Peck: The Unavailing Statesman
In a speech following his election as leader of the Labour Party in 2015, Jeremy Corbyn promised to build a Britain free from poverty and homelessness. After five years of austere conservative rule and 32 years of Labour moderatism, members in the conference hall rejoiced as Corbyn evoked the socialist sentiments of Keir Hardie and Clement Atlee, before leaving the stage to Chairmen of the Board’s 1972 hit “Working on a Building of Love.”
Although, the hopeful vision Corbyn promised three years ago seems less achievable today than at any time during his tenure. The Labour antisemitism scandal, consistently poor performances at Prime Minister’s Question Time, and an opaque policy on Brexit have made Corbyn extremely unpopular, both among his parliamentary party and the electorate as a whole.
On both public and legislative fronts, Corbyn has failed in his role as leader of the opposition; he has not managed to make his ideas appealing to Britain’s electorate and has rendered his party powerless at a time of national crisis. Even in comparison to Theresa May’s shambolic ministry, Corbyn has become so unpalatable to the majority of Britons that he is impotent to enact change, even as he squanders the power of the second most influential office in the country.
Corbyn’s view in 2015 that “we don’t have to be unequal, it doesn’t have to be unfair, poverty isn’t inevitable, and things can change” is as true now as ever. The tragedy of his mantra, though, is that his leadership prevents the realization of his goals, rather than advances their cause.
An Unseasoned Politician
In the months following his conference speech, Corbyn was the victim of a viscous slander campaign by the Conservative Party and its allies in the British press. On the assumption that Corbyn’s views would be unpopular, the media published stories focusing on his opposition to military intervention, chairmanship of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and past connections with Martin McGuinness. In an effort to smear him as a radical socialist, Corbyn’s consistent beliefs were mixed freely with falsehoods on the front pages of Britain’s main newspapers. But to the surprise of Fleet Street’s privately educated elite, the people liked what they heard.
Bereft of their usual policy fodder, the media changed their tack. Instead of reporting on Labour policy, the newspapers focused instead on comparatively inconsequential matters like Corbyn’s sense of fashion and oratory style. Before long, Conservative parliamentarians were doing the same. In response to a question about welfare policy during Prime Minister’s Questions, then Prime Minister David Cameron snapped back at Corbyn, telling him to “put on a proper suit, do up your tie and sing the national anthem.” The campaign largely worked, for by the end of 2015, Corbyn’s unfavorability rating had skyrocketed. Even among those who admired his platform, few saw Corbyn as a statesman.
The Parliamentary Coup
Then came the bombshell of Brexit. After the European cause was lost and David Cameron had resigned, Labour parliamentarians argued that Mr. Corbyn’s tepid support of the European Union was partly to blame for the U.K.’s departure from it. In a bizarre interview broadcast the following day, the Labour spin doctor Peter Mandelson accused Corbyn of campaigning with the handbrake on, suggesting that he had secretly supported Brexit and hurt the remain campaign with his ambivalence. Scores of cabinet members resigned in protest of Corbyn, and within days, a second leadership election was called—only ten months after the last.
Throughout the subsequent leadership campaign, his rival, the shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Owen Smith, claimed to agree with Corbyn on virtually every issue. Smith’s tactic was to attack the man, rather than the policies he espoused. In reply, Corbyn struggled to eloquently defend himself and stumbled through the campaign with one gaffe after another. By the end of the leadership election, Corbyn had lost his reputation as a uniquely honest and consistent politician, and was now seen as a caricature of an ill-prepared, bumbling old man who was unfit to be prime minister. In a way, Owen Smith was exactly what the membership of the party wanted, even though they didn’t know it: he was a left-wing campaigner with a welsh accent and an electable smile. But in defence of Labour’s recently rediscovered left-wing roots, the majority of the party membership stood solidly and ignorantly behind Corbyn.
While Smith’s criticism of Corbyn did not resonate with the membership, it aged extremely well.
