The portrayal of a party leader during their first hundred days is important but isn’t inescapably fixed. Few now recall that Tony Blair was depicted as ‘Bambi’ in his early days as Labour leader. The focus quickly shifted away from his youth and inexperience to his ‘Stalinist’ tendencies.
Yet after a hundred days as Labour leader, perceptions of Jeremy Corbyn have been much more sharply defined by his critics. Divisions within his party under his leadership are fully exposed. Disbelief at his election persists. Doubts are expressed about even his short-term prospects for survival.
Corbyn, for his part, appears relatively untroubled by such perceptions. Certainly, he has yet to make little outward effort to counter these narratives. Those anticipating that the result will be that Corbyn will be forced from his office in the short-term, perhaps even within the next hundred days, nevertheless misread the situation.
Ed Miliband sought, above all else, to preserve party unity. Yet, he bequeathed a system for electing his replacement which has divided authority between the leader and his parliamentary party in the starkest fashion. His determination to avoid thoroughgoing debate on Labour’s record and its future trajectory simply served to feed the appetite for just such a review. That Miliband led Labour to a defeat in 2015 that was unanticipated in its character and severity meant, in any case, that Labour’s historic tendency to erupt into indiscipline was always likely to re-assert itself. Any alternative leader would have therefore confronted a significant challenge in overcoming intra-party strife, particularly so in an era where social media and social networks facilitate and amplify dissent. Rebellion is not unusual for Labour. Now it has become even more visible.
Whatever Corbyn’s appeal to Labour Party members and supporters we should also not overlook that his victory was facilitated by the mediocrity and limitations of his opponents. The last three months have not revealed a more credible alternative, hidden from view in September, who would be able to defeat Corbyn, unite the party and lead it to electoral victory in 2020.
Even were such an alternative leader to be revealed, the obstacles to removing Corbyn remain formidable. On paper, 20 per cent of Labour parliamentarians willing to nominate that candidate to stand against Corbyn could easily be found. However, Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and Gordon Brown are testimony to an ethos within the party that predisposes it to persist with leaders who are electoral liabilities. As those who wished to depose Gordon Brown found, coup attempts are not easy to execute. In any case, if Corbyn’s name were on the ballot paper, there is little reason to expect that he would not, once again, win the support of members and supporters. If Corbyn refused to contemplate withdrawal during the leadership campaign, it is difficult to foresee him stepping down willingly any time soon. The party’s history shows that even when its leaders stare into the electoral abyss they are not given to voluntarily surrender the leadership. There is no reason to expect that Corbyn should be any different.
Might Corbyn nevertheless address the criticisms which have emerged of him and resolve the problems confronting the party? As Labour found under Neil Kinnock in the 1980s, a leader with leftwing credentials is a considerable asset in persuading party members of the need to return to the electoral centre ground. Yet, Corbyn, does not appear to recognise the need to compromise with the electorate nor does he seem likely to abandon leftwing ideas that he has consistently supported throughout his career. Even were he to do so, there must be significant doubts about his capacity to control and carry his supporters with him.
So, for those who believe that Jeremy Corbyn is Labour’s fundamental problem there appears to be no easy or quick fix. In reality, Labour’s problems are much greater than the sum of Corbyn’s perceived failures as party leader. Leading the Labour Party has historically been one of the most challenging jobs in British politics. In 2015 it faces the challenges of rebuilding its appeal simultaneously in Scotland and in the south of England, while avoiding losing further core voters to Ukip. It needs to regain a reputation for competence, particularly on economic issues. It needs to overcome, or at the least convincingly disguise its internal divisions. All the while, the Conservatives steal the party’s most appealing policies and reconfigure the British political system to make it even more difficult for Labour to win at the next general election. Resolving such difficulties would severely test the skills of even the most accomplished of the party’s past leaders.
Nick Randall lectures in politics at the University of Newcastle.