Corbynism is over – Labour’s next leader must unite the centre and the left

Only a pluralist movement can counter a dangerous alliance of conservatism and authoritarian nationalism. 

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Brexit will happen, Scotland will become independent within a generation, the political centre in parliament has evaporated. And Corbynism has failed. It failed because, for around a year now, it has been less than the sum of its parts. 

Jeremy Corbyn plunged his personal ratings and Labour’s into freefall by adopting an indefensible position over Brexit, guided by an inner bureaucracy who refused to listen to polling evidence or reason.

Even now, as they rail against “Remainers” for losing the election, the pro-Brexit left in Labour do not get it. Because we had to waste half a year, and a fractious conference, winning over Liberal Democrat and Green voters, we could not simultaneously do the preparatory work in small-town, northern Leave constituencies to sell an internationalist policy on Brexit. Whether the second referendum position could ever have been sold is debatable — but Corbyn's team, having been forced to accept the policy, decided not to try.

So of all the reckonings that have to be done before we move forward, the one between radical social democracy and Lexit must come first. Last December, Corbyn was shown evidence that Remain voters would desert en masse to the Lib Dems and Greens, unless he swung the party wholeheartedly behind a second referendum with the option to Remain. He refused to do so, and on 29 April the Labour National Executive Committee backed him.

That, for me, was the first fatal moment. Labour's vote slumped to 22 per cent, the Lib Dems surged to nearly 20 per cent and the whole of progressive politics was now divided. The only consolation was that, on the right, the Tories too had slumped, and were momentarily eclipsed by the Brexit Party.

This triggered a febrile summer of “four-party politics” — demanding strategic action by both Labour and the Conservatives to regain the initiative. The Tories took decisive action. Labour did not.

The Conservatives elected Johnson; staffed both Downing Street and the cabinet with hard-right Trump-aligned neoliberals; embraced a culture war against minorities and the left; set course for a no-deal Brexit; and when the crunch came, during the crisis over suspending parliament, they purged their entire parliamentary party of liberal conservatives.

Labour, by contrast, floundered — and not because of incompetence, nor sabotage by the party’s right. Corbyn flipped to the “second referendum on any deal” after the European election debacle, only to row back from it under trade union pressure, scheduling a debate at conference his own supporters on the NEC did their best to then stop.

Only after the conference vote did the required squeeze on the Lib Dems begin to happen. But by then a second strategic mistake was underway. Corbyn had been an effective opposition leader against Theresa May — but he was the wrong person to lead the fight against Boris Johnson. Johnson had the team, the money and the intent to out-populist Corbyn.

For a few short weeks in early autumn, the #StopTheCoup movement seized the mantle of insurgency from the Leave movement. We held impromptu rallies and sit-downs — we set the agenda. Even the Lexiteers organised their own rally against the coup. But Corbyn's office remained unsure, lest the leader be tainted by association with Remain. 

Then, when the prorogation crisis was over, and the resistance to Johnson's Brexit deal moved back into parliament, Labour as a whole failed to recognise the danger of the anti-politics sentiment that was growing. By the time Johnson manoeuvred parliament into giving him an election, the narrative of people vs parliament was scripted and readily received.

What we're facing is an alliance of conservatism and authoritarian nationalism. The only response is an alliance of the centre and the left. But the centre and the left, even inside the Labour Party, resolved to fight each other. Labour MPs who suggested aligning with the Lib Dems over parliamentary tactics received messages from Corbyn's allies reminding them that the Lib Dems were “austerity-mongering child killers”.

Though Corbyn’s instincts were to avoid an election — in part I am told to open the prospect of replacing him before the spring — the Lib Dems convinced themselves they were the “shadow cabinet” and the SNP decided to limit any damage from the upcoming Salmond trial by triggering the election. Those who say we were wrong to agree to the election are underestimating the extent to which the self-centric drama in parliament fuelled last night's turn to the right.

Once Farage stood down in 317 seats, the only thing that could have stopped the Tories was (a) an electoral pact between progressive parties, (b) an unprecedented turnout by progressive young voters, or (c) massive tactical voting. 

To see where we go from here you have to recognise the severity of the misunderstanding that haunts the Stalinist-inspired left. The mantra of Corbyn's allies throughout this crisis has been: “we're not going to desert the working class”. Eventually Len McCluskey had the honesty to add the implied missing word: “white”.

A worldview that sees low-skilled, older manual workers in smashed ex-industrial towns like Leigh as somehow more influential in our politics than the impoverished multi-ethnic population of Coventry, is going to be severely disoriented amid 21st-century capitalism. 

The voters who kept Leeds, Manchester and Bristol red last night were just as “working class” as the ones who trooped into the polling booths for Boris Johnson in the Pennines. At no point did Labour “desert” the working class. But a section of it deserted us last night, and I am not going to flinch from stating that in the places it did so there is now a toxic narrative of nativism and xenophobia, which made some female Labour MPs fear campaigning in their own towns.

The way back will be long. We need to keep the economic radicalism, ditch the politics that drove voters’ fears over national security, and transform the Labour Party into something that thinks and acts more like a social movement.

Each of these tasks needs detailed work and time. The alliance that can make it happen is pretty obvious: the non-Stalinist left needs to build stronger working relationships with the soft left and the Labour centre. 

As for the leadership, the scale of the defeat and the populist nature of the government we face means we must now take into account personal qualities like stature, resilience and the ability to inspire hope. I'm proud of Jeremy Corbyn for standing up to a horrific campaign of vilification and intimidation. He ended the neoliberal grip on party policy decisively, to the point where even his enemies realise there is no going back. He dragged the party enthusiastically towards a radical green agenda. And on 32 per cent last night, Labour is still one of the most successful social democratic parties in Europe.  

But Corbyn never understood what a left populist has to be. He never was able to express the gut hatred of political institutions and the rich that might have inspired workers in small English towns. Once the rift within Corbynism became irreconcilable, his officials built a wall around him where they should have built a network.

Of course we need “reflection” — but the best form of reflection is debate, theory, openness — to academic evidence and polls. And the leadership apparatus around Corbyn doesn't really do theory and openness. So Jeremy needs to step down soon and install a caretaker leader with a different apparatus. 

And soon — before the 2020 local council elections — we need a new leader of the opposition. They have to be a person of stature and experience to withstand what's coming. They have to be someone who can unite the Labour centre and the left. Not many of the contenders fit that bill. 

Paul Mason is a New Statesman contributing writer, author and film-maker. As economics editor at Newsnight, then Channel 4 News, he covered the global financial crisis, the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement and the Gaza war. His latest book is Clear Bright Future: A radical defence of the human being.

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