For the better part of a year now, Prime Minister Theresa May has been trying to pass a Brexit deal through the House of Commons. With her own party bitterly divided and having to manage a razor thin parliamentary majority, it has not been easy. Nevertheless, Corbyn has failed to capitalize on May’s weak position. Between the date of the referendum and May’s Chequers’ agreement last July, the only Labour Party policy seemed to be one of delay, delay, delay, without offering a constructive solution to May’s parliamentary conundrum. Despite journalists repeatedly asking what a hypothetical Labour negotiation would look like, no Labour official ever seemed to have an answer.
While the government was thrashing out complicated policy points concerning nearly every part of Britain’s political and economic infrastructure, Labour’s official Brexit plan had vague statements like “Labour wants a close future relationship” and “Brexit is what we make of it.” Once famous for his straightforward approach to the issues, Corbyn’s new political technique is to dither for as long as possible, as if fearful that a genuine answer will cost him votes.
Following Theresa May’s Chequers agreement in July 2018, in which a government white paper showed the first concrete vision of post-Brexit Britain, Corbyn barely referenced its contents in parliament. Instead, he chose to berate the prime minister in indefinite terms about her “botched” deal, all the while evading questions about how Labour’s strategy would be superior. Rather, the resignation of Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson was at the top of Corbyn’s agenda, in a presumably futile attempt to topple the government.
The tactic expectedly failed. Today, the government still stands, and despite the present political moment being marked by uncertainty and turmoil, Corbyn has ensured May’s continuation. Instead of arguing for amendments or offering progressive solutions to the Brexit impasse, he has been obsessively attentive in his demands for a general election. His inability to offer a better solution than May’s is all the more surprising in light of the unpopularity of her vision for Brexit. In January, 2019, her deal was rejected by the House of Commons by a margin of 432 votes to 202—the worst government defeat in history.
In an attempt to humiliate the prime minister and bear none of the cost, Corbyn has stood on the sidelines of the most important constitutional question of our time. By staying out of the argument, Corbyn has forced the debate to take place solely within the Conservative Party. Instead of working towards a consensus among Parliament’s overwhelmingly remain supporting membership, he has forced Theresa May to look to the radical faction of her own party for votes. If consensus between the two main parties can’t be found, Britain’s future relationship with Europe will be borne from the neo-colonial vision of the Tory right—which Corbyn will have helped facilitate.
Last week, for the first time, Corbyn offered to sit down with the prime minister to discuss his vision for Brexit. Only now—with 45 days to go until Britain leaves the European Union—is Corbyn showing his first semblance of statesmanship.
The One We Neither Need Nor Deserve
Corbyn’s promises three years ago to eradicate poverty, put people back to work, and make Britain a prosperous social democracy remain noble goals. The financial crash and subsequent populism of the last decade show that the center cannot hold. If radical solutions are not offered to the most vulnerable in society, then political discourse will continue to sour.
Corbyn’s finest hour was during the 2017 general election, when he helped the Labour Party secure 40% of the national vote and removed Theresa May’s majority. Free university education and greater investment in welfare were the flagship policies of a manifesto buoyantly titled “for the many, not the few.” In terms of policy, it was the finest one of its kind for at least 30 years, offering a radical vision of a Britain reborn.
The trouble for Corbyn, though, is that he remains considerably more unpopular than the party at large. His personal defects are an unnecessary distraction from the brilliance of his socialist platform. His poor oratory style and inability to seek a political consensus are the deficiencies of a bad leader, rather than the hallmarks of a great one. These personal traits have allowed the British public to write him off, dismissing in the process popular arguments that favor a radical socialist alternative for Britain. This phenomenon, as diagnosed by both the national media and Owen Smith for different reasons at different times, will only prevent the U.K.’s national progress.
Before Labour faces electoral oblivion or Brexit ruins the country for good, Britain need a statesman, not a distraction. The Labour Party should heed the advice of Corbyn himself, given in his first speech, that “the british people never have to take what they’re given” and replace him before it’s too late.