The attempts of Labour’s parliamentary party to defenestrate their leader, Jeremy Corbyn, rumble on – but this coup has become an aimless, witless and utterly artless thing that threatens to damage the Labour Party far more than Corbyn’s leadership ever could. What began as a calculated and focused attempt to quickly remove Corbyn ahead of a likely 2016 General Election rapidly turned out to have no Plan B and no exit strategy. The party’s MPs now find themselves in a bitter and destructive struggle against their leader which threatens a complete implosion of the UK’s official opposition at one of the most crucial junctures in the nation’s political history.
I don’t think that Jeremy Corbyn is the right leader for the Labour party at this point in time. I think that many of the MPs who voted No Confidence in him last week did so in good faith – not from disloyalty or ambition, but from concern for the party and for those it represents. What has happened since the No Confidence vote, however, represents the most bone-headed act of self-destruction I think I’ve ever seen a political party commit.
Whatever your view of Corbyn’s leadership or his policies, the general sense of the man himself is that he’s a fundamentally decent guy – stubborn perhaps, even to the point of intransigence, but a decent human being nonetheless. It was this sense of being honest, decent and unpolished that led to his election in the first place. Years of slick candidates moulded by spin doctors to match target demographic preferences, yawning ideological emptiness concealed behind dazzling white smiles, left Labour supporters fatigued, disenchanted and desperate for something different. Corbyn doesn’t look like a modern political leader; he doesn’t talk like one; he doesn’t act like one. A bit frumpy, grizzled and utterly sincere, his appearances across the despatch box from former PR man David Cameron (a PR man being elevated to Prime Minister being the most worrying real-world instance of lunatics taking over an asylum that I can imagine) have only emphasised how different he is from everything else on offer.
Since Corbyn refused to step down following the vote of No Confidence, we’ve been presented with the gruesome spectacle of Labour MPs launching attacks on him in the press which have veered towards the intensely nasty and personal. There’s been a resurrection of the smear campaign attempting to link him to anti-semitism (he is a long-standing supporter of Palestine, a firmly mainstream political position in the UK and not one that implies any link to anti-semitism). There have been accusations that he is a bully, that he has ignored or sidelined MPs, that he runs some kind of “secret police” within the Labour party. There have even been claims that he might have voted Leave in the EU referendum or that he failed to campaign effectively for Remain. The former claim is baseless; the latter seems rather unfair given that Remain was ultimately supported by a larger proportion of Labour voters than even SNP voters. Corbyn is at heart suspicious of the EU – it has, after all, demonstrated radically neoliberal tendencies and its financial institutions in particular have supported brutally damaging, economically hawkish austerity policies. His speeches in support of the Remain campaign did take account of those concerns rather than being bombastically pro-Remain – but that’s exactly the sort of thing Corbyn’s supporters expect of him. Nuance rather than soundbite; honesty rather than spin.
Aside from the outright unpleasantness of resorting to (often anonymous) press attacks on Corbyn’s character when the main gambit of the coup had failed, these claims are politically naive to the point of astounding stupidity. They don’t make Corbyn look bad; to a public who generally see Corbyn as a nice, genuine old chap (if perhaps not a potential Prime Minister), they make him look embattled and set-upon, not by concerned Labour MPs but by bitter, grasping plotters. They make the Labour Party look like a nest of vipers, and nobody votes for nests of vipers.
Whether his MPs like him or not, whether they respect his leadership or not, Jeremy Corbyn is the most popular Labour politician in a generation. With Tony Blair’s reputation permanently ruined by the perception of gross dishonesty over the Iraq War, and Tony Benn sadly no longer with us, Corbyn is the closest thing Labour has right now to a populist figure. This is the second facet to the political stupidity of those continuing to push a coup against Corbyn; any future Labour leader needs Jeremy Corbyn on board. Any future leader will need Corbyn’s blessing, because they will need Corbyn’s movement – the tens if not hundreds of thousands of people who have joined Labour because of him. These people are the party’s best hope for being able to effectively run the kind of grass-roots campaign that might raise turnout and put them back in power some day. Labour’s MPs may not realise this, but local Labour parties who actually have to engage in on-the-ground campaigning do, and have overwhelmingly backed Corbyn. Unions recognise it too, and have also backed Corbyn. The MPs seem increasingly isolated.
The original coup plan wasn’t a bad one, and I maintain that many of the MPs who went along with it signed up in good faith. A vote of No Confidence would see Corbyn recognising that he no longer had the faith of the MPs he leads, and stepping down to make way for Tom Watson as interim leader and a new leadership election – which would hopefully deliver a unity candidate who could earn the support of both the parliamentary party and of Corbyn and his faction. Job done, Labour unified. The coup itself was planned because the alternative – a leadership challenge – would just see Corbyn’s huge grassroots support returning him to the leadership again. Thus, a way had to be found to get him to leave voluntarily, or at least with a semblance of voluntary choice.
That’s not what happened. Corbyn refused to step down – he’s stubborn, remember, that’s one of the qualities people elected him for in the first place – and while I personally think that was a mistake on his part, what followed after that from the most strident of Corbyn’s foes was not just a mistake, it was disgraceful and stupid. Labour’s MPs find themselves now in open, aggressive conflict with Labour’s most popular and well-liked political figure. Whatever electoral benefit might have followed from replacing Corbyn has been thrown away; by failing to back down from their failed coup, Labour’s MPs have dumped the party into a petty, nasty civil war, played out on a public stage in front of an electorate who need a competent opposition now more than ever.
Corbyn isn’t the right person to lead Labour today, but the coup has failed, and should have been abandoned the moment this became clear; if Labour MPs want Corbyn gone, they need to show the party membership a better alternative rather than trying quick and dirty measures to force a resignation. The only hope for the party is that those MPs who signed on to the No Confidence motion in genuinely good faith will reverse course before any further damage can be done. I remain hopeful that those MPs are in the majority. To believe otherwise would be to believe that 172 Labour MPs, the vast majority of the parliamentary party, are conniving traitors and schemers. Perhaps that’s true, but to believe so is to believe that the Labour party is utterly finished. I’d rather proceed on a somewhat more hopeful basis – an alternative to Labour will take many years to build, and many years without strong opposition to Conservative rule is not something Britain’s working classes or minority communities can contend with.
(Hat tip to @RichStanton, with whom a brief Twitter exchange helped to clarify my own thoughts on the coup and Corbyn’s position.)