I’m going to try something risky in this review: I’m going to make at least one prediction about politics.
This will inevitably end badly. British politics is so complex and volatile that the prophecies of most journalists turn out to be incorrect within an average of about three minutes.
However, I think the only way to properly assess Labour’s performance in 2018 is to consider whether the party is any closer to winning a general election, whenever one is called. This, unfortunately, involves making a prediction.
The next general election must form the basis of any analysis about the Labour party, because it is the overriding concern of the party leadership. Labour is not too interested in shifting government policy. It is not straining every sinew to stop Brexit. Jeremy Corbyn’s sole, self-proscribed mission is to fly the red flag outside 10 Downing Street as soon as possible.
And so, what comes next is my informed assessment (having worked in Westminster Labour circles for the past year) of how close Corbyn is to winning power, fully acknowledging that (like every other writer) I cannot predict the future.
First, it’s worth acknowledging that Corbyn’s camp are confident. They think the Tories are on the ropes. They are convinced that they are on the verge of winning power. This attitude has occasionally manifested in the form of open smugness, not least when John McDonnell humblebragged to BBC Newsnight that he will not move to Downing Street when he becomes Chancellor.
More surprisingly, many in Westminster now broadly agree with the Labour leadership, believing that Corbyn has a good chance of victory at the next election. Scenting power, historically centre-left institutions – led by the IPPR and the New Statesman – have consequently pivoted to Corbynism. The former, whose senior staff once included New Labour stalwarts David Miliband and Andrew Adonis, is now seen as the intellectual engine of the Corbyn project. After years of war between left-wing acolytes and the establishment, only a handful of paywall-fortified publications are openly Corbynsceptic, and left-wing commentators like Owen Jones, Aaron Bastani, Ash Sarkar and Grace Blakeley have a permanent seat on political chat shows.
A series of moral victories, primarily the 2017 general election, has led to a widespread perception that Labour simply cannot lose the next election. But the mood of Westminster is rarely a good barometer of political reality. While there are few reasons for the Tories to be optimistic, the same is true of Labour.
Brexit haunts the Conservative party. It is the monster under the bed that periodically jumps out from the dark and trashes their house (in this case the country). However, in the midst of Conservative self-destruction, Labour is acting more like a counsellor than an opponent. Even after the government was found in contempt of parliament over Brexit, Corbyn failed to capitalise at PMQs – instead focusing his questions on austerity and poverty.
Many say that Corbyn showed he’s in touch with ordinary Britons, by highlighting a real-world issue rather than the Tory psychodrama of Brexit. But this moment warranted political ruthlessness, not sentimentality. Frankly, no one cares about PMQs outside Westminster. Its only meaningful effect is on the outlook and optimism of MPs. By failing to harness the historic importance of a government in contempt of parliament, Corbyn handed Theresa May a get out of jail free card.
There is a perception among Tory MPs that Corbyn is grossly incompetent, to the point of being dangerous – a perception that is helping to prevent the wholesale collapse of government discipline. And the Labour leadership has not engaged in traditional cross-party efforts to soften opinion among parliamentary opponents. In the aforementioned interview with Newsnight, McDonnell made clear that his undiplomatic approach to party politics has not softened, saying that he could never be friends with a Tory. Though May has been criticised for not building bridges across the Commons, Corbyn has similarly sought the comfort of familiar cliques. If the Labour frontbench had developed relationships with Tories across the aisle, the PM’s efforts to shoehorn a Brexit deal through parliament would be facing even steeper odds.
As for how Corbyn’s Brexit strategy will play out at a future general election, the Labour leader is heading for a rude awakening. As I wrote in my review last year, constructive ambiguity worked for Labour in 2017 because we were at the outset of Brexit negotiations. Now that we’re less than three months away from departure day, people want detail and certainty. That’s why there’s been an uptick in public sympathy for May: people admire her stoic efforts to secure a deal, even if they’re not keen on what she’s produced. In comparison, Labour’s policy is an elaborate fudge – a half-baked plan that could have been stolen from Boris Johnson’s patisserie. If an election is called in the next year, it’s unlikely that Labour’s current Brexit negotiating position will stand up to much scrutiny.
Of course, the more likely option is that an election will be called at some point between 2020 and 2022. But, even post-Brexit, I struggle to envisage how Labour will hold together its 2017 electoral coalition. Corbyn hopes that British politics will return to normal after March 2019, and believes that voters will see Brexit ambiguity as a price worth paying for free tuition fees, council houses and rail renationalisation.
Here’s the flaw: Brexit has irrevocably changed British politics. The visceral emotions generated by the referendum and the negotiating period will not simply dissipate after we unmoor from the European Union on 29th March 2019. By dealing in contradictory promises and strategic inexactitudes, Corbyn will be seen as a villain by both sides.
