Cherwell, 19th January 2016
He was first elected in 1983 to a safe Labour seat and was, until recently, in the twilight years of a career of staunch opposition – even when his party was in government. But Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has done more than just exacerbate the feud between the Blairite faces of the last decade and the new students of his ‘politics of hope’. It has raised questions about what it means to lead a party and how an opposition frontbench ought to work.
It was his mantra of internal party reform and debate that encouraged support from Labour’s wings in last year’s leadership race, along with his scandalous rough-and-ready image that jarred with the stale nerdiness of Miliband. Yet far from a constructive and meaningful policy debate, what has actually taken place is a series of blunders and mis-steps at the top, and a sustained pressure of opposition from the bottom. The Labour hierarchy has been reversed. While Corbyn shunts his way from the public knifing of several of his ministers over Trident to the quoting of Chairman Mao during the Shadow Chancellor’s response to the Autumn Statement and his Shadow Foreign Secretary’s vehement advocation of intervention in the Syria debate experienced policy formers like John Cruddas,
Alan Johnson, Yvette Cooper and Harriet Harman sit, wasted, on the back benches. Hilary Benn, who survived the reshuffle, assured the press that he will continue to campaign for Britain’s membership of the EU (Corbyn is a Eurosceptic) and represent Labour on foreign policy (where the two men disagree.)
There is a reason that his experiment in openness has failed. Parties already have an in-built system for deciding on a new ideological direction – it’s called a leadership election. The leadership, once chosen, needs to give the party direction and deliver a coherent policy message to voters. Without that, Corbyn is forced to admit, as he did on The Andrew Marr Show, that he still is yet to convince his Cabinet of his position on Trident, while John McDonnell supposes publicly that there will be a three-line whip that many will disobey. 85 Labour MPs did. By campaigning on a ticket of generic ‘progress’ rather than specific and constructive change, Corbyn has deferred the real decision-making to the outcome of the promised debate within Labour. That’s problematic for him as leader, because the criterion by which the PLP and the electorate will judge him is his ability to bring order from chaos – to present the debate as a set of policies. He declared in the Guardian on Wednesday that his “great failing in life is to listen to everybody”, and since his central policy is to listen to others in the party, he can’t actually do much with his enormous mandate because it doesn’t empower him to deliver much policy of his own. That’s not good leadership, and it won’t get him into government.
This brings us to the inherent paradox within the rationale of the Corbyn leadership. Labour needs a coherent set of policies to have any scrap of electability, and for that it needs a defining narrative which connects with voters. ‘The politics of hope’ doesn’t work as a strapline if the response from the swing voter is “the hope of what?”. But the only way to get that coherency is to enforce a party line on MPs, and to do that undermines the central tenet of his philosophy. Without the leadership needed to direct it, the debate that he promised Labour voters has descended into a slanging match in the press and a back-bench rebellion reminiscent of, well, himself. The Blairites to the right of the party whinge to the students of Cambridge that they had better hurry up and graduate to help Labour out, while front-bench MPs who criticise Corbyn are cut from the team. Tom Watson, Deputy Leader, wasn’t even told when the reshuffle would be. Clearly the ‘straight talking, honest politics’ is only for the leader himself. Shadow ministers are required to lie or keep schtum.
All of this hands the Tories a prime opportunity to frame the debate to their advantage; Corbyn is presented as a dangerous extremist leading a ramshackle Shadow Cabinet that can’t decide which way to vote on some of the most important issues of our generation.
He cannot survive while his mandate is built on an indecisive style of leadership which produces rebellion, division and inconsistency. While Jeremy Corbyn is leader, Labour will continue to fail itself, the voters and to challenge the Tories. Her Majesty’s Opposition cannot afford to fail to oppose.
This was originally published in Oxford’s Cherwell newspaper, here.