paul Nuttall (the Walter Mitty of Bootle), would manage it seemed minimal. Ukip may have won last year’s referendum; that did not mean its leaders wouldn’t still lose elections, preferably in the most embarrassing way possible.

The true highlight of the election, though, promised to be Clacton. The Essex seaside town is the only constituency ever to have returned a Ukip candidate at a general election, opting to let the Tory defector Douglas Carswell stay on in 2015. But Carswell’s libertarian belief that Brexit was definitely not about immigration always seemed an odd fit with Ukip, and he left the party in March. In the upcoming election, he seemed certain to face a challenge from the party’s immigration-obsessed donor Arron Banks.

The Clacton election, in other words, was expected to serve as a pleasing metaphor for Ukip’s descent back into irrelevance. The libertarians and nativists would rip chunks out of each other for a few weeks while the rest of us sniggered, before both inevitably lost the seat to a safe pair of Tory hands. This election will be awful, but Clacton was going to be brilliant.

But no: 2017 deprives us of even that pleasure. Carswell has neatly sidestepped the possibility of highlighting his complete lack of personal support by standing down, with the result that he can tell himself he is quitting undefeated.

Carswell has always stood apart from Ukip but on this matter, at least, the party has rushed to follow his lead. Arron Banks spent a few days claiming that he would be running in Clacton. Then he visited the town and promptly changed his mind. At a press conference on 24 April, Paul Nuttall was asked whether he planned to stand for a seat in Westminster. Rather than answering, he locked himself in a room, presumably in the hope that the journalists outside would go away. Really.

As for Farage, he seems finally to have shaken his addiction to losing elections and decided not to stand at all. “It would be a very easy win,” he wrote in the Daily Tele­graph, “and for me a personal vindication to get into the House of Commons after all these years of standing in elections.” He was like an American teenager assuring his mates that his definitely real Canadian girlfriend goes to another school.

Why does all of this bother me? I don’t want these people anywhere near Westminster, and if they insisted on standing for a seat there would be at least the chance that, in these febrile times, one of them might actually win. So why am I annoyed that they aren’t even bothering?

Partly I’m infuriated by the cowardice on show. They have wrecked my country, completely and irrevocably, and then they’ve just legged it. It’s like a version of Knock Down Ginger, except instead of ringing the doorbell they’ve set fire to the house.

Partly, too, my frustration comes from my suspicion that it doesn’t matter whether Ukip fields a single candidate in this election. Theresa May’s Tories have already assimilated the key tenets of Farageism. That Nigel Farage no longer feels the need to claw his way into parliament merely highlights that he no longer needs to.

Then there’s the fury generated by my lingering sense that these men have managed to accrue a great deal of power without the slightest hint of accountability. In the south London seat of Vauxhall, one of the most pro-Remain constituencies in one of the most pro-Remain cities in the UK, the Labour Leave campaigner Kate Hoey is expected to face a strong challenge from the Liberal Democrats. Even Labour members are talking about voting tactically to get their hated MP out.

It remains to be seen whether that campaign succeeds but there is at least an opportunity for angry, pro-European lefties to register their discontent with Hoey. By contrast, Farage and his henchmen have managed to rewrite British politics to a degree that no one has achieved in decades, yet there is no way for those who don’t approve to make clear that they don’t like it.

Mostly, though, my frustration is simpler than that. I just loathe these people. I want to see them humiliated. I want to see them stumble from gaffe to gaffe for six weeks before coming fourth – but now we will be deprived of that. Faced with losing, the biggest names in Ukip have decided that they no longer want to play. And so they get to win again. They always bloody win. 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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