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

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

  1. 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.

  2. Observer

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

  3. David

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

  4. CR

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

  5. 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.

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