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Corbyn – what was he good for?

He lost, but did Jeremy Corbyn succeed in moving Britain Leftwards?

The Book of Isaiah foretold that the Messiah would be despised and rejected among men. The JC of our own times must know the feeling. But Jeremy Corbyn’s faith has not been shaken by the cuts and blows of recent months. There are few outward signs that he is a broken man as he awakes to these final hours as the leader of a Labour party that he has led into the wilderness. On Saturday, his successor will commence upon a new path, with – as far as he feels able – a new team.

Corbyn is indefatigable. Already he feels vindicated, believing that the coronavirus crisis has secured the higher spending and support for state intervention that he always said was necessary, but which the electorate rejected as recently as last December. “I didn’t think it would take only three months,” he told the BBC’s Political Editor, Laura Kuenssberg last Friday, “for me to be proved absolutely right.”

Is Corbyn the politician who lost the war, but won the plague? During December’s general election campaign, a sizeable minority of the population felt there was at least some truth in Corbyn’s claim that the Conservatives were planning to sell-off the NHS to the Americans. Yet, here we are, five months later, with “protect the NHS” central to the three-part catchphrase of every Conservative minister.

Perceptions may change as the medical situation worsens, but if tackling coronavirus is making the case for a better-resourced and active state, the British public overwhelmingly appear to be relieved that the Tories have been entrusted with the task. According to YouGov’s polling, published on 2 April, only 17 percent think Corbyn would be doing a better job than Boris Johnson in handling the crisis. Time will tell whether covid-19 proves to be socialism’s entry point into the body politic. But so far it appears to be taking the sting out of decades of Labour propaganda about how the Tories wanted to smash the NHS. An attitudinal shift may indeed be taking place that is not necessarily to Labour’s advantage.

Whatever proves to be the long-term consequences for post-coronavirus politics, the resulting consensus – if there is one – may pull in philosophically incoherent directions. But on current polling, Corbyn’s belief that events are proving him right seems only one more example of his unshakeable self-certainty.

On 2 April, YouGov asked its representative sample of 3,857 adults if they felt Corbyn “had changed his party for the better.” Only 12 percent of respondents felt that he had. Among working class voters, the proportion is 13 percent – a slap in the face to a man whose entire life has been shaped by the class struggle. Even his appeal to youth now appears to be last year’s fashion. Not quite a quarter of 18 to 24 year olds think the Labour Party is better because of him.  Only 27 percent of Labour voters think so. This is a chillingly vicious eulogy.

What, then, can we say to be charitable to a man who has devoted himself, singularly, to the Labour party, the party he has led these last four-and-a-half years?

The last hours of that leadership present the logical moment to assess his contribution, but hardly the most favourable moment for such an audit to take place. The dismissive response evident in the current polling is influenced by an inescapable reality – that a man who leads his party to a defeat so crushing that it is left with its fewest number of MPs since 1935 can hardly be said to have taken Labour in the right direction. Some of those who hold him directly responsible for that defeat may nevertheless have sympathy with parts of his agenda, or more broadly the outlook that informed it.

Corbynistas have the comfort of being able to claim that the disaster in December was not a rejection of Jeremy’s policies but was a consequence of the Tories’ getting away with framing the terms of reference to “Get Brexit Done.” Corbyn never wanted this to be the central issue and if Labour policy had been left to him it would not have been. After all, sometimes overtly, sometimes sheepishly, Corbyn had wanted Brexit done all his political life. He was never more effectual in British politics than when he chose to do as little as possible to put Labour’s weight behind the Remain cause during the 2016 referendum campaign, an absence that may have determined the result. His contempt for the Remain cause was such that he turned down appearing at one of the key rallies in order to attend the British Kebab Awards that evening.

Outmanoeuvring Corbyn’s objections, Labour fell into the Tory trap in 2019, demanding a second referendum that implied both a prolonging of the will-we-won’t-we Brexit agony and giving the impression that the party did not accept the popular verdict at the first time of asking. And who designed this catastrophic strategy? Take a bow, Sir Keir.

The irony that this cluster-misjudgment was orchestrated by the man now poised to profit most from it is not lost on Momentum. How Keir Starmer side-lines and neuters this party-within-a-party will ultimately determine Corbyn’s legacy to the Labour movement.

Corbyn bequeaths a party with half a million members. That is an extraordinary achievement, given that in the decade before he became leader membership numbers hovered around 175,000. Labour is by far the largest mass membership political party in the UK, and faith in Corbyn alongside the hope that he would deliver socialism in their lifetime drove that membership surge.

Corbyn bequeaths a party with half a million members.

That the membership is poised to crown Starmer should not be taken as a sign that they have had second thoughts about what inspired them to join in the first place. Sir Keir has run an adroit leadership campaign. By positioning himself as being left wing, just not quite as left wing, he has protected his flank and denied Rebecca Long Bailey opportunities to denounce him as the next David Owen. The members perceive Starmer as the most prime ministerial of the options presented to them and therefore the man who is clearly best equipped to get the party out of the hole. But his tenure will inevitably depend on showing signs of being able to deliver that lift, otherwise he can watch his back.