On the one hand, remainers will berate Corbyn for not lending his support to the People’s Vote campaign – their one hope of reversing the result. In their minds, the Labour leader will be seen as the midwife of Brexit. And, on the other, Brexiteers will say that Corbyn led the campaign to soften Brexit and frustrate the will of the people. He will simultaneously be seen as the enabler and the betrayer of Brexit.
A NEW JERUSALEM
Corbyn’s has made a political calculation which assumes that the strength of his domestic agenda will counterbalance any ill-feeling towards his Brexit stance. In my mind, his maths doesn’t add up, especially since Labour’s reformist programme is gradually being co-opted by the Conservatives.
Following on from his ascendancy in Labour politics, Corbyn appears to have won the domestic argument in the nation at large. There is a widespread recognition, even among the guardians of the free market, that the British economy needs to be restructured to clamp down on rentier capitalism and to address rampant inequality. Economic reform is therefore Corbyn’s happy place: the terrain on which he expects to win the next election.
Again, however, Corbyn’s self-confidence is misplaced. There isn’t an inevitable logic train running from the popularity of domestic reform to a Corbyn landslide. Labour has won the argument, but (as I’ve said already) few people know or care about the policy debates of the Westminster village. And the British public won’t compensate Corbyn with an election victory just because he was the first person to complain about austerity.
Ultimately, if anyone cares about policy, they are purely interested in whether your party is capable of fixing their problems. Nick Timothy’s 2017 death of hope manifesto made it clear that, if you wanted to reform Britain, you’d better vote for Labour. In the post-Timothy era, however, the Tories are parking on Labour’s turf: pledging to end austerity, giving handouts to the NHS and promising no more PFI contracts.
As the Tories steal Labour’s clothes, it seems likely that Corbyn will become more radical – gaining encouragement from the Conservatives’ leftward march. However, while Britain wants change, it doesn’t want change at any cost. In this context, the Corbyn-lite, cautious reformism of the Tories might end up hitting exactly the right note with the electorate.
THE ABSOLUTE BOI
Finally, there’s the issue of leadership.
In general, I think that journalists concentrate too heavily on policy when explaining politics. A narrow, informed intelligentsia base their political decisions on an intimate knowledge of political parties, their leading figures, and their policies on key issues. Yet, for most people, this bears absolutely no resemblance to how they personally vote.
Leadership – an abstract perception of competence, honesty and charisma – is a central factor for a lot of people. As the Academic Director of YouGov, Dr Joel Rogers de Waal, wrote in May 2017: “Success at the ballot box is still driven above all by the magnetism of personalities who embody a timely sense of political vogue.”
Most people don’t have the time, knowledge or inclination to research policies, so their votes are based on faith: they place faith in the party leader or a local candidate who they believe will best represent their interests and those of the nation. This is why the expenses scandal continues to endure in the minds of voters. Personal trust, between candidate and electorate, is fundamental to the operation of British democracy.
Corbyn, however, disapproves of personality politics. Just before he won the Labour leadership in September 2015, he said: “We are not doing celebrity, personality or abusive politics – this is about hope.” Corbyn wants to be an uncorrupted vessel for socialist ideas. In his world (and in Labour circles generally), old-fashioned leadership is synonymous with chauvinism and toxic masculinity.
This problem is of course not exclusive to Corbyn. The past three Labour leaders have lacked the magnetism needed to win an election. But the problem is magnified in the case of Corbyn. Even compared to Theresa May, heavily rumoured to be a robot in a wig, Corbyn performs badly. In late November, May held a 14-point lead over Corbyn in YouGov’s tracker of who would make the best Prime Minister, with just 22% of people picking the absolute boi.
Corbyn’s perceived popularity is skewed by his messiah-esque status within a narrow, politically animated section of society. And, even in the socialist nirvana of the Labour party, Corbyn’s status is overstated. It is often forgotten that 40% of Labour members plumped for Owen Smith in the 2016 leadership election.
What’s more, Corbyn’s leadership troubles show no signs of halting. This summer’s antisemitism crisis led to serious questions about Corbyn’s character. The Labour leader was incapable of resolving the problem, even when the solution was easy to achieve. From a man who preaches universal tolerance and respect, he came across as insensitive towards victims of racism who aren’t devotees of his cause. Thus, in late July, a poll from Sky showed that 37% of people think that Corbyn tolerates antisemitism within his party, while 53% of Labour voters either think that he does or are unsure.
With this in mind, I don’t think the signs point to a Labour victory at the next election. So expect Corbyn to waltz into Downing Street before the end of 2019.
Sam Bright is the Director of Backbench