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Argument

Corbynism’s Bad Hangover

In the light of day, utopian fantasies about a failed leader are dissolving.

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn leaves the stage at Sobell leisure centre after retaining his parliamentary seat in London on Dec. 13.
Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn leaves the stage at Sobell leisure centre after retaining his parliamentary seat in London on Dec. 13. Leon Neal/Getty Images

Jeremy Corbyn’s rambunctious online fans are in a state of mourning following their hero’s electoral defeat. Corbyn is staying as the leader of the Labour Party in the short term, but the movement’s epitaph has already been written. Corbyn—the vegetarian teetotaller beloved of those who say he is always on the “right side of history”—will be remembered as the party’s most useless leader in eight decades.

Labour’s defeat to Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party was entirely predictable. Corbyn had the worst approval ratings of any opposition leader in the past 45 years. Inflexible, devoid of personal charisma, and tetchy when the legitimacy of his myth was challenged, he brought to the surface everything rotten about the British far left. The British public took one look at this on Dec.  12 and the message was emphatic—No, thank you.

Yet many believed that Corbyn could win this time around. In part that was a case of fighting the last war. Labour surprised almost everyone in 2017 when it deprived then Prime Minister Theresa May of a majority in the House of Commons. Corbynista activist Owen Jones called it “one of the most sensational political upsets of our time.”

And it was—to a point (Corbyn didn’t actually win the election). May ran a dreadful campaign in 2017 that deservedly received a kicking at the polls, including a disastrous last-minute “dementia tax” policy. Meanwhile Labour made a few modest pledges and mobilized huge numbers of people to go out and knock on doors.

Moreover, successive terrorist attacks and the tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire created a febrile atmosphere. The country felt as if it was in crisis. Any other Labour leader would have been expected to win. But Corbyn was always expected to lose big. The sheer fact that he only lost small was revelatory.

Two-and-a-half years on, it looks as if Corbyn’s partial triumph in 2017 was built precisely on the fact that nobody really believed he could win in the first place. As New Labour spin doctor Philip Gould recounted of Neil Kinnock’s defeat to John Major in the 1992 general election: “The opinion polls had shown us well ahead in three polls; they suddenly alerted the electorate to the fact that we might win. That was a problem.” Voters considered the very real prospect of a Corbyn government, and they voted for other parties in their droves.

That said, it’s important to be clear. It was the incompetent and toxic penumbra surrounding Labour that lost the election rather than any specific policy. Indeed, many Labour policies were extremely popular with the electorate. Yet widespread skepticism as to Labour’s ability to manage the economy starved them of oxygen. Enticing the public with free broadband and state-run trains can work—but only if voters believe you will create an economy buoyant enough to pay for it. When (as in Corbyn’s case) just 16 percent of people trust you on that front, you are in trouble.

There are those who blame themselves when elections are lost and there are those who blame the voters. There has been some of the latter from true Corbyn believers, but blame has largely been pinned on Brexit. In seeking to protect their movement, Corbyn and his allies have homed in on the 2016 referendum and Corbyn’s own Brexit fudge. “Brexit has so polarized and divided debates in this country. It has overridden so much of a normal political debate,” Corbyn said on Friday.

There may be some truth to this, but it is only half the story. In Labour’s former industrial heartlands, Brexit seems to have been a significant factor in turning its “red wall” of strongholds blue. Labour’s share of the vote was down by 10.4 percent in seats that voted strongly to leave the European Union in 2016. Sedgefield, former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s onetime seat, had a 25,143 Labour majority in 1997. Last night it went Tory, as did Leigh (which had a Labour majority of 24,497 in 1997), Redcar (which had a Labour majority of 21,664 in 1997) and Workington (which had a Labour majority of 19,656 in 1997).

Many Labour members of Parliament (MPs) in those constituencies left Corbyn off their election literature entirely. Caroline Flint, a Labour MP who lost her Leave-voting seat despite her pro-Brexit stance, told Channel 4 News that Corbyn was a problem on the doorstep. “Time and time again on the doorstep, people say, ‘I’m Labour through and through … but I just can’t vote Labour whilst that man is your leader,” she said.

Blaming Brexit alone does not explain how Corbyn’s Labour Party managed to finish 6.4 percent down in areas which voted strongly for Remain in 2016. Indeed, of the three main parties only Labour saw its vote share decline in both strong Leave and strong Remain constituencies. Not just on Brexit, but on other questions too, such as immigration, crime, and national security, Corbyn was seen as a liability.

This chimes with a poll conducted on Friday by Opinium, which found that the main reasons people did not vote Labour were the leadership (43 percent), Brexit (17 percent) and the party’s economic policies (12 percent). Corbyn’s leadership was also given as the main reason by people who voted Labour in 2017 for abandoning the party at this election. “Every time Brexit was raised on the doorsteps, the leadership was raised four more—even by those sticking with us,” wrote Anna Turley, who lost her seat in Redcar to the Conservatives.

Labour now faces perhaps a decade in the electoral wilderness. Corbyn intends to stay on in order to facilitate a leadership contest which would, as he puts it, allow a “process of reflection” to take place. His supporters are already taking to the airwaves to proclaim that neither Corbyn nor Corbynism is the true reason for Labour’s catastrophic defeat.

The electorate’s verdict is in: Corbyn has proven to be Labour’s most ineffectual leader since it became a major party. Johnson now possesses a mandate to push through Brexit on the Conservative Party’s terms, with all that this entails. Labour activists who backed Corbyn, a politician whose refusal to compromise was recast as a virtue, should reflect on what they have done—and more importantly, what this election defeat could mean for some of Britain’s most vulnerable people.

James Bloodworth is an English journalist and writer. He is the author of Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain.

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