Whilst Labour voters across the country may have come to see Corbynism as a wrong turning, the party members see it differently. The messenger has shot himself as a means of saving the message. Polling of party members by YouGov in February showed that of Labour’s fourteen key 2019 policy pledges, members wanted to keep thirteen of them (only nationalising Openreach was a pledge too far). And whilst the polling showed Starmer was heading towards a straightforward victory, it was in large part because of members who had joined before Corbyn became leader. Of full members who joined between 2015 and 2019, Long Bailey came top. Will these Corbynistas renew their subs once their chosen one is out of the picture? Starmer’s job would be easier if they did not.

But the Corbyn legacy will be measured not just among the strength and attitude of the activists but within the parliamentary Labour party. In 2015, support for Corbyn among Labour MPs was so slight that he nearly failed to get on the leadership ballot. Almost half of the 36 MPs who nominated him (the rules required 35 of them) did so without supporting him. They believing variously that his participation would be good for broadening the debate or that he would helpfully take votes away from their preferred candidate’s chief opponent. These strategic minds were subsequently dubbed by John McTernan as “morons.”

The 2019 general election may have been a catastrophe for the size of the PLP, but less so for the proportion of Corbynistas within it. The sudden calling of the election and the last-minute resignation of those – like Tom Watson – who were no longer up for the scrap, allowed Corbyn’s chief of staff, Karie Murphy, and her NEC allies to shoe-in Unite and Momentum backed candidates before the close of nominations.

As a consequence, the overwhelming majority of the 26 new faces on the Labour benches share Corbyn’s vision. They have a ready squadron leader in Richard Burgon, the deputy-leadership contender, who is secretary of the Socialist Campaign Group of left wing MPs. As one of the proponents of the embedding Corbynism strategy put it to the journalist Paul Waugh, “the Tory ERG [European Research Group] have shown how a disciplined group of MPs can shape a party. That’s what we want to do too.” With about a quarter of the parliamentary party now clearly identified on the Left, Corbyn’s legacy will not be undone without a fight.

With about a quarter of the parliamentary party now clearly identified on the Left, Corbyn’s legacy will not be undone without a fight.

But what of Corbyn’s wider influence? It used to be said that one of Margaret Thatcher’s achievements was making New Labour possible. Whilst failing in the primary objective of winning power, did Jeremy Corbyn, nevertheless, help shift Britain’s terms of debate to the Left? Has he made socialists out of conservatives?

Where David Cameron had sought to make his party more progressive, Theresa May tilted it determinedly to the Left. To what extent this shift represented her actual views as distinct from an electoral calculation aimed at neutering Corbyn’s energy is difficult to quantify given May’s seclusion from open discourse. At any rate, the Tories’ had long ago reversed their original hostility to a minimum wage, and under May they became the party of the living wage. As she announced during the 2017 election campaign, “our plans, backed up with strong and stable leadership, will be the greatest expansion in workers’ rights by any Conservative government in history.” The Tories promised worker representation on boards and statutory rights for workers to be informed about key decisions concerning their employer’s future. She had already instigated a Race Disparity Audit. Before the imaginary next election under May’s leadership, Justine Greening intended to remove assessment procedures from the 2004 Gender Recognition Act so that transgenderism would effectively become legally self-defining.

Corbyn cannot be given all the credit for pushing the Tories in the woke direction although the fear he generated among them by almost winning the 2017 election played its part in pushing the Conservatives further into conceding what they imagined was the softer ground in order to cling on to the front lawn. But when faced with Corbyn’s world of certainty, May’s party’s greater problem was not copying it, but losing faith in itself.

Looking back on May’s Downing Street tenure it is now a strain to recall any speech – indeed any observation – she made in defence of capitalism, the small state or the limits of state intervention, either in theory or practice. Where Corbyn offered ideas fitting coherently into a narrative, May offered nothing. Is this because Corbyn so successfully mesmerised her? Or simply that, luckily for him, his tenure as Labour leader coincided with that of the least articulate politician the Conservatives have yet sprung into Downing Street? If only Labour had mischievously allowed her EU withdrawal agreement to pass, they might yet be facing a wounded May tearing her party apart in order to prolong her own survival a few more months.

That moment has passed. With it went Corbyn’s chance of a lifetime. Alternatively he could have gone earlier. How differently he would now be viewed if he had stood down – or been ousted – on the morrow of running the Conservatives so close in 2017. He would have been the man who started an election campaign more than 20 percentage points behind and by force of argument and campaigning skill came within 2.3 percent of overtaking the Tories.

Fast-forward to April 2020 and the Tories have passed the 50 percent mark in the opinion polls – a level of support unimaginable until recently. Even before the coronavirus emergency, the ending of austerity and infrastructure splurges announced by Boris Johnson’s government owe little to the influence of Corbynism and much more to a different tradition in Toryism that is more suited to Johnson’s temperament –  a Eurosceptic version of Michael Heseltine.

When at the last Prime Ministers’ Questions in the Commons before the recess, Boris Johnson offered words of “tribute” to Corbyn “for his services to party and indeed to the country, … for his sincerity and determination to build a better society” Corbyn sat impassive. He then rose to the dispatch box and gracelessly shot back, “he was talking as if this was a sort of obituary. Just to let him know, my voice will not be stilled. I’ll be around. I’ll be campaigning. I’ll be arguing and I’ll be demanding justice for the people of this country and indeed the rest of the world.”

“I’m delighted to hear he is not retiring. That will be warmly welcomed by his successor,” the prime minister beamed. From the Labour benches, silence.

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