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. 

NS

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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 political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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