At the heart of Labour’s election disaster stands Jeremy Corbyn. He has to go.
First published in December 2019.
Unashamedly, I voted for Labour in this election, but not wholeheartedly, and it certainly wasn’t out of any great liking for Jeremy Corbyn. I had many deep reservations about Corbyn right from the beginning of his term as Labour leader, but there were a number of other considerations that swayed me, despite my doubts.
The first of these was my respect for my Labour-voting friends in Weston-super-Mare and Bristol. They are all brilliant people, with a superb sense of ethics and morality and, like me, a long and deep hatred of Toryism. Thus my vote was a vote for them as much as it was for Labour. Secondly, despite a dislike of some Labour policies, particularly rail nationalisation, I thought that generally the Labour manifesto was superb. The gem in the crown for me was Labour’s green policy, especially with regard to climate change and clean energy. It might be true for some people to say that the UK is doing okay at the moment, but as the world moves closer to climate disaster, just doing okay is no longer enough.
The Tory record on clean energy is appalling – they imposed a de facto ban on onshore wind (now the country’s cheapest energy generation technology), almost completely slaughtered the solar energy sector by withdrawing subsidies far too early, scrapped the Zero Carbon Homes Initiative, messed up the ‘Green Deal’ insulation and energy efficiency programme, scrapped the Green Investment Bank and replaced the Department of Energy & Climate Change (DECC) with the lacklustre Department of Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS). If you bring fracking and support for nuclear and North Sea Oil into the equation, it is clear to see that the Tories have only changed grudgingly. Meanwhile, numerous climate change deniers still hover in the shadowy areas of the Tory political netherworld.
Labour’s green policies promised to overturn all this and to really get the UK moving swiftly on climate action. Thus, not only did I feel I had no real choice but to vote Labour, I also enthusiastically promoted the message that anyone who really cares about the environment, and our children’s future, should vote Labour.
However, the trouble with this is that voting for a party purely on the grounds of policies, while ignoring other vital elements, can be a recipe for disaster. Despite a brilliant manifesto, questions around the leadership have also to be brought into play. On this note, Corbyn was a disaster right from the beginning.
There have been a whole series of warnings, since the early 1980s, regarding the dangers of Labour veering too far to the left. A short potted history seems appropriate.
The first of these warnings was the disastrous 1983 election which forced the resignation of Michael Foot, a supporter of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and an advocate of withdrawal from the European Economic Community (EEC). The next Labour leader, Neil Kinnock, set in motion the long process of modernising the party and rooting out its far left elements, particularly the Trotskyist Militant tendency. Kinnock’s actions in this regard were not helped by the tactics employed during the Miners Strike by the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) under the leadership of the stubborn and confrontational Arthur Scargill. Moreover, the process of modernisation had still not been completed by the time of the 1987 general election. Consequently, voters generally still thought of Labour as a party of extremism, especially since Kinnock retained the policy of pushing for unilateral nuclear disarmament, which was largely unpopular among voters.
Labour lost again in 1992. Although it is not absolutely clear why, Anthony Heath, Roger Jowell and John Curtice argued in a 1994 edition of The Independent, in my view persuasively, that the support for nuclear disarmament coupled with the split that led to the formation of the SDP not only cost Labour votes but also “broke long-term bonds for many voters” meaning that Labour “may well have suffered from the lack of an underlying emotional sympathy”. In essence, although Kinnock had advanced the process of modernisation, it still had not progressed far enough to completely eradicate the association between Labour and left-wing extremism.
The modernisation programme was picked up by John Smith, but his sudden death in 1994 interrupted the process once again. However, this enabled Tony Blair and Gordon Brown to move into the leadership zone. Their radical modernisation, culminating in the formation of New Labour, finally enabled the party to win a stunning landslide victory in 1997. Unfortunately, Blair’s successor, Gordon Brown, was widely seen as being out of touch with the electorate and lacking leadership qualities. Undoubtedly, pressure exerted on Labour by the Tories with regard to the 2008 banking crisis, helped to erode Labour’s support base. As is now widely known, the 2010 election resulted in a hung parliament, ultimately resolved by the Conservative-LibDem Coalition.
Gordon Brown’s replacement, Miliband moved Labour to the left, but the party had still not been able to shake off accusations that it was somehow responsible for crashing the economy. Miliband was also not seen as having particularly strong leadership qualities.
This, in my opinion, clearly delineates the preference among much of the electorate for a centrist mixed economy which serves the aspirational ambitions of many voters while also adhering to a sense of morality and social justice and enabling equality of opportunity. In short, the days when Labour could hope to triumph over the Tories with a traditionally socialist, some would say ‘far left’ agenda, are long gone, and they will not return.
There are other things that further complicate the issue for Jeremy Corbyn. He is widely seen as having far too much ‘baggage’ from the past, with regard to apparent support for terrorists, whether that notion is true or not. Furthermore, he is not seen as someone who has dealt with the left’s anti-Semitism problem, however small that may be in reality, adequately enough. This has allowed right wing propagandists to exaggerate fears of Labour anti-Semitism to levels not seen since the end of the Second World War, surely a crushing blow against the party and one which Labour needed to deal with much more ferociously.
Concerns about leadership qualities have also arisen. Corbyn is widely seen as old fashioned, stuffy, dithering, visibly prickly at times, particularly when speaking to the media and lacking charisma. Corbyn’s visible dithering over Brexit has contributed to widespread voter disillusionment, as has his apparent republicanism, support for nuclear disarmament and dislike of NATO.
There are some who blame the Tory-dominated mainstream media, but this is a weak argument, for Labour has always faced this issue. It is not new. A strong Labour leader should be able to circumvent this hostility with charismatic leadership and strong debating skills. Corbyn does not come across well at all in that regard.
Brexit may also be a strong factor, particularly among the working class. This hints at a failure by Labour to communicate their message strongly enough. Corbyn’s tactic of trying to unite the country didn’t work. He needed to take a firmer stand, but didn’t.
There is no doubt that this is a truly tremendous disaster for Labour. Strong action needs to be taken if Labour really wants to recover from it. At the very least, that means a change of leadership – Corbyn has to go. And quickly too.
It may also require a complete change of attitude. If Britain is to stand a chance of moving away from an increasingly obnoxious and dangerous Tory government, these matters are pressing. They have to be dealt with quickly and firmly.🔷
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