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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

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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit