Corbyn is not the Labour left’s only hope

The Left has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity — we need the best candidate


There is a widespread assumption among commentators of all political stripes that Corbyn’s leadership constitutes a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the left.

Should he be deposed, the narrative goes, Labour would return to the Blairite comfort zone of the PLP, complete with all the associated spin, technocratic managerialism, and unquestioned neoliberal assumptions about how the world works and what the electorate wants.

Consequently, the Labour left—including the vast majority of its grassroots membership—is expected to emphatically re-elect the leader that Labour MPs overwhelmingly want to remove.

But there is also a danger for the left here: if Corbyn is the wrong candidate, if he is simply not up to the job, then we are about to squander this once-in-a-generation opportunity.

Should Corbyn lose the next election, the defeat will discredit us and our ideas, and embolden the careerists and architects of despair within the Labour Party to install another Blair.

The post-Brexit landscape presents possibilities for left-wing politics that are unrivalled in recent British political history.

The Leave campaign inspired vast swathes of disillusioned voters with a message of social justice, albeit it directed their righteous indignation towards the European Union, rather than the Westminster politicians who bear much of the blame for decades of underinvestment in public services and damaging social inequality.

The shock of the referendum result has detonated the case for austerity, as well as the career of its chief architect George Osborne.

We on the left need to ask ourselves: in Corbyn, do we have a leader ready to seize this opportunity? Or are we about to pass up on the best chance of radical change many of us have seen in our lifetimes?

This, then, is the left-wing case against Corbyn.

Corbyn and his team alienate their natural allies

True, some of the PLP have never accepted Corbyn’s victory. But looking at the list of MPs who resigned from the shadow cabinet, what is striking is that they came from all parts of the Party, both the New Labour right and the new generation left.

While all Blairites oppose Corbyn, this does not mean that all of Corbyn’s opponents are Blairite. Many Labour MPs genuinely wanted to give Corbyn a chance; many of those genuinely wanted him to succeed. Once these individuals start to say he is not up to the job, it is time for a rethink.

The same pattern of disillusionment can be found outside the PLP. The journalist Owen Jones and the tax activist Richard Murphy, both of whom shared a platform with Corbyn during his leadership campaign, have voiced serious doubts about his leadership – and been trolled for their troubles.

Two of Corbyn’s Economic Advisory Committee have resigned, and all its remaining members criticised the leadership’s performance during the EU referendum.

Corbyn is unable to reach out to a wider audience.

There is a broad constituency for Corbyn’s rejection of austerity, his resistance to cruel cuts to tax credits and disability benefits, his refusal to countenance the pointless academisation of state schools.

By contrast, his support for unilateral nuclear disarmament, unrestricted immigration from EU member states, and withdrawal from NATO is anathema to many voters. Corbyn is all too willing to allow his more controversial views the same amount of air-time as ideas that have genuinely wide-ranging appeal.

He refuses to downplay some of his long-held beliefs, even when doing so would make the achievement of other more important objectives more likely. To admirers, this is evidence of the seriousness of his convictions, and a refreshing lack of spin.

To the wider electorate, it shows a staggering inability to prioritise. A left-wing leader that was able to decide which parts of her platform were vital and which were dispensable, or who simply had fewer controversial commitments in the first place, would stand a much better chance at winning over a sceptical population in the face of a hostile media.

Corbyn has shown minimal interest in revamping left-wing solutions to deal with 21st-century problems

One of many depressing consequences of the New Labour era is that the idea of modernisation itself has become discredited, synonymous with selling out to the right.

However, Corbyn’s statist solutions, in which the nationalisation of industry features heavily, run a risk of centralisation and bureaucratisation that will frustrate rather than fulfil the hopes and aspirations of the working class.

There are ways that the left could empower workers: look at the ideas of stakeholder capitalism and workplace democracy that did the rounds in the 1990s, before Blair decided they sounded too much like socialism.

There are ways that the left could liberate working people from the necessity of work: for example, through the introduction of a Universal Basic Income. But these ideas remain underdeveloped by Corbyn and his team, to the extent that they are being considered at all.

A year ago, I was Corbyn-curious. But because of his inability to win over his natural allies, his inability to speak to the priorities of the wider public, and his inability to face up to the challenges of a post-industrial era, I no longer believe that he can win a general election.

This does not mean that the left is doomed: it just means that we need to find a different candidate.

Principle and competence are not mutually exclusive. Anyone who believes that they are has unwittingly bought in to the foundational assumption of Blairism.

We on the left should know better than that

Neil James writes about British politics and international affairs

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17 Responses to “Corbyn is not the Labour left’s only hope”

  1. Steve Mizzy

    Pretty much sums up where I am now.
    My early enthusiasm has evaporated. Reality has bitten and Corbyn has showed himself to be ill equipped to take on the leader’s role.
    The party cannot go back and Corbyn will have hopefully given it a major jolt to awaken a radical and reforming agenda, but it’s quite clear to me that he simply isn’t up to the demands of leading a major political party.

  2. Peter L. Griffiths

    Neil James fails to understand that the first priority in any progressive programme is avoidance of wars with foreign countries.
    This is where Tony Blair and his supporters were completely wrong, and Jeremy Corbyn completely right.

  3. Tony

    Corbyn has undoubtedly made mistakes but so would any other new leader. Slowly but surely, he has helped to reverse the damage to the Labour Party and politics caused by the likes of Angela Eagle.
    I suspect that this article is designed to promote the other two possible candidates. In both cases, however, their claims to be a ‘left’ alternative to Corbyn are totally bogus.
    We should not forget that Angela Eagle voted for the invasion of Iraq and against an inquiry on three separate occasions.
    Owen Smith also supported the invasion of Iraq in a 2006 interview.
    Craig Murray has written a very good article which exposes his record:

  4. liz

    Would a different leader with the same policies as Corbyn be accepted by current Labour MPs?

  5. Observer

    Hard to know where to begin with this nonsense.

    Firstly, you shouldn’t imply Piketty’s resignation from the Council of Economic Advisors had anything to do with his lack of available time. Piketty himself made that perfectly clear.

    Secondly, it’s unclear what this refers to: “Corbyn’s statist solutions, in which the nationalisation of industry features heavily, run a risk of centralisation and bureaucratisation that will frustrate rather than fulfil the hopes and aspirations of the working class”. I can’t remember any announcements since he took over as leader about nationalising industry, other than temporary nationalisation if needed to save the steel industry. What is the author referring to?

    Finally on basic income and others, the real news is that these things are even being talked about by front benchers. No, they haven’t been fully worked out and costed and launched within nine months, but guess what? No other opposition leader has ever done anything similar in their first nine months either. Not to mention the fact that – in this case at least – the relevant front bencher responsible for driving UBI forward if at all should have been Shadow DWP…Owen Smith. Has he mentioned it yet?

  6. Ian Healey

    Yes, yes and yes. The trouble with vanguardist groups like momentum is their transience and (of course) lop sided structure the aware few leading and the masses following. By betting all on Corbyn the vanguardists may end up missing their opportunity to harness public disgust with the Conservatives.

  7. Observer

    Correction to point one above: Piketty made it clear the *only* reason for resigning was his lack of time.

  8. David

    If Corbyn is re-elected, will you then get behind him 100%, despite the nonsense printed above?

  9. CR

    A return to a slightly more leftish version of Blairism is not really the answer for the Party. Focus on the policies.

  10. Sean Blair

    I was interested to hear Owen Smith discussing his leadership bid on Daily Politics. I thought if anything he will have some inspiring left wing ideas. It was dismal and drab and it’s clear he has nothing to offer. He really has no policies and no ideas. What has he been doing all his life? Apart from lobby the government on behald of Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer. It really does seem like Corbyn is the only one speaking a different language to the Tories or who has any real ideas, rather than tinkering around with the staus quo. Your article lists some interesting ideas such as Universal Basic Income but if you think Smith or Eagle would touch that with a barge pole I think you’re mistaken. Where as Corbyn would probably be quite open to exploring it. So to go back to the heading of your article. Yes Corbyn does seem to be the Left’s only hope.

  11. Michael WALKER

    The Tories hope Corbyn will remain as Leader of the PLP.

    Bad for our democracy as he’s a rubbish Opposition Leader – but good for them..

  12. Alex Wilson

    When we have the first true Keynesian socialist leader since Attlee, you attack him. You are no friend of workers or the left.

  13. David Lindsay

    Owen Pfizer is obviously a decoy to make even Angela Hawk appear at least relatively left-wing. But we are now living in an age when the private health industry, openly and without artifice, fields its own candidate for the office of Leader of the Labour Party. And no one in the official media considers that worth raising with him. It is just par for the course. As is the fact that NHS privatisation could never happen in Owen Smith’s own constituency, which is in Wales. Meanwhile, the man who is already privatising the English NHS in the interests of his and Smith’s past, present and future employers survives as Secretary of State for Health. Even while so many of his Cabinet colleagues are sacked that those now comprise the Government’s majority in the House of Commons. What a time to be alive.

    Hospital consultants do not grow on trees. Every one of them in this country has earned that eminence while also owing it to vast expenditure on the part of the National Health Service. For all its many faults, private education is not the kind of complete parasite on the State that private healthcare is. Moreover, it has produced many of the best of the Labour Party, of the wider Labour Movement, and of the wider Left. A left-wing politician or “commentator” (I dislike that word in this context), as distinct from a common or garden Labour machine politician or attendant journalist, is vastly more likely to be invited to address a private Sixth Form than to address a state one. Indeed, the best-known such figures are invited to address private Sixth Forms on a very regular basis, and they do so.

    It is Labour’s greatest achievement that if any one of us were hit by a car, or had a heart attack in the street, then someone, even a perfect stranger, would dial 999 without a second thought, and an NHS ambulance would take us to an NHS hospital. Even if we had all the private health insurance in the world. And doesn’t the private health industry know it? Therefore, at this very moment, in the persons of Owen Smith and Reg Race, that industry is mounting an aggressive attempt to take over the Leadership of the Labour Party. It intends to turn that party into the vehicle for the privatisation of the NHS in England, which is the only part of the United Kingdom where that could ever be attempted.

    Initially, that would be by non-resistance to the schemes and activities of Jeremy Hunt. But the intention is to return to the days of Tony Blair’s and Alan Milburn’s “radicalism”, and then to surpass even that. We must be anything but non-resistant. Defending Jeremy Corbyn is the only healthy option.

  14. Ishmael

    You headlined the Corbyn is not the labour left’s only hope, yet you backed away from suggesting an alternative. Is it because you can’t think of one?

  15. Susan Thomas

    Jeremy may have made mistakes, but I have watched him speak in parliament and he is getting better. He has challenged and defeated the chancellor on working tax credits, child benefit, disability benefit. The only thing I could criticize is he does not follow through when Cameron failed to answer the question, he did not challenge him enough, but that could change with time. The article states that there are other left candidates who have resigned from the shadow cabinet, but who are they. Angela eagle says she is left , but voted for the Iraq war, Tuition fees, abstained on Austerity policies when Harriet Harman was temporary leader of the party. Owen Smith claims to be leftist , but when questioned on disability benefit by a member he was not sympathetic. So who else can stand. The Labour party needs to reform or it is dead in the water.I am old Labour and I can relate to this man. There has been talk of a Universal Basic Income of 100.00 per week by John Mcdonnel. I have not heard Jeremy discuss NATO and has recently reached out to socialists within the European Union . He has even reached out to the coup MP`s and is willing to talk to them.

  16. Lee

    There is so much distrust and hatred within Labour that it is hard to decide whether expressed views (such as Neil James’ here) are authentic, or are devices to surreptitiously promote an outcome. And even if the views expressed are well-intended, its unclear how accurately they reflect reality.

    There are some things we can probably all agree: that the Blairites leading the campaign to displace Corbyn, are not in any sense left-wing. They overwhelmingly supported Blair’s invasion and opposed an inquiry into the Iraq invasion. To imagine that a supporter of a war of aggression against defenseless people, based on lies, could be socialists, seems to me an absurdity.

    On this basis, neither of the two candidates against Corbyn qualify as people who would preserve the left-wing tradition in the Labour Party. Neither are socialists. If anything, they are typical Lib-Dems, willing to mix reactionary and progressive views. As we know, that is the path to oblivion. There is also no evidence that either Smith or Eagle would make Labour electable.

    What makes Neil’s article weak and low in credibility is that he provides no description of a residual left in Labour that could replace Corbyn’s mission to prevent the left tradition from being swamped by a right-of-centre Blairite return to power. Although its almost certainly true (although once again, there are no facts, and this is a guess) that not all the anti-Corbyn MPs are Blairites, there is nothing to suggest that they are left-wing either. They may simply be careerists who will go wherever the prevailing winds blow.

    I am no more credible than Neil either, except that I admit that my position is an opinion, and dont try to put it forward as fact. In my view, the major crisis Labour faces is the sheer mediocrity of its MPs. You have quite a search to find many who deserve to be in office. The Tories may have a disgusting agenda (still not clear since the hand-over to May), but the calibre of its shadow cabinet and back-benchers, in terms of articulateness, intelligence, and all round competence, is well beyond what you find within Labour. I wont mention them by name, but there are Labour MPs that are so obviously cringe-worthy (and often in the media) that it may well be the inadequate calibre of Labour’s human capital that will ensure continuous victories for the Tories.

    I have been a consistent and unapologetic supporter of Corbyn, but I dislke closed minds. If Neil really does have convincing evidence that there are alternatives to Corbyn who would keep alive the left tradition in Labour, I will listen. So far Neil has not said enough to convince me. A party that continues to keep Tony Blair as a member, and puts forward Chuka Umunna as a poster-boy for the new progressive direction, seems almost fatally flawed.

  17. Law Man

    Since May 12th 1994 we have not had a socialist leader and policies as desired by most members.

    On that basis, given the very poor quality of the other 3 candidates in 2015, it is not surprising that members voted for Mr Corbyn.

    However, now we have the prospect of a leader who is not ‘New Labour’ and yet does not have the associations of Mr Corbyn.

    I understand this to be the argument made in the article, and it appeals to me. More important, it is likely to appeal to a large number of other members and the electorate.

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